Kremlin approves the "completion" of the Union of Right Forces

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The Union of Right Forces (SPS) held a congress in Moscow on Saturday, December 16. Speeches were upbeat: the party was celebrating its recent success in the Perm territory legislature election. Inspired by achievements in Perm, Nikita Belykh promised to resign as SPS leader if the party loses the regional elections coming up in March 2007. Not even the collapse of unification talks with Yabloko could ruin the celebratory mood.

But not all analysts share this optimism about the SPS. They are not convinced that the SPS will go on to further victories, and they are now trying to work out why national television networks gave the SPS congress such an unusual amount of coverage.

As Kommersant reports, Belykh announced at the congress that his name will head all SPS candidate lists in the 14 regional legislature elections next March.

Leonid Gozman, deputy chairman of the SPS political council, said in an interview with Radio Liberty that by making Belykh its top candidate in all regions, the SPS is emphasizing that “in any particular region, our candidates are not just a group of people undertaking to work on solving that region’s problems – they represent a federal political party.”

Kommersant quotes Belykh as saying that the main goal of the SPS is “to make it into the State Duma.” In a resolution adopted at the congress, the SPS set itself the ambitious task of “equalling or exceeding the Perm territory result (16% of the vote) in the regional elections of March 2007.” The resolution concludes: “We shall make the spring elections a dress rehearsal for our success in the Duma election!”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports: “True, Belykh did emphasize that this result in March ‘is by no means guaranteed,’ since powerful financial and administrative resources will be working against the SPS.”

SPS slogans for the upcoming elections will be borrowed from Perm. The SPS intends to complete building capitalism throughout Russia, taking democratic reforms to their logical conclusion. And here Belykh added a significant proviso: these reforms must be advantageous for ordinary citizens.

According to Izvestia, the SPS succeeded in the Perm election primarily because it had some administrative resources there: “Youthful party leader Nikita Belykh used to be the right-hand man of Perm Governor Oleg Chirkunov, and still keeps in touch with him. Belykh still calls Chirkunov his personal ‘friend,’ which gives SPS opponents an additional pretext to say that the SPS has access to administrative resources.”

Novyi Kompanion, a Perm territory newspaper, maintains that administrative resources helped only in the sense that the SPS campaign in Perm was not obstructed: SPS candidates were allowed to participate in televised debates and the party was allowed to display campaign materials freely.

According to Novyi Kompanion, the SPS owes its success in the Perm election to the fact that it appointed a new campaign manager in late October: Anton Bakov, a Duma member from the Sverdlovsk region.

Novyi Kompanion says: “In the Perm campaign, Bakov made a sharp turn to the left – with the full power of the SPS campaign machine being redirected toward the elderly and state-sector workers. For example, the Completion policy program was positioned as a way to complete building capitalism in Russia (although for some reason this is only supposed to happen after a steep rise in pensions and state-sector wages). The SPS also targeted the protest vote – those who are tired of United Russia and the other parties, but were prepared to vote for something new, for the opposition.”

Bakov’s campaign prescriptions aren’t for the lazy. Grigori Kuranov, director of the Kucher advertising agency and adviser to Governor Chirkunov, told Smart Money magazine: “Belykh turned out to be the only party leader from Moscow who not only visited the city of Perm, but also toured the region’s villages, braving the bad roads.”

Smart Money adds: “But Belykh would have driven around his home region’s bad roads in vain, were it not for preliminary efforts by SPS campaign activists who encouraged voters to give the candidate a warm reception.”

In Kuranov’s view, the SPS was the only party to set up a full-fledged network marketing system in Perm. Other parties had one campaign activist per 400-700 households; the SPS had one campaign activist per 70 households.

Moreover, the SPS campaign net was set to catch particular segments of the electorate, not voter in general. New Image agency founder Yevgeny Minchenko says: “Bakov practically always focuses on the 10-20% of voters who are persuadable – they have no firmly-fixed ideological criteria.”

The Perm project drew the interest of Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, who summoned Bakov to meet with him in the Kremlin.

Using Perm as an example, Bakov showed Surkov how he thinks the political stage can be decorated – and why the SPS might still be useful to the Kremlin. A Kremlin source told Smart Money: “With the help of social rhetoric, the SPS might play its accustomed role of lightning-rod, taking some of the protest vote away from left-wing parties.” According to this sourc, Surkov listened to and took note of Bakov’s ideas.

Novyi Kompanion says: “Straight after the sensational election results in Perm were released, SPS leader Nikita Belykh announced that Anton Bakov will get the job of chief PR manager for the SPS, and the Completion policy program, having proven effective, will be used again in the March elections.”

According to Smart Money magazine, in the next elections Bakov will offer SPS voters the “social package” tested in Perm: raising pensions by 250% and quadrupling wages. In Bakov’s view, the topic of wages and pensions is the key topic for ordinary citizens at present. He says: “This is already in the SPS policy program – but we shouldn’t have tried to camouflage it, trying to fit in with Gaidar and Chubais.”

