Infighting Fractures Russian Opposition

Nikita Belykh's Union of Right Forces was tossed from the ballot this month in five races it wanted to contest. He says fraud occurred where his party did run.
Nikita Belykh's Union of Right Forces was tossed from the ballot this month in five races it wanted to contest. He says fraud occurred where his party did run. (By Misha Japaridze -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

MOSCOW -- Russia's Republican Party, a small liberal grouping led by parliamentary deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, ceased to exist last Friday after the country's Supreme Court upheld a decision by the Ministry of Justice not to re-register the party.

"The decision was absolutely predictable," said Ryzhkov, 41, a four-term deputy and lonely voice in parliament who has railed against the Kremlin's centralization of power. "Independent politics no longer exists. It's the Kremlin's decision who can participate in electoral politics. And our courts just rubber-stamp these decisions."

But even as the Kremlin works to marginalize its democratic opponents, however weak, they help the process along with infighting, ego clashes and fear of the Kremlin's ability to expunge what little official status they still enjoy.

The parties and movements that make up Russia's democratic opposition are numbingly numerous; among its major strands are old-line parties such as Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, which were significant players in the 1990s; Ryzhkov's now-defunct Republican Party; and Other Russia, a diverse and pugnacious coalition whose main strategist is chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

They expend a lot of energy accusing each other of being Kremlin stooges or second-guessing who might join forces with the Kremlin at any given moment. "The problem is very bad personal and political relations between the parties, old conflicts and a deficit of will to be united," Ryzhkov said in an interview. "We need more courage and to take risks."

Electoral laws pushed through parliament last year by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party have forced more than half of Russia's 35 parties to disband.

The Republican Party, for instance, ceased to exist because it was unable to prove it had more than 50,000 members nationally and branches in 45 regions each with more than 500 members, as required by a re-registration law. The party insists it has 60,000 members and is growing, but the Justice Ministry said it counted only about 40,000. The Supreme Court agreed.

The Kremlin, according to party activists and political analysts, has positioned two parties -- the dominant United Russia and the newly created Fair Russia, ostensibly a rival to the other -- as the principal choices for Russian voters. Both parties, while sniping at each other about economic and social policy, pledge absolute loyalty to President Vladimir Putin.

"It's an imitation democracy with the appearance of competition, but everything is controlled at the center," said Ryzhkov, who has no chance of returning to parliament unless another party takes him in. In December's national election, voters will cast ballots for a party, not individuals. The parties will appoint their legislative deputies.

Under electoral changes enacted last year, the threshold to enter parliament has been raised from 5 to 7 percent of the overall vote, further increasing the pressure on smaller parties. To survive as an electoral force, they must unite under one banner. So far, that has proved impossible.

For the last year, Ryzhkov and Nikita Belykh, leader of the Union of Right Forces, have been discussing some form of unification. "They are very cautious because they are a registered party," Ryzhkov said, "and any registered party depends on the Kremlin, because the Kremlin can stop any party at any time."

In this month's regional elections, the Union of Right Forces was tossed from the ballot in five of 13 races it wanted to contest. Belykh charges that there was electoral fraud where the party did run.

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