PARTY-BUILDING: DEMOCRATIC OPPOSITION, OR A "NEW PRO-GOVERNMENT PARTY"? ALSO: THE HOPES AND ERRORS OF BORIS BEREZOVSKY

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The “Kommersant” newspaper commented that the Union of Right Forces (URF) congress, at which Boris Nemtsov was elected leader of the unified party, operated according to a principle defined by Yegor Gaidar’s novelist grandfather: “We have to stand through the night, and hold out all day.”

The congress opened on Saturday morning, and it was almost twenty-four hours later that participants dispersed. According to “Kommersant”, “it seems this was the secret of success: delegates were worn out into submission, so they had no energy left for squabbling”. In order to avoid a split (the possibility had been discussed all last week, due to the stand taken by members of Democratic Russia, “which had disbanded but still remained rebellious”), the five URF co-leaders – Boris Nemtsov, Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Irina Khakamada, and Sergei Kirienko – demonstrated “absolutely serpentine cunning”. When the co-leaders sensed that things at the congress were heating up, it was decided to make two rather radical amendments to the party charter. “Kommersant” reports that as a result the splitters were outmaneuvered, the charter was adopted, and Boris Nemtsov announced that the URF is “the most democratic party in the world, since it’s set down in our charter that we have the right to disregard our own decisions!”

From that point on, everything went according to plan; and those who seemed faint-hearted, unable to wait for the end of vote-counting, were put in their place by Yegor Gaidar: “Weak people can’t create strong parties!”

“Kommersant” has published the opinions of a selection of politicians about what kind of party leader Boris Nemtsov will make.

It seems that Gennadii Raikov, leader of the People’s Deputy group, captured the opinion of many when he said: “Nemtsov is one of the new breed of people, he’s young, he’s likeable. Young people who support the URF will follow him.”

Some people in the Fatherland – All Russia faction also have a good opinion of Nemtsov. At least, deputy faction leader Vyacheslav Volodin says that Nemtsov is “easier to understand than Gaidar, for example” – especially since according to Volodin “he is always in the public eye, and open to discussion on any issue”.

Petr Romanov, Communist Party secretary and Duma deputy speaker, was more critical. He doesn’t think Nemtsov is much of a leader: “Don’t make me laugh. He can’t compete with us; although I’m not glad to hear he has been elected leader. I don’t think they’ll be glad to hear of it in the Kremlin either, since he is sometimes capable of striking a low blow. We won’t be fighting him; he’ll be eaten alive anyway.”

Nemtsov’s former fellow-fighter Sergei Yushenkov was even more harsh; he considers Nemtsov to be a politician “with the skill to bury the URF”. Yushenkov recalled that Nemtsov “is the author of the anti-democratic party charter, URF membership regulations, and a proposal on Chechnya which is semi-fascist, to put it mildly”.

“Nezavisimaya Gazeta” says that although the inaugural congress is important for the URF, it will not become a watershed – although the leadership question has nominally been resolved at the congress, in reality it still remains open. According to “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, it is fairly safe to say that Nemtsov will only be a temporary leader for the URF.

“After all, when Chubais virtually proclaimed Nemtsov to be the party leader, he probably wasn’t basing this on personal feelings or an objective comparison with the political qualities of the other co-leaders.” There was an objective: to unite the right, to create “a strong right wing”. This objective has been met. However, says “Nezavisimaya Gazeta”, even successful efforts to “structure the political playing field” using the law on parties still “can’t immediately resolve the most important question for any party – how to gain voter confidence”. And when this voter confidence really becomes necessary – before the next elections – the URF will run into a real problem with party leadership.

“Nezavisimaya Gazeta” considers that Anatoly Chubais, who is now saying that even with all the political stars in the URF, there is no alternative to Nemtsov, knows perfectly well that this isn’t so: “The URF is probably better-supplied with promising people than any other party in Russia.”

“A politician should be persistent and flexible – and Boris Nemtsov is both,” says the “Vedomosti” newspaper. “A politician should be persuasive and able to win support – and Nemtov can do so. Of all the current party leaders, Nemtsov is probably the only one who can be described as a truly professional politician.” “Vedomosti” has no doubt that Nemtsov can create a party which will be able to succeed at the next parliamentary elections and form a substantial faction in the Duma. However, there are some doubts of a different nature. “Any ambitious politician,” notes “Vedomosti”, “aims to be president. But how prepared is our country to have a politician as president?”