Apparently, the SPS is confident that with a PR man of this caliber on its side, there’s no need to worry about the collapse of unification talks with Yabloko.

According to the Vedomosti newspaper, Belykh drew applause at the SPS congress by revealing that Grigori Yavlinsky had offered him a leadership role if the two parties merged on the basis of Yabloko – but Belykh refused, because “Yabloko still isn’t prepared to change its name or its policy program. Such terms are unacceptable to us, and I declined the offer.” (Quoted in the Vremya Novostei newspaper.) Leonid Gozman added: “We are capable of winning without abandoning our ideas, our leader, and our brand-name.”

Novye Izvestia reports: “The SPS congress was attended by all leaders of the Yabloko party’s Moscow region branch: chairman Valery Bakunin and his deputies, Oleg Solsky and Gennadi Khryachkov.” The Yabloko activists announced that they had quit Yabloko that very morning, in order to be on the common list of candidates being compiled for the Moscow regional legislature election by the SPS, Free Russia, and the Democratic Party of Russia.

Oleg Solsky told Gazeta that when he annouced his resignation from Yabloko, Yavlinsky had threatened him with criminal prosecution and arranged to have the local branch office sealed off.

According to Novye Izvestia, Yavlinsky made the threats because “the defectors ran off with the minutes of meetings at which local branches made their decisions on nominating candidates for the regional party conference.”

An announcement posted on Yabloko’s website on December 16 says that at the same time as the SPS congress in Moscow, the Moscow region branch was due to hold its ninth conference, for the purpose of finalizing a list of candidates for the Moscow regional legislature. But the conference was called off because some documents had been stolen: minutes from over 30 local branch meetings, participant registration lists for joint meetings of local branches, and delegate registration lists for the ninth conference.

The purpose of all this, according to the announcement, is to eliminate a stronger rival: polls indicate that Yabloko is going into the regional campaigns with a voter support rating of 4-6%, while the SPS rating is less than 2%.

Meanwhile, according to Yabloko local branch leaders, Bakunin, Solsky, and their aides are phoning their former party colleagues and inviting them to switch to the SPS, or work for their election campaign, saying that “there will be money enough for all.”

According to Lenta.Ru, Yabloko lawyers approached the Interior Ministry on December 19 and requested a criminal investigation into the theft of confidential party documents, with criminal penalties for those responsible.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta maintains that the major reason for the discord between the SPS and Yabloko is Anatoly Chubais. Grigori Yavlinsky himself has just admitted as much, in an interview with Marianna Maksimovskaya on REN-TV.

“Yabloko’s demand was that its potential SPS allies should first renounce their chief sponsor, RAO Unified Energy Systems CEO Anatoly Chubais – and the SPS refused, obviously,” says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “Only the previous day, Belykh gave Yavlinsky the final answer: no. Actually, this was predictable, given Chubais’s position within the party.”

Yavlinsky contends that a state official (Chubais) cannot be the master of an opposition party; this is inconsistent with his status. Yavlinsky is implying that if this is done, such a party loses the right to be called an opposition party, a priori.

According to the Lenta.Ru website, differing views on 1990s reforms proved to be another stumbling block in the SPS-Yabloko unification effort. Yabloko regards the reforms as “largely mistaken and criminal,” while the SPS considers them “absolutely successful.” As Yabloko deputy leader Sergei Ivanenko points out, the pro-democracy electorate is divided along the same lines.

What’s more, Yabloko said at its June congress that it does not consider it a priority to get past the 7% threshold in the Duma election of 2007, and does not intend to back down on matters of principle for the sake of uniting with any other party.

“We seem to be witnessing a final divorce on the grounds of ‘irreconcilable personal differences’ between two political brand-names with the same direction,” says Lenta.Ru. “This was bound to happen sooner or later. Why has it happened at this particular time? Apparently, one member of the tandem became confident that it could ensure a political future for itself independently. The other party has only continued its aloof line of behavior, exacerbated by grievances against its more successful partner.”

“While the story of the SPS-Yabloko alliance has long resembled a soap opera,” says Gazeta, “unification between the SPS and the Republican Party of Russia (RPR) seemed quite realistic.” But this unification didn’t happen at the SPS congress either.

RPR leader Vladimir Ryzhkov said: “We have agreed that RPR candidates will be added the SPS lists in St. Petersburg, the Vologda and Pskov regions, and the Krasnoyarsk territory.” Since the RPR has failed to obtain registration as a party, its members will be recorded as not belonging to any party.

Leonid Gozman told Gazeta that it’s too soon to talk of unification: “The RPR is continuing its battle for re-registration, taking its case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.”

Ryzhkov’s answer to the same question from Gazeta was brief: “Nothing is ready yet, a great many questions remain unresolved.”

Rossiskaya Gazeta claims that “all negotiations between these two organizations have been called off.”

