An interview with Nikita Belykh, leader of the Union of Right Forces

Nikita Belykh: “I believe it was a mistake for the SPS to adopt ‘Putin for President’ as its slogan in the Duma campaign of 1999. But the party based its decision on the assumption that democratic processes in Russia were developing so rapidly that a rollback was simply impossible.”

Our guest today is Nikita Belykh, leader of the Union of Right Forces (SPS).

Question: Doesn’t it seem to you that it’s time the Union of Right Forces was renamed the Union of Leftist Forces? After all, you’ve started arming yourselves with left-wing slogans and ideas.

Nikita Belykh: The SPS has never, does not, and will never use anything leftist. I believe that the SPS made a mistake in the 2003 campaign, and earlier, by not paying enough attention to social issues. That’s because there’s really no such thing as left-wing or right-wing issues. There are left-wing and right-wing solutions. For example: both Just Russia and our party are pointing out that Russia’s pension system is ineffective. But Just Russia’s proposed solution is to eliminate the savings-based pension system. But the solution we’re proposing is to develop that system, only more effectively.

We’re saying that one of our objectives is to build a normal capitalist society in Russia. We are also explaining that social problems can be addressed in this format too.

Question: And how is our democracy doing?

Nikita Belykh: Our democracy is in a disgraceful state. Many people in our country still assume that “freedom” means “not being in prison,” and “private property” means the factories and yachts owned by tycoons like Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska, rather than your own apartment and car. We find ourselves having to explain to people that democracy is indeed beneficial for individual citizens. Since the South Butovo incident, many have started to understand that even their own modest assets might be threatened with expropriation at any moment.

The "Putin for President" slogan was a mistake

Question: The SPS calls itself an opposition party – but is it really? Some say that you’re among the projects of Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration.

Nikita Belykh: You’d better ask Surkov about that. He does not attend our congresses and conferences – he does not make any fiery speeches there. We are a real opposition party, since we state openly that we disagree with the actions of the authorities.

Question: Criticizing the authorities in the abstract is more comfortable, of course. But you must understand that “the authorities” are Putin, primarily – and that all the most significant moves are made at his direction.

Nikita Belykh: Are you trying to get me to say whether we’re for or against Putin?

Question: Yes.

Nikita Belykh: We are against Putin. But our campaign issues probably won’t be fixated on Putin in particular – simply because someone else will be president as of March 2008. Even if he’s a Putin clone, he will be a different person anyway. So basing a campaign on the idea of being against Putin would automatically mean putting ourselves in a position where people will start asking us: “What will you say after March?” That’s why we are now speaking out against the policies of the authorities as a whole. And we identify United Russia as our opponent.

Question: But what has happened during this time to turn you so resolutely against Putin?

Nikita Belykh: Let me remind you of the SPS party’s attitude to Putin over the past few years. I believe it was a mistake for the SPS to adopt “Putin for President” as its slogan in the Duma campaign of 1999. But the party based its decision on the assumption that democratic processes in Russia were developing so rapidly that a rollback was simply impossible.

What’s more, liberal economic reforms were and are essential for Russia. Back then, Putin seemed to be the person most capable of implementing such reforms. Think back to 2000 and 2001, when everything was going smoothly: liberal economic transformations, a flat-rate income tax, other things. But starting from 2003, along with the rollback of democratic achievements, we started seeing some serious negative changes in economic policy. I think our party simply failed to grasp all this in time for the election campaign of 2003.

And what we’re seeing now has nothing in common with a liberal economy. Covert nationalization of enterprises, the ongoing growth of monopolies… When we speak of Russia being a police-bureaucratic state, we’re not trying to denigrate anyone in particular. The description is based on observation: the structure of our GDP shows that we’re the only country where spending on state administration and defense is incomparably greater than spending on health-care, education, social policy, and science. The number of issues on which we agree with the authorities is shrinking all the time.

We won’t participate in such a project

Question: There’s one issue on which you certainly agree: the SPS is making a point of dissociating itself from Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Kasyanov, and other opposition leaders who are inconvenient for the Kremlin.

Nikita Belykh: We haven’t broken off relations with either Kasparov or Kasyanov personally. The problem lies elsewhere. The Other Russia coalition was initially intended to be a space where each political force could express its point of view – and back then, we said we would be prepared to participate in that framework.

But later we saw the Other Russia turning into a socio-political force with regional branches and its own policy platform. And we said that we won’t participate in such a project.

Question: The presidential administration greatly dislikes a certain right-wing liberal-democratic politician named Vladimir Ryzhkov. Are you prepared to include him in the top three on your candidate list?

Nikita Belykh: We’re holding talks on that score.

Question: But you’re in favor of having Ryzhkov in the top three?

Nikita Belykh: Personally, yes.

Question: Boris Nemtsov said in a recent interview that the composition of the SPS top three will be a clear indication of which wing in the party has the upper hand: the independent wing or the conformist wing. What do you think he meant by that?

Nikita Belykh: You should put that question to Boris Nemtsov. I think his interview was wrong and damaging. That’s because we don’t have any currents – conformist or non-conformist – within the SPS. We do have different points of view, but that’s entirely natural for a democratic party.

Question: But some say that your attitude to Nemtsov is driven by political jealousy, and that’s why you don’t want to see him in the top three.