For “Vedomosti”, the answer to this question is clear. The amazing popularity of “the politically inexperienced Putin”, and the completely amorphous Unity movement’s success at the last parliamentary elections, serve as convincing evidence that “voters do not value those qualities which are Nemtsov’s strengths”. So Nemtsov will be unable to challenge Putin at the next presidential election. Maybe he will have a chance in 2008, when Putin steps down.

“Vedomosti” expresses the hope that the URF “will not have fallen apart by then; on the contrary, that it will create a structure which is viable at the regional level”. The task for members of the new party, and above all for its leader, is to win some sort of definite position in government. “Vedomosti” concludes: “Nemtsov will have to be more cunning than Grigorii Yavlinsky, and he must not miscalculate. This is a job for a professional.”

On the other hand, the “Izvestia” newspaper is sure that today’s URF has no future, because it has already lost “great opportunities” for itself and the nation. In ideological terms, those on the right give priority to one direction: upholding the principles of a liberal market economy, defending free enterprise, developing legislation which can form a foundation for liberal reforms in Russia, etc. All these are important, says “Izvestia”, but they cannot “meet the challenges of conditions which have changed utterly”.

The democratic movement in Russia is incapable of moving beyond the boundaries laid down in the past. As a result, says “Izvestia”, “the relationship of the URF to Russia’s new society has turned out to be an illusion – the URF has united a certain advanced part of the Soviet intelligentsia which no longer exists (just as Yabloko has united the ‘less advanced’ part of that intelligentsia – and this group isn’t bound together by anything other than a shared past.”

But a “new middle class” is taking shape in Russia (“business owners, journalists, military personnel, civil servants”) and these people believe that “Russia should develop dynamically, while government should be strong and tough, but should keep out of areas which are none of its business”. They also believe that “Russia has its own national interests”.

Meanwhile, says “Izvestia”, the URF – with an energy that deserves to be put to better use – is busy discussing issues such as immunity for members of parliament, second terms in office for regional leaders, etc.

Therefore, “Izvestia” considers the following scenario most likely: “At the next parliamentary elections, the URF and Yabloko will run as a team and will have trouble making it past the five percent barrier. Some time later, a marble slab inscribed ‘URF: 1999-200?’ will be laid to rest alonside the gravestones of movements such as Democratic Russia, the Russian Democratic Reform Movement, Russia’s Choice, and many more.”

In an interview with the “Vek” weekly just before the URF inaugural congress, Boris Nemtsov himself admitted that “the Russian democratic movement has had a tragic fate”. On the one hand, it made Boris Yeltsin president, thus determining the path Russia would take. On the other hand, the only thing the movement had in common was a rejection of communism, nothing more. Hence all the differences of opinion, squabbles, unsuccessful attempts to unite with Yabloko; Nemtsov describes Yabloko as “more focused on human rights”, with economic views that are closer to those of the socialists. But the URF is “the party for the new people, educated and independent, those with a first-hand knowledge of Russian government and with experience of victory and defeat”.

Until now, says Nemtsov, Russia has basically had a two-party system – if we look at past presidential elections. “Judge for yourself,” the URF leader explains. “In the first presidential election, we chose between Yeltsin and the Communists; in the second election, between Yeltsin and Zyuganov; in the third, between Zyuganov and a leader who was already in power. It’s quite clear that such a system isn’t doing anything for Russia’s progress.” A right-wing alternative is essential, or “we will only lose time, driving ourselves into stagnation, authoritarianism, and hence into poverty”.

It should be noted that Nemtsov’s views on the threat of an authoritarian regime in Russia are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, he asserts that it’s “not Putin, but the people” who want authoritarian rule: “It’s sad to have to quote from the classics about ‘a land of slaves and masters’, but the thought does frequently come to mind.” The problem, says Nemtsov, is that “most of our citizens have received liberty as a gift – and nobody values what they get for free”. That is why people are indifferent about restrictions on their freedom, not understanding that “if liberty is taken away from them, they will lose part of their property next, and the right to a life with an adequate degree of protection”.

At the same time, Nemtsov asserts that in contemporary Russia there is “a vast gulf between the level of intelligence of the government and that of the people. The people are much smarter.” And herein lies the greatest danger of “tightening the bolts”: according to Nemtsov, there are many more well-educated and energetic people in the active part of society – business, culture, etc. – than there are in government.

“And when those in power come to understand deep down that they are not entirely competent, then the only way to keep control of the people is by force.” Not necessarily brute force; “brainwashing via state-controlled media will suffice”. Thus, Russia is predisposed to authoritarianism, and it’s up to the URF to neutralize this.

