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Fear of Putin Gives Rise to Unlikely Allies

Dominance of President's Surrogate Party Forces Others to Cooperate for Survival

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page A15

IVANOVO, Russia -- Under the bust of a pensive Vladimir Lenin, an unlikely group of politicians gathered here at the regional headquarters of the Communist Party last month. Representatives of the Communists, the Western-oriented Yabloko party and the Union of Right Forces agreed to mount joint rallies, work together in the local election commission and regional parliament, and consider strategic alliances in local elections next year.

The unspoken item on the agenda -- but the one really driving this group -- was the political survival of everyone in the room.


President Vladimir Putin of Russia (File Photo)

Faced with the near total dominance of United Russia, the surrogate party of the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin, and proposed political changes that could institutionalize its control, the men in the room said they easily coalesced around the idea of a common enemy, even though they have long seen the enemy in each other.

"Our ideas are very different, sometimes absolutely opposite, but we're united by the fact that all of us are facing one dominant party," said Sergei Kolesov, head of the Union of Right Forces in Ivanovo, a city about 180 miles northeast of Moscow. "A party that seems intent on seizing all political power -- that quickly creates some common language."

"We're facing extinction," said Mikhail Bogatyrev, first secretary of the Communist Party Committee in the region. "We have differences, we don't deny that, but we are all facing the tyranny of United Russia."

Alliances formed solely to combat the power of the Kremlin have been springing up across Russia. "This is tactical cooperation more than strategic cooperation, but the fact that it's happening is because they feel this huge pressure, and there's a real need to unite," said Nicolay Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Putin has proposed abolishing the direct election of governors and replacing the direct election of half the members of parliament with a system in which people would vote for parties. The parties would then decide internally who is to sit in the legislature.

Other proposed measures would ban coalitions between smaller parties by preventing them from merging their party lists and raise the minimum national vote necessary for a party to enter parliament from 5 percent to 7 percent.

Yet another measure would tighten the requirements for registering as a political party. For instance, parties would need 50,000 members in each of more than half of Russia's 89 provinces.

According to Putin, the goal is to create a strong but manageable multiparty system. "If no environment is created for the growth of the parties' authority, we will never have a real multiparty system," the president said in a television interview last month. He added that it was necessary to create "parties that are capable of taking a real part in the political life of the country and providing for unified national interests."

The Communist Party is evolving toward moderation as it takes on younger members with social democratic rather than Leninist tendencies. That is making it an increasingly attractive partner for some liberals and is further accelerating new alliances.

"The young wing is eager to cooperate and unite forces while the older generation, at the moment, is staying silent," Petrov said. "The Communist Party is increasingly a parliamentary party and a party of opposition with slogans that are attractive to young people."

In the cities of Voronezh, Yaroslavl, Altay and Vladimir, among others, initiatives similar to Ivanovo's have begun. And in the region of Karelia, north of St. Petersburg, the Communists and Yabloko signed a charter committing themselves to joint action. They declared that "no one can break our common will to defend true democratic freedoms and social justice." Neither party sought the permission of national leaders before moving ahead with their union, local officials said.

"Time will show whether this will be enough," said Pavel Khyamyalyanen, head of the Communist Party in Karelia. "At least it slows down the process of United Russia concentrating power in its hands."

Opposition groups are also cooperating at the national level. The Communists, Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces and other small parties took a case to the Supreme Court last month challenging parliamentary elections last December in which United Russia won more than 300 seats in the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

"This case has no judicial future, but this trial is significant because it brings together all these different political forces," said Sergei Mitrokin, deputy leader of Yabloko. Mitrokin is running for election in east Moscow on Sunday for a vacated seat in the Duma. He noted that as part of the new cooperation, the Communists and other opposition parties will field a single election observer team to monitor the vote and count.

Also, on Dec. 12, at least five political parties and numerous nongovernment organizations will hold a civic congress in Moscow under the banner "Russia for Democracy, Against Dictatorship." The organizers say they hope to galvanize protests against Putin's political plans and begin organizing for a national referendum on his proposed changes. They say they have no hope of stopping them in parliament.

"The most important thing is to create structures capable of mobilizing the different resources of all these groups," Mitrokin said. "Our priority is mass action."

In Karelia last month, national leaders got a taste of what might be possible. A Communist-liberal rally drew about 1,000 people to the regional Duma, which was voting on a United Russia bill to replace certain social benefits, such as free housing, with cash payments. The Duma is dominated by United Russia, but the bill was defeated 24 to 22 because of defections from the party.

"What we have to learn is that if we unite and mobilize people we can have an effect," said Vasily Popov, deputy leader of Yabloko in Karelia. "This is the first case in this parliament when a draft law proposed and pushed by the government was not adopted."


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