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To Fight or to Talk?

wsj040308.gif It’s no secret that Russia’s political opposition is in a state of nearly complete disarray and disagreement over tactics. Today, the Wall Street Journal takes a deeper look…

Russian Opposition DividedPutin’s Win Splits Foes Over Whether To Fight or TalkBy ALAN CULLISON and GREGORY L. WHITEApril 3, 2008; Page A10MOSCOW — Russian opposition leaders — shunted from the political scene after Vladimir Putin and his allies cemented control in December and March elections — are divided about how to survive.Some are taking cautious steps toward a dialogue with what they call “the authoritarian government,” while others — such as former world chess champion Garry Kasparov — are vowing to keep up the fight.Grigory Yavlinsky, the longtime leader of the liberal Yabloko party, hopes to ease official pressure on his party’s supporters and encourage what some see as signs that President-elect Dmitry Medvedev might be ready to loosen the Kremlin’s grip a little. Other longtime Kremlin critics have even taken up invitations to advise Mr. Medvedev.But others, like Mr. Kasparov, are hoping to rally supporters at a meeting in St. Petersburg this weekend to continue street demonstrations and open confrontation with the Kremlin.”I myself don’t know what to do,” says Vladimir Ryzhkov, whose Republican Party was shut down under strict new government rules last year and who lost his seat in Parliament in December because of changes in the electoral law. “Our opposition is much weaker than those in Iran or Venezuela,” where critics have challenged authoritarian governments, he laments.Opinion polls show that most Russians, after nearly a decade of economic growth and relentlessly positive coverage of Mr. Putin in state-controlled media, strongly support the government. In votes that were criticized as unfair, Mr. Medvedev won 70% of the vote in the March election, and the pro-Kremlin party took a commanding majority in Parliament in the December poll. The other parties that won seats sometimes criticize the Kremlin but usually vote with it. Mr. Putin, who wasn’t eligible to run for a third presidential term, plans to become prime minister after the May 7 inauguration.Opposition leaders say blacklists mostly keep them out of the national media, which are largely state controlled. But they also admit that rising living standards mean critics of the Kremlin face an uphill struggle winning supporters.Boris Nemtsov, a liberal leader, says most Russians tolerate the current government as long as wages and pensions keep rising. “As long as this contract holds, the reaction to abuses by the authorities will be nonexistent or very weak,” he told a Russian newspaper this week.But perennial divisions within Russia’s opposition have also long undermined its political appeal. “There are too many rivalries, and personal grudges that go back a long time,” Mr. Kasparov says. “It is a continual problem.”Several of the groups he has formed over the past few years have broken up amid infighting and differences over strategy. Mr. Kasparov is now calling for a new coalition, to be called the National Assembly, that will consist of politicians shunted aside during parliamentary elections last year. Mr. Kasparov hopes the group will emerge as a kind of parallel to Russia’s official Parliament, which after a series of carefully orchestrated elections is dominated by Kremlin-controlled parties.But a number of prominent politicians say they won’t attend, given that two of Mr. Kasparov’s previous coalitions fractured. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov is among those who have split with Mr. Kasparov.Mr. Yavlinsky, the Yabloko leader, meanwhile, alienated some of his erstwhile anti-Kremlin allies when he accepted an invitation to meet Mr. Putin last month along with progovernment party leaders. “I told Putin this is no way to live, that what he’s done to the opposition is awful,” Mr. Yavlinsky says in an interview. “He said he would think about it.” Mr. Yavlinsky said he also raised the issue of a Yabloko leader in St. Petersburg who had been jailed on what he said were trumped-up charges. Shortly after the meeting, a court ordered the man released, though the charges haven’t been dropped.”We can’t be all or nothing; let’s do it step by step,” Mr. Yavlinsky says. Mr. Kasparov’s confrontational approach “is not productive,” he says.The Kremlin has fueled splits within the opposition with hints of a thaw from President-elect Medvedev. A 42-year-old lawyer who, unlike his mentor, Mr. Putin, doesn’t appear to have a KGB background, Mr. Medvedev in speeches has extolled the virtues of freedom and democracy.Konstantin Remchukov, owner and editor of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, says he is picking up signals from top officials that the Kremlin is looking for ways to loosen some political controls. “They’re thinking about this … but they don’t know how to do it” and still maintain control, he says.