President Vladimir Putin’s deft maneuvers have isolated Russia’s right-wing liberals on the country’s political margin.

Reformers, a tiny band, saw themselves as the country’s vanguard when the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, turned to them for advice in the late 1980s. After the Soviet collapse, reformers held key positions under President Boris Yeltsin, until the parliamentary revolt of 1993 turned Yeltsin sharply to the left. Reformers returned to authority, if not to power, in the spring of 1997, but were discredited by the financial collapse of August 1998.

The liberals never had much of a hold on Russian voters nationally. Their high point was the parliamentary elections of December 1993, when parties of the right captured between a quarter and a third of the vote. That total fell by half in the elections of December 1995.

In December 1999, the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) and Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko party together took under 15 percent of the vote. Right-wing leaders expected an alliance with the pro-Putin Unity movement. Unity, SPS and Yabloko together would outnumber the combined forces of the Communist Party and the Agrarians in a potentially strong center-right coalition. But the Kremlin turned the other way, directing Unity to cut a deal with the Communists that froze the right wing out of the parliamentary leadership.

The Kremlin ditched that partnership last month, after the Communists sponsored a hopeless but mischievous resolution of “no confidence” in the government. Putin’s political agents engineered a merger of the Unity movement with the Fatherland-All Russia bloc led by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Even more than its tactical alliance with the Communists, the Kremlin’s strategic alliance with the Luzhkov-Primakov forces leaves the right in a political vacuum, gasping for air.

The right’s first reaction came last week. Boris Nemtsov, head of the SPS, said in a television interview that the SPS and Yabloko should agree on a single presidential candidate for the 2004 elections, and that Yabloko’s Grigory Yavlinsky should be the man.

Yavlinsky, hailed by many Western observers in the 1990s as the great hope for Russian democracy, is no great shakes as a vote-getter. His electoral trajectory has been straight down. Yabloko’s share of the national vote for parliament was 7.9 percent in 1993, 6.9 percent in 1995 and 5.9 percent in 1999. As a presidential candidate, Yavlinsky himself polled 7.4 percent in 1996 and 5.8 percent last year. Support outside St. Petersburg and Moscow is very thin, and east of the Urals it is almost nonexistent.

Other right-wing stars like Nemtsov, former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko (now Vladimir Putin’s representative to the Volga federal district), electric-power executive Anatoly Chubais (once called “the most hated man in Russia), or economist Yegor Gaidar have less drawing power than Yavlinsky.

The right seems to have no plan for expanding its base, which is small and shrinking. With its access to media greatly reduced by the expansion of state control, even a unified right wing has only the dimmest of prospects, over the longest of hauls.