Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 36

The coordinating council of the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) is holding a closed meeting today to discuss the issue of which candidate the coalition will back in Russia’s March 26 presidential election. The council is made up of the coalition’s top members, including United Energy Systems (UES) chief Anatoly Chubais, former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, former Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, Samara Governor Konstantin Titov and Irina Khakamada. All of these SPS leaders, except Chubais, are deputies in the State Duma.

The coalition has been for some time on the verge of splitting over the issue of whether to endorse Acting President Vladimir Putin (see the Monitor, February 10). It is unlikely, however, that today’s meeting will resolve the group’s “internal contradictions.” Titov, who himself has registered as a candidate, said yesterday that the disagreements within SPS leadership over the issue were “insurmountable.” The Samara governor, who is presenting himself as, in essence, a genuinely democratic alternative to Putin, was endorsed yesterday by the Peasant’s Party, headed by Yuri Chernichenko. Titov said that two other organizations belonging to SPS–Free Democrats of Russia and the Democratic Russia movement (headed by Lev Ponomarev and Father Gleb Yakunin, among others)–have promised to back his candidacy, as has the federal committee of the Democratic Russia Party, which was formerly headed by the late Galina Starovoitova and is now headed by Yuli Rybakov. Rybakov is a member of SPS’s Duma faction. Titov said that Konstantin Borovoi, head of the Party of Economic Freedom, has also backed his presidential bid. In addition, SPS’s own youth wing has decided to support Titov (Russian agencies, RTR, Radio Liberty, February 20).

The SPS coordinating council may try to avoid an open split within the coalition simply by not insisting that the SPS collectively endorse any single candidate. Individually, however, most of the members of the coordinating council, along with the organizations they represent (Kirienko–New Force; Chubais, Gaidar–Russia’s Democratic Choice; Nemtsov–Young Russia; Khakamada–Common Cause), are likely to endorse Putin. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the SPS leaders clearly hope to be given cabinet posts in the likely event that Putin wins on March 26, and a minimum condition for this, obviously, is their endorsement of him. Another factor is the key role played in the coalition by Chubais, who, as head of UES, Russia’s electricity grid, is the SPS’s sole “oligarch.” For instance, Sergei Yushenkov, deputy chairman of Russia’s Democratic Choice, has come out for Titov, but Gaidar, the party’s leader, is unlikely to do the same even though he also reportedly prefers the Samara governor. Russia’s Democratic Choice reportedly depends on financing from Chubais, who has unequivocally endorsed Putin and is unlikely to change his position, given that his post as UES head depends largely on the Kremlin remaining happy with him (Segodnya, Izvestia, February 21).

In general, any hopes that SPS may have for continued political success are largely dependent on Putin: The coalition’s relatively strong showing in last December’s State Duma election, for example, was thanks to its embracing both Putin and the Chechen war. On the other hand, if the SPS leaders endorse Putin, this will not only give Titov the hope of winning a few percentage points of the popular vote on May 26, but it may strengthen the image of Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, another presidential hopeful, as the only real democratic alternative to Putin. Sergei Kovalev, Russia’s former human rights ombudsman and who sits on the political council of Russia’s Democratic Choice, is backing Yavlinsky.