Great Russia: the Russian March on soft paws

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“The sterilized nationalism of a party with a sterilized name, almost a caricatur of a name – Great Russia – is attempting to claim a place on the legal territory of election campaigns,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, independent observer for Gazeta.ru. The new party has set itself an ambitious objective: “emerging from the zone of direct action (racial hate crimes) and online or street-based ultra-nationalism, to move into the zone of the system and parliamentary politics.”

It became known in late March that the Russian March organizing committee was working on establishing a new party to fill the niche of the defunct Motherland (Rodina). At an inaugural congress on May 5, Duma member Andrei Saveliev (formerly of Motherland) became the leader of Great Russia; the party’s organizing committee includes Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) leader Alexander Belov (Potkin) and Congress of Russian Communities (KRO) leader Dmitri Rogozin, both known as Russian March organizers.

In his speech at the inaugural congress, Rogozin spoke at length about the Great Russia party’s emblem – the Ussuri (Siberian) tiger, which he described as “a St. George ribbon with teeth,” according to the Rosbalt agency. Rogozin said that a tiger should not only be strong – it should “also have brains and a fiery heart.”

Dmitri Rogozin, shadow leader of Great Russia: “We found some information on the Internet to the effect that the extinction of the Ussuri tiger was halted last year, for the first time. I think it will be a worthy opponent for the blue bear.”

Party leader Andrei Saveliev: “The tiger’s leap will happen. But those who suffer from that leap shouldn’t see the tiger’s approach – we should approach our opponents on soft paws, so as to remain unnoticed.”

But Rogozin also called on the authorities not to fear this new organization: “There won’t be any pogroms. There will be complete harmony in inter-ethnic relations.”

The Kommersant newspaper reports that in order to emphasize the new party’s inclusive nature, its organizers said that delegates at the inaugural congress included representatives of 21 ethnic groups and 67 heads of commercial enterprises.

Rogozin promised Great Russia will get at least 25% of the vote in the Duma election this December. The Vedomosti newspaper notes that he cited figures from the VTsIOM polling agency: a total of 14% of respondents are already prepared to vote for Great Russia.

As the Rosbalt agency reports, at an improvised press briefing Rogozin “ingenuously” described all the tricks that Great Russia’s creators have been forced to resort to.

“The party’s leadership is now being selected – the leaders who will have to achieve the priority objective: getting the party registered,” said Rogozin, the party’s unofficial leader. “There are suspicions that we might encounter registration difficulties if I am among the party’s leaders. I hope that our colleague, Andrei Nikolaevich Saveliev, will be a worthy representative of the stream to which I belong. Moreover, I think it’s already an open secret that if the party is registered, neither I nor Alexander Anatolievich Belov will be left out of its candidate list.”

As Kommersant reports, Saveliev said that Great Russia has deliberately made its policy documents “toothless” – so that it won’t be accused of extremism and denied registration on those grounds. “We have sterilized our policy documents,” he said.

Vremya Novostei reports on another of the tricks that Great Russia has been forced to resort to: the new party’s charter is the same as the charter of Just Russia, word for word. “Our policy program has been composed similarly – no sharp edges, everything very mild and gentle,” said Rogozin. Thus, if Great Russia is denied registration for any reason, its supporters will have substantial grounds for a legal challenge – since a party with identical documents has been registered already.

Rogozin estimates that the new party has a 90% chance of getting registered.

Some young people who asked to remain anonymous told Rosbalt that Saveliev and his allies are likely to “run for the Duma,” and Rogozin is likely to run for president in 2008.

Also among the candidates for Great Russia’s leadership is President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. In late March, the media reported Saveliev’s sensational announcement that “extensive consultations are under way, after which a leadership post in the party will be officially offered to Alexander Lukashenko.”

Saveliev told the Tvoi Den newspaper: “Alexander Lukashenko is a real leader of the entire Slavic world – he doesn’t truckle to the West – he’s a real patriot.”

Rogozin told Tvoi Den: “I don’t think this is some sort of joke. Saveliev is a serious person, he doesn’t like jokes, he’s attacked Zhirinovsky twice. Like the majority of Russian citizens, I approve of Alexander Lukashenko, along with his economic and social model. There may be some poor people in Belarus, but there is no dire and widespread poverty.”

According to the BelTA agency, Lukashenko knew nothing of the possibility that he might become the new party’s leader until he saw media reports to that effect; he immediately described it as madness and game-playing, “not for the benefit of Belarus.” Somewhat more mildly, he added: “Perhaps someone is sincerely seeking a leader and wants to see some sort of alternative – but in this case it’s against the law.”

Lukashenko’s statement was followed by a denial from Saveliev. He assured the Polyarnaya Pravda newspaper that he values and approves of Lukashenko, adding that if Lukashenko were president of Russia, “we would have avoided many disastrous processes.” However, “the story of our party wanting Lukashenko as its leader is nothing more than a newspaper canard”; Russian law and the laws of the Russia-Belarus Union State do not permit the president of Belarus to be a candidate in a Russian presidential election.

Yet the “nomination story” didn’t end there. At Great Russia’s inaugural congress, one of the party’s ideologues, Vitali Averyanov, told his colleagues what should be done to prevent legislation from obstructing the people’s love for Lukashenko.

