On September 25, the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, Russia’s two main democratic parties, announced the formation of coalition for the December 4 Moscow City Duma election. The two parties will field a single list of candidates. Evoking the old adage: “Our strength is in our union,” this decision marks the first time that the Russian liberals have united in the last 10 years.
The process of establishing a coalition had not been going smoothly. The mutual dislike between Anatoly Chubais and Grigory Yavlinsky, the two main leaders of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Yabloko parties, was a formidable obstacle.
In the 1990s Chubais, now head of the Unified Energy Systems power giant, was the father of the Russian privatization program, and many Russians still blame him for the many dirty deals cut during the program’s implementation.
Yavlinsky, chairman of Yabloko, has never failed to emphasize that neither he nor his party were involved in the unpopular liberal economic policy of the early 1990s. Unlike the SPS, which promotes the interests of business and free markets, Yabloko has always tried to combine both liberal and social-democratic ideas. The split between the parties deepened in 1999, when the SPS fully supported the military campaign in Chechnya while Yabloko was more critical. Also, Yavlinsky ran for the presidency in 2000, while the Union supported Vladimir Putin. The two parties failed to come to an agreement and create a coalition during the 2003 State Duma election, and both the SPS and Yabloko failed to win any seats. In 2004 they were not able to nominate a single candidate to represent the liberal opposition for the presidential election.
Nevertheless, the authorities continued to take steps to remove the liberal opposition from influence. The pro-Putin United Russia party won an overwhelming majority in the Duma in 2003, giving the Kremlin the chance to create new laws and change political rules. The Duma voted to raise the threshold for parties to gain seats in the Russian parliament from 5% to 7%. In Moscow, a stronghold for the liberals, the barrier moved even higher, to 10%.
Clearly the liberals needed to combine forces, else they might be finally removed from Russian political life. Then the Kremlin could plausibly suggest to the West that, since the liberals had lost their popularity, there is no other alternative to far-right (nationalists) and far-left (communist) forces but Putin, an authoritarian but Western-oriented ruler. Such an argument might soothe the most militant foreign critics who are anxious about the delicate health of Russia’s democracy.
The Moscow City Duma election was the last opportunity for the democratic parties to unite, and the Moscow branch of the SPS took the initiative. On September 11, Eduard Vorobiev, leader of the SPS in Moscow, announced that SPS members would take part in the local election on the same list as the Yabloko candidates (Novaya politika, September 12). At the same time, Yabloko was to give the SPS the first and third positions on the list.
However, this proposal from the Moscow section was not supported by the party’s Federal Political Council. Leonid Gozman, deputy chairman of the Council, told Kommersant, “The decision of the city conference is only a recommendation.” Gozman insisted that the final decision should be made by the federal conference, which was to be held in Moscow on September 24. Gozman suggested that the Federal Council should reject the proposal (Kommersant, September 12). However, Ivan Starikov, another party leader, supported the idea. The SPS has apparently split into two groups: those who wanted to give the leading role to Yabloko as a compromise, and those who were against it.
At the federal party conference in Moscow, former prime minister Yegor Gaidar became the leader of the faction that opposed the compromise. Gaidar called the decision “a mistake,” referring to his previous unsuccessful experience of cooperating with Yavlinsky (NTV, September 24). Nevertheless, the majority of the party supported the unification agreement with Yabloko, since it was supported by the key figures of the party, Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, another former deputy prime minister.
Difficult negotiations between SPS chairman Nikita Belyikh and Yavlinsky followed the SPS party conference. On September 25, both sides agreed that the parties’ election list would be headed by Ivan Novitsky, a member of the SPS. Yevgeny Bunimovich, a Yabloko member, would take the second position (Radio Liberty, September 26).
The formation of the unified list gives the liberals a genuine chance to secure enough votes to enter the City Duma. Moreover, it gave hope to those who dislike the Kremlin’s policy and would be happy to see a serious anti-Putin opposition enter the political scene one day.
Garry Kasparov, a leader of the radical United Civic Front movement, said of the alliance, “At the conference on September 24, the SPS decided at last to declare that it really opposed Putin’s regime.” Kasparov believes, “This step will no doubt ease the formation of the united democratic opposition” (Radio Liberty, September 26).
However, there are doubts that the coalition will endure past election day. The results of the election might stimulate further unification of the liberal forces or kill all hopes to oppose the authorities in a legal form. If the liberals fail, street protests may become the only way to demonstrate popular anger.