“The first-wave democrats have disbanded,” Izvestia reported on Monday. Last Saturday Russia lost two of its political parties. The final congress of Russia’s Democratic Choice made the historic decision to disband – according to Kommersant, and contrary to many apprehensions, it happened “quietly and without a fight”. Party leader Yegor Gaidar made a 17-page speech “about the utility of pragmatism in politics, and the need for coexistence between romantic liberals and right-centrist pragmatists”. According to Kommersant, no one put up much resistance.

Boris Nemtsov invited Russia’s Democratic Choice members to join the Union of Right Forces (URF), promising them a big future: “It’s like reincarnation – one life follows another.” Nevertheless, Gaidar’s former deputy Sergei Yushenkov categorically refused to join the URF, saying that the URF party “is basically becoming pro-presidential, and betraying its right-wing liberal convictions as soon as they run counter to the will of the Kremlin”.

The Democratic Russia conference was even more turbulent. Having finished with Russia’s Democratic Choice, Boris Nemtsov turned up to reassure Democratic Russia members – and Valeria Novodvorskaya rose to speak: “My friends, don’t you see the executioner’s axe in the hands of kind, good Boris Nemtsov? You have been invited here for your execution, while the KGB men have already received awards for this operation and toasted its success!” However, Democratic Russia also agreed to disband; and participants in the final meetings of both parties described them as wakes. (As for New Force, led by Sergei Kirienko, it was wound up behind closed doors.)

Now, says Kommersant, there are no further obstacles to the Union of Right Forces becoming a single party.

Izvestia is more cautious in its predictions before the URF inaugural congress scheduled for May 26; it sees fit to recall assertions by Gaidar and Nemtsov that “even competition during elections cannot destroy their long-standing friendly relations”.

Boris Nemtsov admitted in an interview with Obshchaya Gazeta that he did have some concerns about the possibility of a split within the URF when it became known that Gaidar would contend for leadership. However, Nemtsov is now certain that this can be avoided: “For example, if I am not elected leader of the URF political council, I will not quit the URF. I’m sure that Gaidar won’t quit either if he fails to be elected. So the organization will survive.”

What’s more, Nemtsov has information that Gaidar “didn’t want – and maybe still doesn’t want – to try for the leadership”. He was pushed into it by “key members of Russia’s Democratic Choice” who feared losing their posts and privileges. According to Nemtsov, Gaidar faced crude blackmail: they threatened to refuse to disband Russia’s Democratic Choice if he refused to stand for URF leader: “Their arguments were roughly as follows: we are the oldest democratic movement, we have our own history and traditions, and if we’re to sacrifice all this, we ought to get something substantial in return.”

Nemtsov emphasizes that his personal relations with Gaidar are based on consensus: “We must pass through this turbulent phase and remain friends… Whether Gaidar contests the leadership or not, my opinion of him will remain unchanged. I hope that I don’t have to fear a blow from his direction.”

Gaidar’s supporters categorically deny all speculation that disputes among the democrats can be explained by the Gaidar team’s fear of losing out when “jobs are distributed”.

Vladimir Golovlev, a member of the URF coordinating council and a former member of the Russia’s Democratic Choice political council, said in an interview with the Vek weekly: “Our differences involve the fundamental positions of the future right-wing party.”

Golovlev considers that Boris Nemtsov wants to head the URF party in order to turn it into another pro-government party: “The URF faction in the Duma already behaves similarly in many ways to the Unity faction.” It’s the URF’s accepted style of interaction with the government which Gaidar’s supporters dislike.

Moreover, the former members of Democratic Russia say that certain of the surviving oligarchs are interested in the future URF party as a “political resource”. They have their own lobby group in the presidential administration, and are prepared to finance viable political groups. (According to Novye Izvestia, Alpha Group boss Petr Aven could become the chief sponsor of the URF party.)

Of course, the goals are entirely practical: “Rather than creating a right-wing party, these people are aiming to groom a new president – someone less dangerous to them, and more manageable.” The oligarchs are betting on Nemtsov, using the idea of a popular right-wing party as only one of the cards in their game.

Komsomolskaya Pravda reports that big business is seriously alarmed by the disputes within the URF. According to this paper, if Gaidar is elected as URF leader, the URF party won’t be able to count on getting financial support from the oligarchs – who like Gaidar personally, but fear that a party led by him doesn’t stand a chance of success in elections, since his name will be forever linked to the radical reforms of the early 1990s. “The oligarchs aren’t accustomed to throwing money away.”

