Losing Faith?

Democratic parties play an unfortunate role in Russian politics: although the world they dreamed of is now a reality, their influence has been completely eroded in the new capitalist Russia.


Yabloko

From 1967 to 1968, Grigory Yavlinsky, the future leader of Yabloko, one of the oldest Russian democratic parties, was Ukraine's junior-league boxing champion. Every boxer must be able to stand up and keep on fighting after being knocked out, and Yavlinsky has been suffering one defeat after another in the last few years.

Virtually all influential Russian democrats have at some point in their careers been members of Yabloko. Most of them eventually sided with rival parties or accepted important positions in the government. Perhaps because of this, there is an impression among many local politicians that those who remain are the hardcore ones, the most stubborn, uncompromising "smart-alecks." Yabloko has always maintained close contacts with the human-rights movement that was established in the Soviet era, and many former dissidents became its members or closely co-operated with the party. This gave Yabloko some advantages, as it quickly established foreign contacts and advocated Western-style development policies during perestroika and the early 1990s.

However, the human-rights movement in Russia has always resembled something of a sect, and only courted disgruntled voters. Yavlinsky himself had an unpleasant experience of dealing with the authorities. In the mid-1980s, Yavlinsky worked for the USSR State Labour Committee and submitted reports on improving the national economic machinery. After that, he was invited for interrogation and taken to a TB clinic for "compulsory treatment" - only to make a supposedly miraculous recovery after Mikhail Gorbachev gained power.

Yabloko has always had a highly professional economic team. Yavlinsky, who has a degree in economics, worked for the Soviet Government from 1989 until 1991 and authored the well-known "500 Days" economic program.

In December 1993, the Yavlinsky-Boldyrev-Lukin (Yabloko) bloc made it to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. Ten years later, in 2003, Yabloko lost the parliamentary elections by a small margin. The margin was so small, in fact, that President Vladimir Putin phoned Yavlinsky and congratulated him on his party's victory. But the morning brought disappointment, and since then the situation has only gotten worse.

Until the early 2000s, cash-strapped public sector workers - specifically teachers, doctors and scientists - were Yabloko's main electorate. But with the influx of petro-dollars these people became more affluent, and their loyalties shifted - mostly to the pro-Kremlin United Russia.

Although Yabloko took note of the change of political climate, and transformed itself into a classic social-democratic party, it no longer enjoys the same popularity it once did. Vladimir Putin's intention to run for the State Duma on the United Russia ticket has reduced Yabloko's ratings to a pitiful 1% of the national electorate.

Certainly, Yavlinsky is likely to receive more votes during the 2008 presidential elections, but even with this support Yabloko may not survive until the next election cycle.

The Union of Right Forces

In 2005, democratic politicians sank into despair after Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) tried and failed to establish a united party for the upcoming State Duma elections. Their efforts were frustrated by the personal antipathy between Grigory Yavlinsky and Anatoly Chubais, and unbridgeable ideological differences between social democrats and liberals. SPS, moreover, is much better integrated into modern Russia than Yabloko.

SPS was established in the run-up to the December 1999 State Duma elections. It made a spectacular and promising debut but four years later it suffered a complete defeat. Genuinely shocked, the rightists spent a lot of time and energy trying to assess the cause of their setback. But the explanation was quite simple: The people of Russia did not like Wild West-style capitalism, and blamed SPS for their troubles.

Hence the ill-starred attempt to forge an alliance with Yabloko.

Acknowledging the need for change, and unable to come to terms with their social-democratic rivals, SPS launched a major rebranding process. The party's founders - Anatoly Chubais, who authored the privatization program, and who now heads the revamped energy giant Unified Energy Systems (UES), and Yegor Gaidar, the architect of market reforms and director of the Institute of the Economy in Transition - both stepped down, and Nikita Belykh, a representative of Russia's fledgling capitalism, was elected leader.

Belykh, 30, is a native of Perm, a city in the sprawling Urals industrial region where tough rules of the game apply. Anyone who could make his first million in such adverse conditions, so the reasoning went, would not have much difficulty gaining a foothold in Moscow.

At first, the change of leadership seemed to pay off. Belykh helped the party to win regional parliamentary elections. SPS now has 70 deputies in 33 regional legislatures and is wooing voters beyond its traditional electorate. The party's 2003 manifesto said nothing about old-age pensioners. Today pensions and issues concerning pensioners are the focus of the rightist's agenda. However, SPS has yet to translate their regional success into higher federal ratings. At least at the federal level, it seems that the voters are unwilling to forgive the democrats for the hardships of the 1990s. -

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko political party
Nikita Belykh, leader of the Russian Union of Right Forces

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