The Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) held its founding congress as a full-fledged political party this past weekend. Just days before the congress, the SPS leaders, anxious to put their house in order before a new Kremlin-sponsored bill that would eliminate most of the country’s small political parties was passed into law, had asked its constituent parties and movements, including relative old-timers like Russia’s Democratic Choice and Democratic Russia, to vote themselves out of existence and merge with the SPS. While a few quixotic activists, including Sergei Yushenkov, Sergei Kovalev and Valeria Novodvorskaya, denounced the call as a Kremlin-backed effort to turn the SPS into a de facto official party, “pragmatic” concerns won out over ideological ones and the SPS’s constituent parties and movements went the way of history. Once the SPS congress got underway, however, the more democratically inclined elements within the new party did manage to win a concession or two, including an agreement to drop a provision in its proposed charter mandating party discipline.
At the end of the twenty-two-hour marathon SPS conference, Boris Nemtsov was voted in as the new party’s chairman. While Netmsov’s election was made a certainty after his main challenger, Yegor Gaidar, dropped out the race, it certainly didn’t hurt that a foreign VIP, the Right Honorable Baroness Thatcher, had put in a good word: The former British prime minister sent a message to the congress hailing Nemtsov as Russia’s chief reformer. True to that image, Nemtsov had repeatedly pledge prior to the congress that the SPS would support President Vladimir Putin only when he pursued liberal polices and oppose him when he did not.
On the other hand, there was not a single reference during the congress to the Kremlin’s bloody military campaign in Chechnya. Such anomalies gave ammunition to those who accused the SPS leaders of seeking to turn it into a full-fledged “party of power.” Indeed, some cynical observers suggested that the SPS’s relatively small and shrinking popular support made it almost wholly dependent on two of its leaders, who themselves were wholly dependent on the Kremlin–Anatoly Chubais, who heads the country’s state-controlled electricity monopoly and has publicly disagreed with Putin only once (over the revival of Russia’s Soviet-era national anthem), and Sergei Kirienko, Putin’s envoy to Volga federal district. Profil magazine even speculated that the Kremlin saw the newly reconstituted SPS as little more than a vehicle for introducing tough and unpopular economic measures and a lightening rod for the inevitable popular backlash such measures would cause.
Meanwhile, Yushenkov, who denounced the new SPS for its “servile” attitude towards the Kremlin and refused to join it, announced that his own Liberal Russia movement would form a coalition with eight other former SPS constituent groups, to be called the Union of Democratic Forces. That was the good news. The bad news was it would be financed by Boris Berezovsky.