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Analysis & Opinion
31.10.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Another Liberal Party For Russia?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Ethan Burger, Eugene Kolesnikov

The new party is likely to be based on the ruins of the Union of Right Forces, at one time headed by Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar and Sergei Kiriyenko, and it will absorb two minor parties that have failed to gain sizeable popular support – the Democratic Party and the Civic Force.

The Union of Right Forces (SPS), which once had a respectable faction in the Russian Duma, failed to clear the electoral thresholds during the last two federal elections, and has faired poorly in regional elections. Short of cash and without a reliable donor base, the party has ceased to exist for all intents and purposes as a single political force, and some of its regional branches drifted either toward United Russia or to the radical opposition. Its national leaders – like Chubais, Gaidar, Kirienko, Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada – have basically quit politics, and its new combative leader – Nikita Belykh became too critical of the Kremlin and was prepared to join forces with the likes of Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Kasyanov.

The other liberal party – Yabloko – has managed to preserve its independence despite the same electoral setbacks (two failed attempts to gain seats in the Duma) and a major shake-up of leadership that allowed the party’s founder, Grigory Yavlinsky, to make a gracious exit from the Russian political scene.

The Kremlin, however, has been very concerned with the political vacuum on the right liberal flank and the lack of a constructive liberal opposition to United Russia. The Duma is largely filled with leftist populist forces, despite some strong business element in United Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).

With the global financial crisis now threatening to undo Russia’s impressive economic gains, it has become vitally important for the Kremlin both to engage some of the best brains in the country in a viable political process and also to neutralize the radical liberals – Kasparov, Kasyanov, Nemtsov, and others.

Thus the Kremlin has again resorted to some social engineering, by making an offer to the pragmatic elements within SPS to form a new liberal party from scratch, with a new set of leaders (my fellow Russia Profile columnist Georgy Bovt being one of the new Party’s leaders).

It is widely believed that the Kremlin will then “open the gates” for the new party, granting its leaders unlimited access to airwaves and encouraging donors to fund the party’s regional branches and electoral campaigns. But that alone will not guarantee that the party will successfully clear the seven percent electoral threshold in the 2011 Duma elections. It will have to win votes the old-fashioned way – by addressing the voters’ concerns.

Will the Kremlin’s social engineering project succeed? Is there room and demand for a totally new liberal democratic party in Russia? What platform should it be running on to be successful and win enough votes to secure seats in the Duma? Is the Kremlin likely to totally control the liberal party and its leaders, the way it exercises such control with United Russia and to a lesser degree with Just Russia, or would it be allowed to roam free, provided that it never challenges the rules of the game and does not ally itself with the radical opposition to the regime? How will the new party be viewed in the West?

Eugene Kolesnikov, Private Consultant, the Netherlands:

It appears that a number of key people in the Russian leadership are still confused by the ideas of liberal democracy and liberal laissez-faire capitalism. They think that these concepts of polity and political economy reflect the desirable and ultimately best-working systems mankind produced. They somehow still believe that some countries, perhaps a cleansed United States or liberal Holland, exemplify such enviable models and thus should be studiously emulated.

What they miss is the fact that however hard one looks, one cannot find a single country that functions on the principles of liberal democracy and laissez-faire capitalism. If, for example, the media show called the “U.S. presidential elections” is seriously considered as an example of a functioning liberal democracy, then I rest my case. Liberal democracy is in the deepest crisis worldwide, since its inception in the ideals of the French Revolution.

Laissez-faire capitalism has been dead for all practical purposes following the events of September-October this year.
A truly right-wing party can only exist on the basis of belief in liberal democracy and laissez-faire capitalism. Both of these concepts are crumbling in the face of the unfolding crisis of the old capitalist system. Both of these concepts cannot be more alien to Russia, which due to its economic status, history and geographical and societal complexity requires centralism and dirigisme in order to survive and prosper.

Why, then, do we need a make-believe right-wing party? What positive element can it bring to the course of Russia's revival? None is my answer. What Russia really needs, in my view, is the rule of law, a just society, bold economic vision and dirigisme, and a party system that encourages debate and facilitates the checks and balances system. It does not need an artificial political entity spreading outdated and irrelevant ideas.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, & Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C.:

Generally, in good economic times elites cannot successfully create opposition political parties. Naturally, what constitutes "good economic times" is highly subjective and dynamic. Of course, it is perception and not the reality that people respond to that may be more important than the current realities.

