Opposition Party to Ally With Kremlin

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 3, 2008

MOSCOW, Oct. 2 -- The leaders of one of Russia's major democratic parties voted Thursday to disband and establish a new party under the Kremlin's control, concluding that was the only way to promote their agenda in the nation's increasingly authoritarian political system.

The decision by the Union of Right Forces, whose members once held top posts under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, represented a bitter admission of defeat if not outright surrender by a party that has battled for years against former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin's tightening grip on power.

The move is expected to further complicate efforts by Russia's fractured and beleaguered democratic opposition to organize a serious challenge to Putin.

Leonid Gozman, the party's acting chairman, said he and most of his colleagues decided to work with the Kremlin after a wrenching discussion about the morality of doing so.

"Some people say you have no moral right to make deals with these people in the Kremlin after what they have done," he said. "But if you want to make change in your country, you can't ignore the reality, and the reality is the Kremlin of Putin. I don't like the reality, but that doesn't change it."

The Union of Right Forces, often referred to as the SPS, its Russian initials, won 8.6 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections held after it was established in 1999 in a merger of several smaller liberal parties. But last year, after a campaign in which the Kremlin used its control of the media to vilify the democratic opposition, it garnered less than 1 percent of votes.

Gozman said those who favor liberal reforms in Russia must acknowledge that they are in a shrinking minority, while Putin and his handpicked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, enjoy genuine popular support.

"They are the legitimate leadership of the country," he said, arguing that if the Kremlin allowed fair elections, Putin would still win. "I can dislike him. I can hate him. But if I'm a citizen, I can still respect the reality."

Gozman said the decision to dissolve the party and form a new one with allies of the Kremlin followed months of secret negotiations with senior government officials who expressed a desire to see liberal political and economic views represented in the Russian political system.

One of the party's founders, Anatoly Chubais, the Russian politician best known for engineering the privatization of state industry under Yeltsin, participated in the talks with the Kremlin and endorsed the plan, Gozman said. But another party founder, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, has condemned it.

The party's chairman, Nikita Belykh, resigned rather than go along with the plan. "The Kremlin wants to create a puppet it can control so it can imitate a multiparty system," he said. "I don't want to be part of that show."

Still, he said he understood his colleagues' decision and did not condemn it. "They want to be present in a legal political space, because they didn't get involved in politics to storm barricades," he said.

Belykh said one factor in the party's decision was its need to pay off as much as $6 million in debts run up to pay for television ads during last year's parliamentary campaign.

Mark Urnov, director of Expertiza, a political research institute in Moscow, said the Kremlin wants to build up a friendly liberal-leaning party to present an illusion of a democratic system and to win greater support and divide the opposition.

The new party will have little power, he said, but its members may have greater access to the media to promote their views with the public.

Gozman argued that the government is not a monolithic bloc and that some members of the leadership say they are interested in promoting real reforms. "We will try to work with them and see if they are serious," he said, adding that the Kremlin has agreed not to muzzle members of the new party.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Center for the Study of Elites, said that if the new party gains significant public support, the Kremlin might succeed where the opposition itself has failed.

"The opposition is so divided now, it could take 20 years for them to unite," she said. "But if it wants to, the Kremlin could do it in two years. . . . It could be creating something it can't completely control."

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