The Rosbalt agency reports Averyanov’s explanation of how Lukashenko could be nominated: first, the parliamentary election in Russia should be won by a force that promises its voters immediate reunification with Belarus; then Lukashenko could lawfully run for president of the unified state.

Rogozin, Great Russia’s unofficial leader, expressed the view that the “two-move plan” proposed by Averyanov would be desirable, and Great Russia should seek ways of putting it into practice.

According to Rogozin, participants in this project have only two major objectives: building the Great Russia party, and building a great Russia.

As Rosbalt reports, the party will be using a “bring a friend” system. Anyone who recruits 2,000 members for Great Russia can claim a place in the party’s presidium. The reward for recruiting 1,000 “souls” is a place in the central council. Anyone who recruits 100 members will be eligible for leadership roles in the party’s regional branches and places on regional candidate lists.

Rogozin himself, according to Rosbalt, has undertaken to recruit 2,000 members and join the party’s central council.

Will Rogozin’s attempted comeback to federal politics succeed? That depends on the Federal Registration Service (FRS), which hasn’t registered any new parties this year, as Kommersant points out – and it’s not at all certain that Great Russia’s tricks will help it get registered.

On May 7, the first working day after the inaugural congress, the authorities sent Great Russia two signals indicating that its presence on the political stage is unwelcome. As Kommersant reports, Saveliev was summoned to the Prosecutor General’s Office for questioning; he did his best to convince the prosecutors that political emigre Boris Berezovsky is not funding Great Russia. The prosecutors also intend to speak with Rogozin.

The investigation into Great Russia’s financial affairs was initiated by Igor Lebedev, leader of the LDPR faction in the Duma. On April 13, he proposed an investigation to determine where Duma member Rogozin is getting the money to launch a new party: “in light of Rogozin’s provocative statement about a potential Plan B in the event that the party is denied registration, and the subsequent interview with Boris Berezovsky in The Guardian on April 13, where Berezovsky said that he is planning a revolution in Russia and funding groups of supporters who are organizing a coup.”

Rogozin mentioned the mysterious Plan B at a press conference on April 12. According to Lenta.ru, he spoke of Great Russia’s ambitious plans, saying that if the party is denied registration, the organizing committee would switch to something called Plan B – although Rogozin didn’t explain what he meant by that.

In an interview with Radio Liberty, Saveliev was even more vague, saying that Rogozin “referred to a different Plan B,” allegedly explained to journalists earlier.

Saveliev described allegations of Berezovsky’s involvement as “utter nonsense,” saying: “Such suggestions should be submitted to the appropriate mental health services, not the Prosecutor General’s Office.”

And this isn’t the only unpleasant development encountered by the new party: FRS officials have also expressed doubts about its election prospects. “Given the deadlines for submitting documents and party registration procedures, Great Russia has very little time left, so the prospect of its participation in the December election seem problematic,” said Galina Fokina, acting head of the FRS directorate for political party affairs and registration of public, religious, and other organizations.

“The experience of other parties shows that it takes at least three or four months to establish a network of party branches in the regions,” said Fokina. And since President Putin will issue the election decree in late August or early September, Great Russia now has less than four months to complete all the formalities. Kommersant emphasizes that the FRS has plenty of ways to delay the registration of regional branches – for example, by detecting irregularities in the process of holding regional party conferences.

Although the authorities aren’t particularly pleased about the emergence of a competitor in the nationalist arena, the creators of Great Russia are quite close to the authorities: Saveliev is a prominent Duma member, after all, and DPNI leader Belov (Potkin) has the support of the security and law enforcement (siloviki) lobby, says Gazeta.ru.

According to Vedomosti, Saveliev himself swears that the Kremlin has had nothing to do with the creation of Great Russia. The party’s leaders are not disclosing their funding sources. Rogozin only noted that Berezovsky is not among them. As mentioned previously, a third of the delegates at Great Russia’s inaugural congress (67 people) were the leaders of commercial companies.

Political analyst Dmitri Oreshkin maintains that Great Russia is being established with the knowledge of siloviki from the presidential administration, but not with the Kremlin’s direct support. In an interview with Novye Izvestia, Oreshkin says: “Certain generals at the Interior Ministry and other special services support the nationalists for ideological reasons – personal interests, so to speak.” Oreshkin told Vedomosti that Great Russia will compete against the Kremlin’s parties on the leftist-patriotic field.

Galina Mikhaleva, deputy leader of the Yabloko party, told Kommersant that the Kremlin wants “a completely controlled election campaign” – but the leaders of this new party are notoriously unpredictable individuals. Hence, Mikhaleva concludes that Great Russia’s founders have launched this project for the sole purpose of “retaining media attention: if they don’t do anything, they will be forgotten entirely.”

Boris Makarenko, general director of the Political Techniques Center, maintains that Great Russia’s founders understand that they have “no prospect of success” in the current election cycle: “Having radical nationalists in the election campaign is inconvenient for the Kremlin.” According to Makarenko, “fighting neo-fascists is convenient when they’re demonstrating in the streets, but it’s much harder to disqualify a registered party from elections or disperse the Russian March during an election campaign.”

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