(This idea of Nemtsov’s, about a certain weakness among those in power, can be compared to statements by Leonid Nevzlin, co-owner of the YUKOS oil company and Vladimir Gusinsky’s successor as president of the Russian Jewish Congress. In an interview with “Delovye Liudi” magazine, Nevzlin was asked about the reasons behind the harassment of the NTV network: “We clearly understand that Putin isn’t Yeltsin. Like any normal person, he is capable of taking offense and subsequently making a response to that offense… Not everyone can be humiliated without consequences. And for some people, their personal flaws, peculiarities, or external appearance are grounds for private suffering, or hang-ups. If you tread repeatedly on these sensitive areas, you’ll get a response. I think the NTV network and Gusinsky ought to have been prepared for everything. They’re all clever people, they knew what they were getting into.”)

Meanwhile, the processes of party-building are being pushed ahead not only by the URF, which is now claiming the role of “Her Majesty’s opposition”; the regime is also involved. Based on rumors emanating from the Kremlin, the “Vek” weekly reports that those at the top are “seriously considering the need to create a second pro-government party alongside Unity”. The point of this project is to create a stable political system based on two parties, one in government and the other a loyal opposition.

“Vek” considers that the URF has no chance of becoming the “reserve pro-government party”. “The URF has relatively little public support, and there is too much public revulsion toward the liberal model of reforms.”

“Vek” considers it would make more sense to form an influential center-left party, noting that Russia has a “substantial centrist majority” which trusts neither the Communists nor the liberals. It’s no coincidence that President Putin has supported the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev’s social-democratic party to unite “various small leftist groups”. On the other hand, according to “Vek”, it is unlikely that an influential social-democratic party will arise from this foundation. Polls reveal no more that 5% support in Russia for social-democratic ideas. Moreover, they are “dispersed among the centrist majority” and unlikely to unite within a single organization, especially since “part of the Communist Party has been extended to occupy the social-democratic niche”.

It’s the Communist Party, according to “Vek”, which is capable of being the basis for a second party to support the regime. The strategy and tactics of the Communists “have long since become social-democratic; they are based on aiming for compromise, consensus, and stability”. The “membership and voter support base of the Communist Party” are also moving in this direction.

While “Vek” admits that it would take some time (about two electoral cycles) for the Communist Party to evolve in the necessary direction, “in financial, organizational, and political terms this would be the least expensive and most promising way of forming a center-left party.”

A different view is expressed by the “Vremya MN” newspaper, based on the latest poll results from the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM). “Vremya MN” calls this data a “minor sensation”: it turns out that 36% of respondents don’t rule out the possibility that they might vote for a united bloc of all democratic forces.

True, “Vremya MN” does qualify this by noting that around 12% of respondents even consider “Vladimir Putin and the Unity party which supports him” to be democratic forces. This, according to “Vremya MN”, proves that “the term ‘democrat’ has taken on a new meaning for many Russians, or rather it’s lost its negative connotations”. The real explanation for these unexpected poll results is that “a significant number of citizens now believe in democratic values, not communist or conservative, and are prepared to give their support to politicians who will uphold these values in government”.

“Vremya MN” stresses that this is by no means confined only to those who support the two largest right-wing parties, the URF and Yabloko, whose combined voter support may be around 10.5% at present. It turns out that if these parties should merge, the number of supporters of the democrats could increase to 22%.

“Vremya MN” says that achieving such results in real life is difficult because of the election techniques used in Russia: voters are usually compelled to make an either/or choice, which they are usually not inclined to do. The views of democratically-minded voters more often look like a “cocktail, with something of Yabloko and something of Gaidar”. As a result, the votes of those who don’t want to make a definite choice, or who cannot do so, are lost.

Such losses are considered inevitable and natural by political consultants, notes “Vremya MN”. “For them, the ability to manipulate a party is more important than its real support among the masses. Neither do they care that around half of democratic-minded Russian citizens do not participate in electing the government.” But for the right wing itself, these VTsIOM poll results are a significant stimulus to seek a path to unification.

If nothing else, it’s clear that Russian society is much more complicated than some political consultants believe, as they work on simplifying Russia’s political system. “In practice, it means that the still-restricted ranks of Russian democrats must be radically expanded; then they will cease to be terribly distanced from the people.”

The “Novye Izvestia” newspaper notes that at the last parliamentary elections, the URF “gained a relatively large proportion of the vote because of its well-planned opposition to its nearest neighbor, Yabloko, rather than the left”.

But now that the URF has consented to “the Putin model of party-building”, it no longer has room to maneuver. With the help of the URF, Russia is getting “a party system which is principally unable to check the unlimited power of Kremlin political consultants, the special services, and the watchful prosecutors”.