Most likely, Gazeta suggests, the problem here is the usual leadership question. Following a major success in Perm, Nikita Belykh isn’t inclined to share pride of place. Yet Vladimir Ryzhkov, a recognized politician, is unlikely to accept a secondary role.

Ekspert Online reports that another SPS congress should be held no later than September 2007, to finalize decisions on changes to the party. Belykh said: “The unification questions of ‘who, with whom, and how’ will only become clear after the spring elections.”

The congress also heard much talk of relations between the SPS and the Other Russia.

According to Kommersant, the SPS has made its main choice: conclusively dissociating itself from the Other Russia oppostion forum. Belykh said: “They don’t care who they unite with – but we do care. They’re preparing for a revolution – we’re preparing for elections. Their position is: the worse things get, the better. That’s why we are not in the Other Russia. We intend to become a ruling party, in order to continue progressive transformations. We shall participate in elections, work, and win.”

Meanwhile, Gozman got personal: “We’re witnessing the formation of an unnatural alliance between the intelligentsia and the pogrom-makers. The Red Youth Vanguard is supporting Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Kasyanov is being photographed with Eduard Limonov, and Viktor Anpilov is seated at the same table as decent people. A similar situation led to catastrophe in 1917. Where it will lead now – that depends on us.”

Kommersant reports that some SPS members spoke up for the Other Russia. Alexander Boldyrev, a delegate from Voronezh, called on SPS leaders to remain on friendly terms, at least, with other pro-democracy forces.

The SPS congress was covered in news broadcasts on all of Russia’s national television networks. “What’s more, the reports didn’t speak of a split; they said that the SPS has developed a strategy for completing all incomplete market reforms, rejected the Yabloko party, and condemned the March of Dissenters organized by Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Kasyanov,” says Vedomosti.

Vedomosti also reports that according to the Medialogy monitoring system, the Rossiya television network (VGTRK) gave this SPS congress twice as much airtime as the previous SPS congress in September. When asked about the reasons for this extra attention, VGTRK Deputy Director Andrei Bystritsky said: “We keep track of the most important political forces, and cover the congresses of all political parties.”

But Vedomosti questions whether this could have happened without political orders from the Kremlin: “After all, we have all heard assertions that the presidential administration is directly involved in deciding what the media should or should not report; so Belykh couldn’t have been given this much publicity without permission from the top. So permission must have been received! So someone from the SPS must have gone to the Kremlin and done a deal!”

Vedomosti goes on to say: “It appears that Belykh is starting his rise to the federal heights by doing deals with his chief opponent.”

Leonid Gozman says he doesn’t see anything surprising in the television networks’ sudden affection for the SPS. In an interview with Radio Liberty, he named two reasons for the additional and favorable coverage on national television.

“The SPS received this coverage because in the wake of our results in Perm, where we finished second after United Russia, we have simply become more interesting to people,” said Gozman. “Despite all the state control over television broadcasting these days, the networks do have to report on what people find interesting. Secondly, we received this coverage for another reason, one that didn’t depend on our merits. It was done in order to contrast us with the Other Russia.”

According to journalist Yulia Latynina from Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, the attention Vladimir Putin is paying to the SPS (its leader was invited to Putin’s recent meeting on countering extremism) is not equivalent to an automatic pass into the post-2007 Duma.

Latynina recalls how in the last parliamentary election, President Putin called Yavlinsky on election night to offer his personal congratulations on Yabloko’s success: “Everyone in Yabloko relaxed and felt very happy, thinking: it’s a sure thing now, the president himself promised that they were in.”

Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal comments: “In short, that’s the first possible explanation: a typical distraction maneuver. The Kremlin might be promising the SPS friendship in exchange for behavior that will discredit the party completely – and then, at the last moment, the friendship will be suddenly withdrawn: Oops! Well, who could have guessed that you wouldn’t make it into the Duma?”

The second possible explanation, according to Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, is that President Putin is genuinely concerned about Russia’s lack of an obedient opposition: “An opposition with the rank of a courtier clan – an opposition that competes with United Russia not for power, but to please their superiors – in short, a non-oppositional opposition.”

In Latynina’s view, either option would lead to the same outcome: the SPS being received at the Kremlin before the election – but ending up with only 4% of the vote on the morning after the election. And that’s because second-rank Kremlin parties will never attract en masse support.

Kommersant reports that at the SPS congress, Valeria Novodvorskaya, leader of the Democratic Union, also warned the SPS against cooperating with the authorities. She commented on Belykh’s recent visit to the Kremlin as follows: “It’s highly questionable whether our clean, noble Nikita Belykh ought to visit that Lady Macbeth of Lubyanka Passage.”

The coming election year may condemn the right-wing opposition to oblivion, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “These days, overt and unambiguous support from the Kremlin is the only thing that can help the liberals get into parliament. The Kremlin’s hand has reached out – and has been gratefully accepted.”

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