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Oleg Kozlovsky: Autopsy of an Opposition Party

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A Medical Report for SPS

By Oleg Kozlovsky

On 15 November, Union of Right Forces (SPS), one of the two remaining democratic parties in Russia, was liquidated by its own members at an extraordinary convention in Moscow suburbs. This was, as openly admitted, a deal between the party’s leadership and the Kremlin. Some of the former SPS members will now join a new puppet party Right Deed (Pravoe Delo) while dissenters will participate in creation of Solidarity opposition movement.

SPS was a very contradictive organization from the day one. It appeared not long before the 1999 parliamentary elections as a coalition of liberal (in European sense) and conservative movements and parties. The liberals included the oldest democratic party in Russia, Democratic Choice of Russia (DVR), led by ex-PM Yegor Gaidar, and Boris Nemtsov’s Young Russia (Rossiya Molodaya) movement. Ironically, the name of Nemtsov’s organization was later taken by a Kremlin-sponsored group of provocateurs. The conservatives were represented by another ex-PM Sergey Kirienko (now a member of Government) with his New Force (Novaya Sila) movement and by the father of Russian privatization Anatoly Chubais among others.

The strange structure of the party caused ambivalence in itsposition and activities. The liberals criticized Putin for establishingauthoritarian regime and wanted to join the opposition while theconservatives supported Putin’s economical policy and tried tocooperate with the Kremlin. The parliamentary campaign in 1999 wasmainly influenced by the conservative wing with its slogan “Putin forpresident, Kirienko for the Duma!” Soon after this program was fullyimplemented, Sergey Kirienko left the Parliament and became VladimirPutin’s representative in Volga Federal District. Some of his formercolleagues like Boris Nemtsov were at the same time trying to opposePutin’s crackdown on NTV, the most popular independent TV channel. Buteven this one of the earliest anti-democratic moves of the newpresident was done by the hands of Alfred Kokh, Chubais’ colleague andclose friend! As Boris Nemtsov participated in protest rallies againstthe takeover of NTV, his fellow party members celebrated the success ofthis “special operation” (I have witnessed it myself).

The party’s schizophrenia was arguably the main reason for its lossof popular support. Putin’s followers who voted for SPS in 1999switched their support to United Russia while the opposition votersdidn’t believe SPS and simply stayed at home. As a result, SPS lost the2003 elections and stayed out of the parliament. Many people hoped thatthis defeat would force the party to choose its side. However, it neverhappened. Since Kirienko left SPS, all of its public leaders wereliberals, they maintained the critical to the Kremlin stance of theparty and attracted new activists from the opposition. But the party’sfunding was mostly provided (especially after the arrest of MikhailKhodorkovsky and the loss of elections) by Anatoly Chubais, manyregional branches only existed de jure and consisted of UES (the stateenergy company headed by Chubais) employees. In addition, most of theparty’s officers were paid by and therefore loyal to Chubais and hisconservative wing but had to follow orders from party’s politicalleadership, mostly liberal. This made both wings of the party dependenton each other and predetermined its end.

Still, there were a few attempts to cure the party’s splitpersonality. One of SPS’ leaders and ex-senator Ivan Starikov headed ariot against Anatoly Chubais and his conservative wing by going for theparty chairmanship in 2005. He claimed that SPS must become a part ofthe opposition and shouldn’t compromise ideals of democracy forKremlin’s favor. The conservative wing had no political figures tostand against Starikov and many expected that he would win. However,just before the national convention a compromise figure, Nikita Belykh,was introduced by Boris Nemtsov. Chubais’ closest deputy, LeonidGozman, was to become the vice chairman of the party to counterweighliberal Belykh. So, schizophrenia in SPS was saved (and eveninstitutionalized by introducing the new vice chairman position) byboth of its parts. They truly felt that they couldn’t do without eachother!

Nikita Belykh tried to balance both wings of the party for severalyears but it was impossible. The more SPS hesitated to join theopposition, the more supporters it lost. Starikov and some of hisfollowers were the first to leave the party in 2005. Eventually,Starikov joined Mikhail Kasyanov’s People’s Democratic Union and is nowone of its leaders. I myself left SPS in April 2007 when Belykhsupported an attempt of party’s apparatchiks to destroy the Moscowbranch, which has always been liberal and opposition. The party’ssupport and influence was disappearing day by day.

The last attempt to bring SPS in opposition was made in late 2007before the parliamentary elections. When Putin became #1 in UnitedRussia’s list of candidates, it made impossible even for SPSconservatives to support him. The second reason was that Chubais ceasedto sponsor the party and its dependence on him diminished. NikitaBelykh and other party leaders criticized the president in the media,campaign printed materials were openly anti-Kremlin, it even officiallyparticipated in a Dissenters’ March–something that had been severelypunished just a year earlier. But the split hasn’t gone anywhere: someregional leaders refused to oppose the administration, some evenchanged sides, others simply didn’t know how to work under government’spressure. After losing the elections SPS largely returned to its olderstate with two wings struggling against each other. It appeared,however, that the liberals were to win.

There was one other actor that didn’t like an idea of having aschizophrenic party in the country–the Kremlin. What they wanted to seeis a controlled, predictable and loyal quasi democratic party, whichmight be used to convince the West that we’ve got pluralism. At first,they attempted to use spoiler parties like Democratic Party of Russia(DPR) but they couldn’t fool many people: SPS was still there. And theworst of all, SPS had an official registration that allowed the partyto go for the elections. Since more and more people in SPS realizedthat there was no other option rather than to join the opposition, theKremlin’s well-entrenched electoral system became endangered: it wasbased on not allowing any uncontrolled elements even to appear in theballots. What would happen if Russian citizens had an opportunity votefor Kasparov or Kasyanov or even both? Nobody knows. And Kremlin surelydoesn’t want to know. So it decided to liquidate SPS.

Of course, this special operation could be done by simply”re-checking” the party and taking away its registration, as it wasdone to the Vladimir Ryzhkov’s Republican Party of Russia before. Butthis would cause some political troubles for Putin, both domestic andinternational: SPS was a well-known and rather large organization.Therefore it was decided to destroy the party with its own hands. Whatstill strikes me is how easily it was done! Gozman agreed to shut SPSdown in exchange for a “pardon” from the Kremlin. Belykh left the partybut didn’t try to prevent its liquidation. Only a small number ofdevoted liberals kept struggling against Gozman till the last day. Someof them even organized a picket near the place of the party’sconvention and said, “If you have conscience, don’t vote for [theliquidation]”. According to the results of the voting, only 11delegates had conscience out of 108.

At the end of the day, the liquidation of SPS may be a good thing.It’s true that this party had many true democrats and liberals butthese people haven’t disappeared. On the contrary, now you can easilytell them from the others, who had nothing to do with liberalism butparticipated in the same party. The latter will join a new Kremlin’spseudo-democratic party Right Deed, the first will join the oppositionSolidarity movement or other opposition organizations. It is sad,however, that the only way to cure schizophrenia was decapitation.

Photo:  Ex-leader of Russian Union of Right Forces party Leonid Gozman (L), head of business association “Business Russia” and ex-leader of the party “Civic Force” Boris Titov speak during a constitutive congress of “The RightThing” party in Moscow on November 16, 2008. (AFP/Getty Images)