When the Union of Right-Wing Forces (Russian initials: SPS) picked up 9 percent of the vote in December’s parliamentary elections, the Western press, and much of the Russian, called it a winner. Together with Unity, a new organization created to support Acting President Vladimir Putin, the SPS could form a coalition that would outnumber the Communists and control the Duma.

Didn’t happen. In a stunning, cunning act of betrayal, Unity and a large bloc of Putinite independents linked up with the Communists and the ultranationalists to freeze the right wing out. SPS members can’t agree on how to react, and the strains could pull the party apart.

Establishment rightists like Anatoly Chubais, the pro-Yeltsin “reformer” who runs the national electricity monopoly, are standing firm with Putin and pretending to enjoy their humiliation. Anti-establishment rightists, like human-rights activists Sergei Kovalev and Lev Ponomarev, have split with Putin and oppose him on Chechnya and other issues. In the middle are disestablished rightists like former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and his former deputy Boris Nemtsov, who have given Putin conditional backing.

Former Finance Minister Boris Fedorov speculates about Putin in terms that most in the SPS would share: “As for his ideology, without a doubt we know full well that there are few people with reformist ideas in the structure which goes by the name of the KGB. There can be more or less well-educated people there, many who lived in the West, who speak several languages, who love jazz, karate and other such things. But we know who was taken into that system, how they were vetted and the kind of strict hierarchy which exists there. Therefore it is simply naïve to expect that a 47-year-old from the organs is a fervent democrat in his convictions and a revolutionary in the economy. Of course, he is not ‘red’-this is, after all, a person of a different generation. He worked for a long time in Germany. In any case, he understands the West…. So he is probably more ‘pink’ than ‘red.'”

Divisions within the SPS reflect differences among the party’s leading personalities, but also uncertainty about Putin. In contemplating the acting president, Russians, like Westerners, don’t have much to go on. “We know practically nothing about Putin, about what he would do as president, where he would lead Russia,” complains Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Former prime minister and ex-presidential candidate Yevgeny Primakov says oddly, “On a personal level, I like him.” Putin himself says he will not publish his platform, to prevent its being attacked. No wonder the opposition is confounded.