Boris Nemtsov, co-founder of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), announced on February 12 that he has suspended his membership of the party. The lack of official comments makes it unclear whether this move was an emotional outburst, a reaction to criticism from SPS co-leader Anatoly Chubais, or part of a plan for Nemtsov to head up a new coalition of pro-democracy forces. According to the media, however, Nemtsov’s decision is evidence of continuing splits among the liberals, and the trend that is dividing the opposition into those within the system and those outside it.
Boris Nemtsov announced his decision at the launch of a report he has co-authored with Vladimir Milov, director of the Energy Policy Institute. “Putin: the Results” surveys the “disappointing” results of Vladimir Putin’s eight years in power.
In an interview with Gazeta.ru, Nemtsov confirmed that he has suspended his SPS membership but firmly declined to comment on his reasons for doing so. He even added that he will never explain those reasons.
Moskovskii Korrespondent notes a discrepancy between the SPS official version of events (“suspending membership”) and the words of Nemtsov himself: “I’m not commenting on the reasons for my dismissal.” Moskovskii Korrespondent says: “The word ‘dismissal’ is usually used when someone isn’t leaving voluntarily. Was this a slip of the tongue by one of the leaders of Russia’s liberals?” The Kommersant newspaper notes that straight after Nemtsov made his announcement, his name vanished from the “Leaders” section on the SPS party’s official website.
SPS leader Nikita Belykh told the Interfax news agency that “there is no conflict between Boris and myself.” Belykh said: “I might guess that the suspension of his membership could be related to his critical report, ‘Putin: the Results’ – but that’s only a guess, and I can’t comment any further on this issue.” In an interview with Kommersant, Belykh added: “Boris is my friend. I greatly regret that things have turned out this way. All I can say is that the problem is more personal than political.”
SPS leaders have expressed regret about their former co-chairman’s departure. Leonid Gozman, deputy chairman of the SPS political council, told Gazeta.ru that Nemtsov “remains a leader of the pro-democracy opposition, and his contribution to creating the SPS is invaluable.”
The media have reported all kinds of rumors about the reasons behind Nemtsov’s departure.
Fontanka.ru notes that the extremely radical conclusions in “Putin: the Results” aren’t very convenient for Anatoly Chubais, chief executive of RAO Unified Energy Systems (RAO UES); after all, if this report is associated with the SPS, the party (already having problems) will find itself in an even more difficult position. Thus, Fontanka.ru suggests that Nemtsov was presented with a choice.
Lenta.ru maintains that Nemtsov’s evolution toward radical opposition has now been completed. The terms used in the report speak for themselves: “the large-scale scam perpetrated by Putin’s friends,” an “epic scam,” the “dirty deeds of Russia’s present-day rulers.” The report’s authors sum up their argument as follows: “The authoritarian-criminal regime which has taken shape in Russia during Vladimir Putin’s years in power poses a threat to our country’s future.”
Kommersant quotes sources as saying that Chubais was summoned to the Kremlin to discuss the report. A source from Nemtsov’s inner circle told Kommersant: “Kremlin officials explained that this report is like a bomb – something capable of having an explosive effect on the whole situation.” According to this source, Nemtsov’s decision to suspend his SPS membership was preceded by a private conversation between Nemtsov and Chubais.
Nemtsov himself is aware that the report has elicited “a certain reaction.” In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, he uses the same phrase as the Kommersant source: “Some people decided that this report would have an explosive effect on the situation in Russia.” Nemtsov notes, however, that “I don’t really know anything about the Kremlin.”
But this version of events is contradicted by the fact that the report is still available on the SPS website.
Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy leader of the Yabloko party, agrees that Nemtsov’s departure was prompted by a conflict with Chubais – but the conflict concerned Dmitri Medvedev’s candidacy, not the report. In an interview with Kommersant, Mitrokhin suggested the following version of events: “The SPS may have received instructions, via Chubais, to support Medvedev – and Nemtsov, aware that something like this was happening, sought to save face with a preemptive move.”
Kommersant reports that off the record, SPS activists say that Nemtsov’s suspension of membership was probably an “emotional outburst” following his conversation with Chubais, and the party is hoping that “Nemtsov will come back.” When Kommersant asked about the possibility of his official relationship with the SPS being resumed, Nemtsov said that he isn’t ruling out any options for himself.
Gazeta.ru reports that both Belykh and Gozman have denied suggestions of a conflict between Nemtsov and other SPS leaders.
In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Nemtsov emphasized that “I have a very good relationship with my party colleagues – Nikita Belykh and the party leadership. Moreover, our positions on all issues – including the March 2 election – are practically identical.”
Indeed, says Gazeta.ru, the SPS political council met on February 7 and engaged in a fierce debate, ending in a minimal-majority vote in favor of a resolution calling for an “active boycott” of the presidential election. It was Nemtsov, supported by Belykh and Gozman, who argued most strongly for this stance at the political council meeting.
Gazeta.ru points out that the SPS got less than one percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections – performing even worse than its spoiler, Civil Force. Toward the end of the Duma election campaign, the SPS switched to hardline criticism of the Putin regime – and Nemtsov was the party’s leading orator at the time. Despite the election failure, the SPS leadership remained unchanged. Nemtsov even decided to run for president, although he subsequently withdrew in favor of former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov.
Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky suggests that Nemtsov has outgrown the SPS and is moving into a new political capacity as organizer of the Democratic Renewal Movement, which may be discussed at the pro-democracy forces conference in St. Petersburg on March 22 (Fontanka.ru).
Kommersant notes that Nemtsov has named the following people as potential participants in the new coalition: United Civil Front leader Garry Kasparov, People’s Democratic Union leader Mikhail Kasyanov, former Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov, rights activist Lev Ponomarev, and dissident Vladimir Bukovsky.
Belkovsky says: “Nemtsov was a foreign body within the SPS. And the party’s Nemtsov-style radicalization hasn’t achieved anything. They tried to take votes from Yabloko, but those voters didn’t believe them.”
Dmitri Badovsky, special programs manager at the Social Systems Research Institute, suggested in an interview with Strana.ru that Nemtsov may attempt “to start from a clean slate and form a new party, which would be able to establish itself in time for the next election cycle.”
Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, maintains that regardless of whether this new organization is a movement or a party, it won’t be granted official status: “A project with the radicals, as an alternative to Yabloko and the SPS, would probably be denied registration – so it would have to operate outside the field of political parties.”
Another theory is presented in the Gazeta newspaper by Valery Khomyakov, general director of the National Strategy Council and former SPS political council member. In his opinion, Nemtsov has decided to end his political career and go into business; he is on friendly terms with the leaders of most financial-industrial groups.
Political analyst and SPS member Dmitri Oreshkin says in Gazeta.ru that Nemtsov’s departure “must be due to the SPS and Nemtsov both seeking a new status.” Oreshkin’s theory: “The election results were poor, so some sort of different policy is needed. Nemtsov seems to have decided to move further into opposition.”
The mood within the SPS is reflected in a statement made by Alexander Kotyusov, a member of the party’s political council in Nizhny Novgorod. He told the Vedomosti newspaper that the party doesn’t really exist any more, so there’s nothing to quit. Hardly any money is coming in: according to Kotyusov, the SPS ran out of money and sold its offices on Malaya Andronyevskaya Street in Moscow, so now it is renting the office space it used to own.
Regnum reports the latest party funding figures from the Central Electoral Commission: in the fourth quarter of 2007, deposits in the SPS bank account were barely a third of what they had been in the third quarter. According to Valery Khomyakov, the party has chosen the path to marginalization and is now on the verge of vanishing entirely.
Gazeta.ru suggests that the party’s failed experiment with real opposition to the Kremlin might be followed by a return to its usual milder stance. Rumor has it that Nemtsov will be replaced by a prominent politician who has worked within the government or the administration.
The Vek newspaper predicts that the SPS is about to replace its leader, Nikita Belykh. The new leader might be Boris Nadezhdin, head of the SPS Moscow branch. At the political council meeting on February 7, Nadezhdin supported Chubais’s new line: against an election boycott, and in favor of supporting Medvedev.
Alexei Makarkin told Gazeta.ru that he doesn’t rule out the possibility of the SPS “shifting in a more moderate direction.” However, according to Makarkin, this won’t happen overnight, and only if the Kremlin makes some gesture of reconciliation: “But Nemtsov’s departure does make such a transition more likely.”
Lenta.ru says: “The sources of the current crisis in the SPS are obvious: it can’t keep sitting on the fence. That means a choice: either the chief executive of RAO UES, or Dissenter March protests and arrests.”
Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes a United Russia leadership source as saying that SPS politicians are ripe for switching to other parties – and Nemtsov’s decision to quit is just the start of a trend. The source cites the following fact as evidence: a number of SPS members attended the February meeting of the November 4 Club (organized by United Russia and Vladislav Surkov), which discussed the problem of corruption in Russia. Allegedly, these people included Boris Nadezhdin and SPS political council member Grigory Tomchin. Another person who accepted United Russia’s invitation was Mikhail Barshchevsky, leader of the new right-wing party called Civil Force.
There are growing rumors that the Kremlin is planning to get rid of the old right-wing parties sometime in autumn of 2008. This wouldn’t be difficult: they are in debt, having yet to reimburse the state for television airtime provided free of charge during the Duma election campaign.
According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta sources, there would still be a right-wing party in Russia. Liberals will be invited to unite around a new organization headed by Andrei Bogdanov, currently leader of the Democratic Party of Russia (DPR). A source within United Russia reports that although Bogdanov’s primary function as a presidential candidate is to serve as a double for Dmitri Medvedev, Bogdanov is also using the campaign to polish his image as Russia’s leading democrat.
This theory is supported by Kreml.org chief editor Pavel Danilin in an interview with the RIA Novosti news agency. Danilin is very positive about the prospects for right-wing parties in Russia, but says that this role will be played by either Civil Force or the DPR.
Lenta.ru concludes: “Thus, the stratification process continues among Russia’s opposition forces – dividing them into those within the system and those outside it. Nemtsov’s decision confirms and reinforces this trend.”