Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 180

On September 25, the Democratic Party of Russia (DPR)–founded in 1990 by Nikolai Travkin, one of the leading lights of the perestroika period–held its fifteenth congress. Today, Travkin is a member of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) faction in the State Duma. Meanwhile, the party he founded had plunged from being one of the leading lights of the Soviet democratic movement to a condition best described as “clinically dead.” Observers link the rebirth of the DPR with Novgorod Oblast Governor Mikhail Prusak. During the congress, at which the DPR resolved to register itself in compliance with the new law governing political parties, Prusak was elected party chairman (Russian agencies, September 25). Rumors that Prusak was to take over the leadership of the DPR first appeared a while ago, and his election as party chairman seemed to have been carefully planned. Prusak faced no serious challengers for the post and was elected chairman by 153 votes to ten (Polit.ru, September 25). After his election, Prusak put forward a formal, though not particularly concrete, program. This calls for giving back the original meaning to “the discredited democratic idea,” decentralizing the economy, forming “a strong state capable of democratic reforms,” and guaranteeing the rights of citizens to labor and property (Polit.ru, September 25-26; Kommersant, September 25). Prusak said that “very difficult work” lay ahead, inasmuch as the DPR “is today in the same condition as the word ‘democracy’–which has become a term of abuse” (Russian agencies, September 25).

Analysts detect the hand of the Kremlin behind the rebirth of this party, one of Russia’s oldest. DPR’s reinvention is also believed to enjoy the favor of Viktor Cherkesov, presidential representative to the North-West federal district (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 26) It is speculated that the SPS, one of President Putin’s bases, turned out to be difficult to control and to include numerous opponents of the president, supporters of Chechen independence, human rights activists and generally “unreliable elements.” Putin’s public dressing-down of SPS leader Boris Nemtsov over his position on the Chechen issue showed that the president does not regard those in the SPS as his allies. Analysts believe that the Kremlin decided to create a party with tenets similar to those of the SPS but without inconvenient figures and political ambitions (Polit.ru, September 28).

If the DPR really is just a new version of the liberal wing of Russia’s “party of power,” then it is difficult to think of a better candidate to lead it than Prusak. The SPS has a wonderful economic program but it is financed (and de facto headed) by Anatoly Chubais. As chairman of United Energy Systems, Russia’s electricity grid, Chubais is famous for terrorizing clients with threats to cut off power if they do not pay their unpaid bills. The very name Chubais provokes an allergic reaction among Russians, and conjures a vision far from the SPS’s liberal principles. Prusak, who has turned Novgorod Oblast into an oasis of economic stability, looks much more liberal. In addition, he has neither anti-Putin tendencies nor excessive ambitions, while the SPS has more than once said that it plans to put forward Nemtsov as its presidential candidate (Polit.ru, September 28). In these conditions the DPR and Prusak personally have good prospects in the Russian political arena. They will have to work for them, however. The “DPR project” will likely develop according to the logic that the Kremlin often uses in such endeavors: having given the go-ahead for the re-creation of the DPR, Putin’s team will support it only if the party proves able to stand on its own feet and to demonstrate its value to the president.