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Analysis & Opinion
30.09.08 Another Attempt At Resuscitating Democracy
By Roland Oliphant

This is not Gorbachev's first foray into opposition politics. The new party will be a successor to the now defunct Social Democratic Party of Russia (SDPR), founded by Gorbachev in 2001. It lost its official status in 2007 after changes to the law raised the requirements for minimum membership of political parties. The vast majority of its supporters regrouped in an umbrella movement called the Union of Social Democrats. Now that movement will form the backbone of the new party.

Nor is the choice of Lebedev as a partner as surprising as it first appears. He and Gorbachev own 49 percent of the opposition paper Novaya Gazeta, perhaps the single most critical publication of the government.

The establishment of the party raises two important, if perennial, questions about Russian democracy: is the Kremlin willing to tolerate opposition, and if so, are Russians willing to vote for social democrats? And of even more immediate concern to the organizers, will the new party be able to meet the requirements that its predecessor, the SDPR, could not?

The 2006 amendments to the Federal Law on Political Parties set the minimum membership for a political party at 50,000, and require that they have more than 45 regional branches of at least 500 members each. The SDPR was among those who failed to meet the requirements. The new project will have to attract more members than its predecessor.

Yevgeny Kanalov, the leader of the youth wing of the Union of Social Democrats, said that one way the new party is seeking to boost its membership is through alliances, including with Vladimir Rizhkov's Republican Party, which also lost its official status under the new rules. Interestingly, Kanalov said one potential partner was Yabloko, a well known liberal left party that did not lose its status under the new requirements. "We are trying to build a really big coalition of democratic power," he said.

But Kanalov, a veteran of the SDPR, hints that it may not really make much difference whether they clear the membership threshold or not. "In real life in the SDPR we had much more than 50 thousand members, we had maybe 60 or 65," he said. He suspects the decision to close the party was taken in the Kremlin.

This raises the perennial question of just how free Russia's democracy is, and how likely the Kremlin is to tolerate a new opposition party. Kanalov conceded that the new party could be just as easily closed as the previous one, "and it wouldn't matter how many thousands of members we had."

But the new party will have a trump card: Gorbachev. As a former president of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev garners a certain respect, and he is said to enjoy good relations with the Kremlin. When he convened a conference of the Union of Social Democrats in November 2007, it took place in Dom Soyuz, a highly prestigious venue not far from Red Square. Rumors went around that the bill for the venue was footed by Vladislav Surkov, the deputy chief of the presidential administration.

But Gorbachev's association with the SDPR did not save that party. Kanalov suggested this was because the former president distanced himself from the party while it was under the leadership of Vladimir Kishenin, a former KGB officer. This time, Gorbachev is very interested and will act as "an umbrella" for the democratic alliance.

Building a coalition of opposition parties has been attempted before, of course, most notably under Other Russia, led by Gary Kasparov and Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister for Vladimir Putin. That attempt garnered little support, and the new social democratic party apparently does not want to be associated with them, and only wishes to confine its alliances to liberals (the Other Russia included nationalists, liberals, and the far left).

But even if Gorbachev and Lebedev do carry enough weight and trust in the Kremlin to keep away unwanted interference, it is not at all clear if the Russian public is ready to vote for a European model of social democracy.

It is a much remarked upon paradox of Russian politics that although opinion polls consistently show high support for social democratic ideals, no such party has ever had much success at the polls. It is unclear why. Russians have a well established attachment to social justice, and the huge growth of wealth in recent years has brought with it the kind of inequalities that should promote such sympathies.

The social democrats themselves seem caught between a sense that things have finally changed, and a tempered realism. One hope is that as Russia approaches European levels of wealth, its electorate will adopt more European concerns. "At the moment people want stability and they see United Russia as the party to provide that stability," said Anna Tsurkan, a representative of the Union of Social Democrats in Moscow. "But soon I hope they will start raising questions of social justice: about education and healthcare in particular."

Kanalov is quite frank about the challenges. "Social democracy as an ideology is not very popular in Russia," he admitted frankly. "And if we are led by Gorbachev we probably could not get into parliament." For this reason it is likely that the actual leader will be Lebedev or Rizhkov.

The Independent Democratic Party of Russia, if that is indeed what it will be called, is assuming a dual responsibility: to resurrect serious and effective democratic opposition and then to make the case for social democracy to an unsympathetic electorate. At the least, they should be admired for their boldness.
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