Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 121

At the initiative of Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, Russia held its first “democratic conference” last week, on June 19, bringing together representatives of some twenty disparate democratic organizations and parties. These included Yabloko, the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) and the Russian United Social-Democratic Party, headed by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in attendance (Russian agencies, June 19). The meeting ended with a joint memorandum calling for further meetings to “exchange opinions on key issues,” including the preservation of constitutionally guaranteed democratic rights, free speech and media independence, judicial reform, finding a political solution to the Chechen conflict, military reform, land reform, ecological safety, labor relations, social policy and demography (Yabloko.ru, June 19). In addition, the conference’s participants sent an appeal late last week to President Vladimir Putin denouncing attempts by the authorities to forcibly repatriate Chechen refugees (Russian agencies, June 22).

Some observers saw the conference as the latest in a series of attempts by Russia’s fractionated democrats to unite. At least one participant, SPS leader Boris Nemtsov, accentuated the positive, saying that the fact that the closing memorandum was passed unanimously had been a feat in and of itself. “It is a rare case for democratic organizations–they voted unanimously, no one abstained,” Nemtsov said (TV-6, June 25).

It is unlikely, however, that the meetings will end up being anything more than a talking shop. Yavlinsky himself dampened expectations that such gatherings will lead to the formation of a united party, calling the effort “a dialogue of civil society” rather than “a unification of political parties” (NTV.ru, June 19). What is more, the meeting was not all sweetness and light. Valeria Novodvorskaya, head of the small Democratic Union party, charged that Putin was using SPS leaders like Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais as “cover” and a “visiting card” to convince the West of his “supposed… democratic tendencies” (TV-6, June 24). Sergei Yushenkov, the State Duma deputy who recently broke with the SPS and plans to form a new democratic opposition coalition with financial support from Boris Berezovsky, criticized the fact that some democratic organizations support “the Kremlin regime”–he was apparently referring to the SPS–and said that all democratic organizations should oppose the Kremlin. Yushenkov also criticized the fact that the July 19 conference was held behind closed doors (TV-6, June 24; NTV.ru, June 19).