Komsomolskaya Pravda also says that many in the Kremlin think likewise: “Nemtsov is more of a compromise figure for them, more acceptable than Gaidar. In their opinion, one chronic oppositionist – Yavlinsky – is quite enough.”

Moskovskie Novosti weekly reports that in one of his speeches, Nemtsov described the unwillingness to compromise displayed by Gaidar’s supporters as “political suicide”. Nemtsov calls on his opponents to understand that “if Russia has no strong right-wing party, Russia simply has no future!” Moskovskie Novosti observer Valerii Vyzhutovich considers this a great exaggeration: “Fortunately, Russia’s future depends very little on any particular parties, and at present it doesn’t depend on a right-wing party at all.” At the same time, it’s clear that the liberals are seeking to be “harnessed into the troika of Russia’s multi-party system, which lacks a horse on the right”. So Nemtsov and company keep on “suppressing the radicals and the compromisers among them by turn”, being still unable to determine their relationship with the regime.

Their perennial justification for this – “We shouldn’t quarrel with the regime, or we’ll be unable to influence anything” – would be impeccably correct, says Vyzhutovich, “if the right actually did have any perceptible influence at all on state affairs”. The president has no objection to the right being convinced of its own significance: “He won’t lose anything, while the URF might even become part of the system.” Vyzhutovich concludes that “whether the leader is Boris Nemtsov or anyone else, the URF has two options for the future.” One of them is to go into opposition – hold protest rallies, become marginalized, and stagnate. The other is to take its cue from Unity-Fatherland, becoming “a second edition of the pro-government party, slightly ennobled by liberal terminology”.

The Novye Izvestia newspaper considers it possible that the conflict between Nemtsov and Gaidar is being stirred up deliberately, so that ordinary URF members will grow tired of the squabbling and turn away from both leaders. Then it will be the hour of victory for the “compromise candidate”; according to Novye Izvestia sources, this will be none other than Anatoly Chubais. Such developments are supported by “deliberate leaks from the Kremlin to the effect that Chubais is considered a more acceptable candidate for URF leader”.

Novye Izvestia stresses that the Kremlin’s opinion should indeed be seen as decisive, “since strictly speaking, the URF party is being created by Kremlin political consultants rather than URF members or even URF leaders”. It was the political consultants who came to the conclusion that it was necessary to simplify Russia’s political structure, eventually forming something like a three-party system: “A communist pseudo-opposition on the left, appealing to the generation which is nostalgic for the USSR; a democratic pseudo-opposition on the right, appealing to the intelligentsia who long for Western ideals; and in the middle the not-too-aggressive but very obedient majority, which will faithfully make all the required decisions.”

However, Novye Izvestia warns that Russia’s policial system “is rather a complex life-form, which could respond unpredictably to any experiments carried out on it”. For example, the frustrated supporters of Gaidar might join Yabloko en masse, rather than the URF. Novye Izvestia says: “In fact, by attempting to ‘regulate’ the democrats, the Kremlin is simply pushing Gaidar into the embrace of Yavlinsky. Even though this obviously isn’t the result the Kremlin wants.”

In an interview with Vremya Novostei, Viktor Pokhmelkin says that there are deep divisions among the right about what the new party ought to be like.

At present, according to Pokhmelkin, the proposed party model is “army-like”: strict discipline, minimal rights for regional branches, and the famous principle of democratic centralism: “the majority of decisions are made according to the majority of votes and must be accepted without argument.” But Pokhmelkin is convinced that the party ought to be more democratic – like Russia’s Democratic Choice, for example, which “never shied away from debate” and always managed to find a compromise acceptable to all.

However, Pokhmelkin says “by no means all party leaders are capable of working this way”. Boris Nemtsov prefers a completely different style: “As soon as there is any attempt at debate, he immediately tries to turn on the voting machine and decide all issues according to a show of hands.” This is why Pokhmelkin is convinced that the URF party should not have only one leader. No matter who heads the political council, joint leadership must be preserved.

Irina Khakamada told Vremya Novostei that no differences can destabilize the URF, since the party’s current popularity rating is “steadily higher than the popularity of any of its leaders alone”.

Khakamada was philosophical about why Nemtsov rather than Gaidar ought to be the URF leader: “Gaidar is a guru, and a real guru shouldn’t have to deal with day-to-day matters. But Nemtsov, who heads the URF faction in the Duma, is immersed in day-to-day matters. He is already handling them.”

