Autopsy of an Opposition Party
RobertAmsterdam.com has published my column on liquidation of SPS, the democratic party, which I used to be a member of. This party has always been very contradictive since it incorporated two different wings: liberal, which criticized Putin for establishing dictatorship, and conservative, which supported Putin for his economical policy or, later, simply because it appeared more pragmatical. Most recently, this party was literally sold to the Kremlin and liquidated at a staged convention last Saturday. Here is my insight into its history.
A Medical Report for SPS
November 19, 2008
On 15 November, Union of Right Forces (SPS), one of the two remaining democratic parties in Russia, was liquidated by its own members at an extraordinary convention in Moscow suburbs. This was, as openly admitted, a deal between the party’s leadership and the Kremlin. Some of the former SPS members will now join a new puppet party Right Deed (Pravoe Delo) while dissenters will participate in creation of Solidarity opposition movement.
SPS was a very contradictive organization from the day one. It appeared not long before the 1999 parliamentary elections as a coalition of liberal (in European sense) and conservative movements and parties. The liberals included the oldest democratic party in Russia, Democratic Choice of Russia (DVR), led by ex-PM Yegor Gaidar, and Boris Nemtsov’s Young Russia (Rossiya Molodaya) movement. Ironically, the name of Nemtsov’s organization was later taken by a Kremlin-sponsored group of provocateurs. The conservatives were represented by another ex-PM Sergey Kirienko (now a member of Government) with his New Force (Novaya Sila) movement and by the father of Russian privatization Anatoly Chubais among others.
The strange structure of the party caused ambivalence in its position and activities. The liberals criticized Putin for establishing authoritarian regime and wanted to join the opposition while the conservatives supported Putin’s economical policy and tried to cooperate with the Kremlin. The parliamentary campaign in 1999 was mainly influenced by the conservative wing with its slogan “Putin for president, Kirienko for the Duma!” Soon after this program was fully implemented, Sergey Kirienko left the Parliament and became Vladimir Putin’s representative in Volga Federal District. Some of his former colleagues like Boris Nemtsov were at the same time trying to oppose Putin’s crackdown on NTV, the most popular independent TV channel. But even this one of the earliest anti-democratic moves of the new president was done by the hands of Alfred Kokh, Chubais’ colleague and close friend! As Boris Nemtsov participated in protest rallies against the takeover of NTV, his fellow party members celebrated the success of this “special operation” (I have witnessed it myself).
The party’s schizophrenia was arguably the main reason for its loss of popular support. Putin’s followers who voted for SPS in 1999 switched their support to United Russia while the opposition voters didn’t believe SPS and simply stayed at home. As a result, SPS lost the 2003 elections and stayed out of the parliament. Many people hoped that this defeat would force the party to choose its side. However, it never happened. Since Kirienko left SPS, all of its public leaders were liberals, they maintained the critical to the Kremlin stance of the party and attracted new activists from the opposition. But the party’s funding was mostly provided (especially after the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the loss of elections) by Anatoly Chubais, many regional branches only existed de jure and consisted of UES (the state energy company headed by Chubais) employees. In addition, most of the party’s officers were paid by and therefore loyal to Chubais and his conservative wing but had to follow orders from party’s political leadership, mostly liberal. This made both wings of the party dependent on each other and predetermined its end.
Still, there were a few attempts to cure the party’s split personality. One of SPS’ leaders and ex-senator Ivan Starikov headed a riot against Anatoly Chubais and his conservative wing by going for the party chairmanship in 2005. He claimed that SPS must become a part of the opposition and shouldn’t compromise ideals of democracy for Kremlin’s favor. The conservative wing had no political figures to stand against Starikov and many expected that he would win. However, just before the national convention a compromise figure, Nikita Belykh, was introduced by Boris Nemtsov. Chubais’ closest deputy, Leonid Gozman, was to become the vice chairman of the party to counterweigh liberal Belykh. So, schizophrenia in SPS was saved (and even institutionalized by introducing the new vice chairman position) by both of its parts. They truly felt that they couldn’t do without each other!
Nikita Belykh tried to balance both wings of the party for several years but it was impossible. The more SPS hesitated to join the opposition, the more supporters it lost. Starikov and some of his followers were the first to leave the party in 2005. Eventually, Starikov joined Mikhail Kasyanov’s People’s Democratic Union and is now one of its leaders. I myself left SPS in April 2007 when Belykh supported an attempt of party’s apparatchiks to destroy the Moscow branch, which has always been liberal and opposition. The party’s support and influence was disappearing day by day.
The last attempt to bring SPS in opposition was made in late 2007 before the parliamentary elections. When Putin became #1 in United Russia’s list of candidates, it made impossible even for SPS conservatives to support him. The second reason was that Chubais ceased to sponsor the party and its dependence on him diminished. Nikita Belykh and other party leaders criticized the president in the media, campaign printed materials were openly anti-Kremlin, it even officially participated in a Dissenters’ March–something that had been severely punished just a year earlier. But the split hasn’t gone anywhere: some regional leaders refused to oppose the administration, some even changed sides, others simply didn’t know how to work under government’s pressure. After losing the elections SPS largely returned to its older state with two wings struggling against each other. It appeared, however, that the liberals were to win.
There was one other actor that didn’t like an idea of having a schizophrenic party in the country–the Kremlin. What they wanted to see is a controlled, predictable and loyal quasi democratic party, which might be used to convince the West that we’ve got pluralism. At first, they attempted to use spoiler parties like Democratic Party of Russia (DPR) but they couldn’t fool many people: SPS was still there. And the worst of all, SPS had an official registration that allowed the party to go for the elections. Since more and more people in SPS realized that there was no other option rather than to join the opposition, the Kremlin’s well-entrenched electoral system became endangered: it was based on not allowing any uncontrolled elements even to appear in the ballots. What would happen if Russian citizens had an opportunity vote for Kasparov or Kasyanov or even both? Nobody knows. And Kremlin surely doesn’t want to know. So it decided to liquidate SPS.
Of course, this special operation could be done by simply “re-checking” the party and taking away its registration, as it was done to the Vladimir Ryzhkov’s Republican Party of Russia before. But this would cause some political troubles for Putin, both domestic and international: SPS was a well-known and rather large organization. Therefore it was decided to destroy the party with its own hands. What still strikes me is how easily it was done! Gozman agreed to shut SPS down in exchange for a “pardon” from the Kremlin. Belykh left the party but didn’t try to prevent its liquidation. Only a small number of devoted liberals kept struggling against Gozman till the last day. Some of them even organized a picket near the place of the party’s convention and said, “If you have conscience, don’t vote for [the liquidation]“. According to the results of the voting, only 11 delegates had conscience out of 108.
At the end of the day, the liquidation of SPS may be a good thing. It’s true that this party had many true democrats and liberals but these people haven’t disappeared. On the contrary, now you can easily tell them from the others, who had nothing to do with liberalism but participated in the same party. The latter will join a new Kremlin’s pseudo-democratic party Right Deed, the first will join the opposition Solidarity movement or other opposition organizations. It is sad, however, that the only way to cure schizophrenia was decapitation.