As a rule, electorates (people) are risk-adverse. Better the devil you know than the one you don't. In order for a new political party to emerge that has the real possibility of obtaining power, not only must the Russian people's perceptions change (which might already be happening), but the government will have to realize that for the state system to survive, it must be willing to "allow" opposition parties to express views inconsistent with governmental policy.

From a legal standpoint, this was made much more difficult by the enactment of laws under President Vladimir Putin, making the heads of Russia's political subdivisions appointed by the president rather than permitting them to be elected by their constituents. Furthermore, the elimination of electoral districts for candidates to the State Duma, the raising of the minimum threshold to gain seats in the Duma, and the requirements to get on the ballot have made it extraordinarily difficult for a new political party to form and play a meaningful role in the country's political process.

Political parties are complex entities. They are often alliances of groups with disparate interests. There are certain interests that a majority of Russians share: the protection of private property, the observance of the rule of law and the accountability of officials for the abuse of their authority -- although this is not fully appreciated at present (or so it seems). Those individuals with significant financial means (or the shrinking Russian middle class) may have a commonality of interests on these issues, particularly as the source of foreign capital decreases and Russia undergoes a liquidity crisis. Most countries do not close down their stock markets as a policy tool.

In all countries, various regions have different interests. This is being demonstrated by the recent Canadian election and the forthcoming U.S. election, as well as the political situation in both the United Kingdom and Belgium. So long as the political system does not provide a geographic basis for power, Moscow will remain at the center of everything -- no political leaders are likely to emerge in their own right.

Political elites without a geographic or economic base cannot be the basis of a successful political party. They may appeal to small segments of the population, but their impact can only be at the margins.

If the political elite is viewed as "effete," it is unlikely to win over a majority of the electorate. Adlai Stevenson could not beat Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 or 1956, George Bush beat John Kerry in 2004 (I won't comment on 2000). In any case, the average American wouldn't think of having a beer with Al Gore or John Kerry (in Russia, I guess the equivalent would be to do shots of vodka). Almost half the U.S. population likes the idea that someone like Sarah Palin can be on a national ticket -- a frightening thought.

Political labels play an important role in the formation of political parties. The "Union of Right Forces" sounds fascistic to me. Vladimir Zhirinovsky has distorted both the words “liberal” and “democratic” in Russia for the foreseeable future. Yet both "progressive" and "socialist" seem to be still available the last time I checked (or some form thereof -- like sticking the "patriotic" in front of the second word).

The world’s “financial crisis” is likely to have an impact on the political consciousness of the Russian population. Its members will be forced to focus on economic issues rather than abstractions like nationalism or the need to act like a great power. The importance of economics during times of crisis cannot be ignored. Had the cards not been stacked against him, Gennady Zyuganov would have returned the Communist Party to power in 1996 -- a decade of great economic and social turmoil.

Of course, demographics, times, and the Russian economy have all changed since then. Indeed time has passed for people like Chubais, Gaidar, Kiriyenko, Nemtsov and Khakamada. Even if Belykh, Kasparov and Kasyanov were to join forces, they are unlikely to excite the Russian mass. Research institutes and universities seldom produce viable and charismatic political leaders.

Ironically, President Dmitry Medvedev could sever his ties to those who held power in the past and lead a new political movement. This, however, is unlikely to occur.

Yet, there are thousands of potential Lech Walesa in Russia. Solidarity did not appear overnight, but . . . .
For a political party to be a credible alternative it almost certainly cannot be created by the existing leadership, unless there is a real power struggle and the oligarchs take different sides. This indeed may happen as governmental policies protect the interest of some of Russia's billionaires, but not all.

The Russian government may have enough funds to bail out Mikhail Fridman (Alfa Group) and Oleg Deripaska (Rusal), but what will it do about Vladimir Potanin (Norilsk Nickel)? Its assets are not unlimited and seemingly decreasing with each passing day; all the oligarchs cannot be protected from the international liquidity crisis and their own business decisions.

By what criteria will these choices be made? How will the Russian population as a whole benefit from the government's actions? Those oligarchs who are not bailed out now may be motivated to find new sources of political support in the future. Will a new political party ultimately emerge as a result?
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