Nikita Belykh: My attitude to Boris Nemtsov is friendly, and I am obliged to him for the help he gave me when I became chairman of the SPS federal political council in May 2005. And I think it’s possible for Nemtsov to be in our top three – but this would have both advantages and disadvantages. Nemtsov is a well-known and authoritative figure. That’s an advantage. The disadvantage is that including him in the top three would contradict the policy we have been pursuing over the past two years: that is, new faces for the party. Clearly, having Nemtsov in the top three would make it harder for us to demonstrate renewal, since he is associated with the SPS as it used to be. And pro-democracy voters are also ambivalent about Nemtsov: some support him fervently, while others consider that he lacks substance as a politician. Personally, however, I think Nemtsov’s advantages outweigh his disadvantages.

Question: So what would you think of a Belykh-Nemtsov-Ryzhkov top three?

Nikita Belykh: I think that’s an excellent troika! But there are other good options as well. We have about ten candidates for a place in the top three. They include Yevgeny Yasin, Alexei Kara-Murza, Alexander Byalko, and Andrei Illarionov.

Question: Kasyanov is also a model liberal-democrat. Don’t you want him for your top three?

Nikita Belykh: I don’t think Kasyanov himself wants to be in our top three. They say he’s establishing a party of his own.

Question: The leadership question will be raised at the SPS congress this autumn. Might your party “change horses in mid-stream” just before the elections?

Nikita Belykh: The party leader is elected from the members of the political council, whose term expires this autumn. So we simply have to consider the leadership question at our congress. Failing to do so would be risky. For example, some party or state agency might ask in October: “Who is Belykh? His term as party leader expired in September.”

Any changes in the party leadership at this point could lead to serious tactical disruptions in the federal campaign. So I will re-apply for the chairman’s post. I think most delegates at the congress will support me.

Question: If the SPS fails to make it into the Duma, would you find the strength to resign as leader?

Nikita Belykh: Yes. We can’t have any double standars there. If I see my objective as getting the party into the Duma, but fail to achieve that objective, then any explanations can wait until after my resignation.

Question: But if the SPS says it’s against Putin, business leaders will simply be afraid to sponsor you.

Nikita Belykh: They’re already afraid.

Question: Doesn’t it seem to you that despite all your efforts, the SPS still has only a slim chance of making it into the Duma?

Nikita Belykh: Everything will become clear once the voting is over. I also heard some pessimistic forecasts in the lead-up to the March-April round of regional elections. But later on, when we performed well, our opponents had to come up with some kind of excuse for the success of the SPS. That’s when they started explaining that the SPS was using left-wing slogans, buying votes, or doing deals with the Kremlin. So I’m sure there will be plenty of people eager to comment on how and why we make it into the Duma.

Question: If the Kremlin doesn’t want to see a certain party in the Duma, do you think the party can get into the Duma?

Nikita Belykh: Some problems may arise during the campaign: potential falsificiations or violations. So my objective isn’t merely to cross the 7% threshold. I know for a fact that if we get exactly 7% of the vote, they’ll adjust it to 6.5%.

Think of the latest election in the Leningrad region. The result they recorded for us was 6.997%. Earlier, it had been 7.1%. But then they did a recount, without any of our observers being present, and said: “You know, 28 ballot papers have been declared invalid, and 26 of them are yours. So now you’re 13 votes short of the 7% threshold.”

Question: So what kind of percentage are you aiming for in the Duma election?

Nikita Belykh: We’re aiming for 10-11%. If we can manage that, not even manipulated recounts and falsifications can stop us from crossing the threshold and making it into the Duma.

Question: You have said repeatedly that designating a “successor” is immoral, and that the SPS should support a common candidate representing the pro-democracy opposition in the presidential election. But it’s already clear that there won’t be any such candidate.

Nikita Belykh: The common candidate topic isn’t closed yet – although you’re right, of course: it’s becoming less and less likely. The ambitions of the potential candidates are the problem. All the same, we hope that agreement will be reached on procedures for selecting a common candidate.

Question: Let’s assume that there is no common candidate. The pro-democracy forces will be represented by Kasyanov, Grigory Yavlinsky, and perhaps someone else nominated by the Other Russia. Whom would the SPS support? Yavlinsky, as you have suggested?

Nikita Belykh: What I said is that we’re prepared to support a common candidate, if that person is selected in a democratic way. If that person is Yavlinsky, we would be glad to endorse him.

If there is no common candidate, and the pro-democracy forces are represented by several people, the SPS would have two options. First: endorsing only one of the candidates – but personally, I think that would be wrong – it would split the pro-democracy ranks even further. Second: declaring that our members and voters are free to vote as they see fit.

Question: But don’t you think it will be even harder to reach agreement on a common candidate after the Duma election? You’ll be competing against Yavlinsky in that election, after all, fighting for a limited number of pro-democracy votes. If your parties strive to damage each other, as they did in 2003, there could be no question of support afterwards.

Nikita Belykh: This much is certain: we won’t be warring with Yabloko, as in the last campaign. I think very highly of Yavlinsky. I respect him deeply. So I have never sanctioned action against Yabloko, and never will.

Question: Do you absolutely rule out the possibility of the SPS supporting the “successor” in the presidential election?

Nikita Belykh: I absolutely rule out the possibility that I myself would support the “successor.”

Question: What about the party?

Nikita Belykh: Since neither the council nor the congress have made any decisions about this as yet, I can only speak for myself.

Besides, the presidential election might include Sergei Ivanov, Dmitri Medvedev, and some other successor. What would that be – Operation Successors, or Operation Semi-Successors? But such a framework would make it very convenient for the Kremlin to declare that it’s all democratic – look, whichever candidate wins the election will become president. But we don’t approve of such a procedure.