According to Khakamada, the right is uniting in order to meet the challenge of the times: “Everyone in the URF understands that the public now demands substantial, trustworthy parties.” The Kremlin, using its administrative resources, launched the process of party mergers – as a result, Fatherland and Unity are merging. The right can only respond to this with a unification process of its own. Khakamada notes that the left wing also went through this when it formed the People’s Patriotic Union of Russia. Now the right must do the same.

While the debate about the upcoming unification continues on the right, the left seems to be gaining popularity.

According to Kommersant-Vlast magazine, “for the first time in Russia’s history, almost 40% of voters say they are prepared to vote for the Communists”. The Communists didn’t even get this kind of result in 1995, when they formed the largest faction in the Duma – back then, they only got 27% of the vote. Most surprisingly of all, says Kommersant-Vlast, this rise in popularity has come about without any effort being made by the Communists.

“It’s just that in Russian politics, the democratic mayhem of the Yeltsin era has imperceptibly made way for a rigid post-Soviet ideological landscape.” One example is the restoration of Aleksandrov’s Soviet-era music for the national anthem, approved by most Russian citizens. There are many other examples: restricting the powers of regional leaders, removing oligarchs from government, a hard line in relations with the West, and embraces with Fidel Castro.

All these signals are easily understood and accepted by the people: the president has shown the oligarchs who’s the boss in Russia, “let them know their place”; the West “has been repulsed”; the Cubans are “our brothers”, etc.

It seems that everything is being make quite clear to voters: “the West is the enemy, Putin is the leader. What about the party? The Communist party, of course. You don’t really mean Unity, do you?”

Thus, according to Kommersant-Vlast, “the Communist Party has finally gained a popular leader”. The magazine notes that polls show the number of voters prepared to support the Communists in parliamentary elections (40%) is now almost equal to the number who are prepared to support Putin in a presidential poll (44%). “Just as it should, the party has progressed to match the leader.”

But Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the popularity of the right is dropping by 1.5% a month. Over the past year, it has almost halved.

Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to complete the party-building process successfully.

According to Vedomosti observer Semyon Novoprudsky, the reason for this low popularity is clear: “Russia has never particularly liked politicians who do not praise the role of state in private life, and who permit themselves to use slightly more complex language than that used by ordinary people.”

The right simply isn’t understood by Russians, “or rather, is understood by very few”. It still has to create conditions under which the number of Russians who support liberal values can increase.

At present, says Novoprudsky, it is vitally important for the right to have their policies implemented by a president who is popular with the people and “not associated with pro-Western liberals”. This is all the more feasible since the average voter doesn’t try to understand the political aspects of decisions made by the government: “So even when a president with a KGB background promotes liberal measures and makes the Cabinet and parliament implement them, most Russians will still view them as measures aiming at strengthening the state.”

In fact, according to polls done by the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), the people have given the present regime carte blanche. NG-Stsenarii, a supplement to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, presents the views of VTsIOM director Yuri Levada: he says that even with President Putin’s “Teflon popularity”, some features of his consistently high approval rating are mysterious, to put it mildly. Levada says: “It is immediately apparent that the actions of virtually all the people and government institutions who surround the president and implement his decisions are viewed negatively by the public.” For example, the performance of the Cabinet is approved by 37% of respondents, and disapproved of by 48%. For the General Prosecutor’s Office, 26% of respondents approve and 51% disapprove. For the presidential envoys, 30% approve and 38% disapprove; and so on. Essentially, “the president alone has the public’s approval”.

What’s more, specific actions of the president himself are viewed negatively: for example, Putin’s efforts to restore order in Russia are seen as successful by 45% of respondents, and unsuccessful by 50%. Only 31% of respondents are satisfied with the state of the economy, while 63% are dissatisfied. When asked to sum up the past year, 45% of respondents said their hopes had proved justified; 49% said the president hadn’t lived up to their expectations, or they hadn’t had any expectations to start with. But Levada notes that people retain a high level of hope for the future – and says this is the key to the stability of Putin’s popularity rating.

Another important factor, says Levada, is “the fundamental lack of clarity in Putin’s action plan, which seems to give various political forces reason to hope that sooner or later the president will act in accordance with their policies”. While at first this may have been seen as a sign of Putin’s political inexperience, it has subsequently become more like “military cunning, designed to win the support of the right and the left, the conservatives as well as the progressives”.

And finally, the most important factor of all – the lack of any obvious opposition to Putin: “In none of the polls does any other politician even begin to approach Putin in terms of approval, confidence, or electability.”