Essentially, says “Novye Izvestia”, the URF has decided on a gambit in which it sacrifices a pawn for the sake of “quality” – for “popularizing its somewhat marginalized forces, and positional opportunities to sometimes exert at least some kind of influence on the government”. However, by changing its electoral orientation from the democratic opposition to liberal Putinists, the URF “is moving into territory marked out by Unity”. “Novye Izvestia” predicts that despite all its efforts to win over new voters, “convinced Putinists will vote for Unity anyway”. “And the new URF party might have to ‘repay the debt’ to Yabloko, or some other new democratic party if one is really formed.”

Boris Berezovsky, former political mastermind and now political emigre, is basing his efforts to create an opposition on the assumption that some democratic voters remain “unclaimed”.

Berezovsky has recently made a point of backing the human rights movement in Russia. The media has reported the latest moves of the foundation established by Berezovsky: providing minors in detention with access to legal counsel, and organizing an exhibition of paintings by prison inmates. The “Izvestia” newspaper even accused the Russian public of “bourgeois coldness” toward Berezovsky’s initiatives: “Any money, no matter who gives it or for what motive, which is used to provide real help to real people, is good money.”

But Berezovsky’s attempts at party-building gets quite a different assessment. According to “Izvestia” observer Alexander Arkhangelsky, this project of Berezovsky’s has no future.

Arkhangelsky describes Berezovsky’s proposed party as purely virtual, only useful as a means of testing the viability of other people’s ideas. He considers that there’s nothing to fear in Berezovsky’s activities this time around; on the contrary, we ought to thank him for his efforts: “Thank you, Boris Berezovsky, for our party childhood; thank you for the reminder that lawyers don’t care about young offenders; thank you – and goodbye. And if it’s forever, then goodbye forever.”

“Ekspert” magazine describes as entirely unfounded Berezovsky’s hopes for the new social layer of independent people which has formed over the post-Soviet decade: the “active 10% of citizens” who, according to the former oligarch, ought to “outweigh the 90% of Putin’s silent majority”. “Ekspert” considers that in this case Berezovsky is wrong in his assessment of the political competition, when he offers those “active 10% of citizens” human rights and other left-democratic ideas.

These ideas, “Ekspert” explains, are rooted in the Soviet era, in the dissident movement of times gone by. Those who uphold these ideas are members of the former Soviet intelligentsia, for whom the concept of freedom was inextricably linked with freedom of speech, conscience, association, forming a civil society, etc. “Ekspert” says: “The tragedy of that generation is that most of them were never able to test their ideas in practice, so the ideas never evolved, never changed, and never adapted to Russia’s culture.” These days, people who think along those lines vote for Yabloko; just as before, they still dislike the government, but they have no real influence on the situation in Russia.

But the “active 10% of citizens” are a different group of people entirely: they are at least ten years younger, and at least half again as wealthy as Yabloko voters. “The latter point is important, since having money gives them a sense of some sort of freedom more important than freedom of speech.”

Over all these years, the people in this latter group have actually been doing something, and this has given them “a sense of moderation and an understanding of how complex the world is” – in Russia, this is partially embodied in total disregard for the law, “the stupidity of regional leaders, the feckelessness mixed with talent of their co-workers, the huge size of the market, and the indifference of the government”.

In essence, says “Ekspert”, the “new average Russians” hold conservative views. “This doesn’t mean that free speech is unimportant to them. But they see democracy as a springboard, which has to be used to move forward – to somewhere. The only question is how to define ‘somewhere'”.

Noted historian Roy Medvedev has told the “Versty” newspaper that of course some people will take Berezovsky’s money – “but not serious politicians who value their reputation”, only “short-sighted political players and con artists”. Medvedev considers that for anyone who aims to “sail the political seas”, Berezovsky’s money can only be “a millstone around the neck”. According to Medvedev, any political group which accepts money from Berezovsky will doom itself by doing so; the image of Berezovsky as “clandestine manipulator and intriguer” is too firmly entrenched in the public mind. From now on, says Medvedev, “open participation in politics is closed off to Boris Berezovsky. That includes financing political opposition.”

As we see, analysts and publications across the board are almost unanimous in predicting that these new efforts by the former political conductor and demiurge to participate in another round of party-building in Russia will be a fiasco. Still, it must be noted that discussion of forming a new opposition and references to future presidential elections in Russia are being seen more frequently in the same context. And 2008 is being metioned almost more often than 2004.

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