Under these circumstances, says Levada, “no failures by the ruling team, no disillusionment among sectors of the public, and no criticism” can affect the symbolically high level of support for the president. If an election were held right now, Putin would once again get around 40% of the vote (in March 2000 he got 36%). Understandably, all attempts by the URF to find a leader who could challenge Putin in a presidential election look rather unconvincing.

As the Vremya MN newspaper points out, “in Russia one charismatic leader is worth more that the strongest party with the most wonderful policies”.

The draft program of the Union of Right Forces is ready, and it has a striking title: “the Russian Liberal Manifesto”. The document states: “The fundamental values of liberalism include personal liberty and personal responsibility, freedom of speech and freedom of association, the rule of law, democratic control of citizens over the state, private property, economic freedom, equal rights and opportunities for all, and tolerance of difference.” That is, the manifesto expresses the values accepted by those who have managed to adapt completely to new circumstances – or, as the manifesto puts it, who have “overcome the consequences of a servile attitude to the state”.

Unfortunately, a significant proportion of Russians (as the manifesto admits) are still dependent, passive as citizens, meekly accepting any decision made by the state, and always seeking a “strong hand”. Given this kind of voter, it will be hard to find a charismatic leader capable of challenging Vladimir Putin.

However, in an interview with Kommersant-Vlast magazine Anatoly Chubais emphasizes that he considers Boris Nemtsov a worthy and “entirely competent” leader for the Union of Right Forces. Moreover, when asked whether Nemtsov would be capable of coming second to Putin in the presidential election of 2004, Chubais says: “Quite capable. And just think what he might achieve by 2008.”

On the other hand, Chubais is sure that “Putin will be around for a long time… For eight years, I think; or rather, for seven more years.”

(But Chubais thinks that Putin’s amazing 70% approval rating is a “superficial, external” picture: “The lava is still building up underneath.” Chubais says that if there are any major domestic disasters or foreign affairs failures, “all the covertly smouldering processes could break out into the open”. But if no major mistakes are made, those among the elite who are dissatisfied with Putin won’t get much public support: “Because the elite is not supported by the people. But Putin has that 70% approval rating.”)

Still, Chubais doesn’t rule out the possibility that the URF might field its own candidate in the next presidential race. He only notes that such a decision would partly depend on Putin himself: “on the number of decisions similar to the NTV affair, bringing back the Soviet anthem, and so on.”

But in any case, notes Chubais, in the three-party system which is being created in Russia, “the third component will be a right-wing party”; so “it’s high time” for the right to unite.

Evgenia Albats writes in Nezavisimaya Gazeta that “the URF risks going down in history as an example of lost opportunities”. Albats thinks it would be a mistake for the URF to present itself as the party of big business; not only because Russia has few truly large corporations, but also because “Russia’s system of government is such that big business doesn’t need political parties to promote its interests”. The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which Albats describes as “the labor union for oligarchs”, can talk with the Kremlin directly. “They don’t really need the URF: they will give it some money, but no more than they give to other parties, including the Communists.” Political contributions from big business mostly go directly to the government, as well as “to the party (or parties) specified by the Kremlin”.

The real support base for the right could be mid-sized and small business, which needs someone to defend its interests against the state bureaucracy. However, “the URF, linked by an umbilical cord to the regime and the top bureaucrats, doesn’t want to disrupt its relations with the latter”; especially since Sergei Kirienko is now part of the regime. As Albats points out, Kirienko has “rather remarkably exchanged the rhetoric of an erstwhile liberal for rhetoric more and more reminiscent of his experience as the secretary of a regional committee of the Young Communist League”. For obvious reasons, the URF doesn’t want to quarrel with the oligarchs either.

Albats concludes from this that small business will prefer to support some other party instead of the URF: “If one is fated to be between the hammer and the anvil, it’s more rational to take the side of the hammer. So it’s not surprising that in recent months the rating of Unity has risen by six percentage points, and is now over seven times higher than that of the URF.”

Of course, there is also the youth vote, and the URF is trying to gain support here – but young people are primarily drawn to strong leaders and clear policies. “All the bustle within the URF over the past months is clearly not evidence of strength. Compared with the calm Vladimir Putin – seen skiing, then seen in the imperial splendour of his office – the URF undoubtedly loses.”

Thus, says Albats, the priority for the URF right now is “not choosing yet another leader, but positioning itself”. The URF needs to formulate its priorities, decide who its voters are, and determine its relations with the regime. “And it should try to do this as honestly as possible. It is no longer possible to play with the voters.” If this isn’t done, the history of the right wing in Russia will be “a history of lost illusions and wasted opportunities.”