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A Medical Report for SPS

By Oleg Kozlovsky for
16 November 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
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, printed campaign
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 to 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 fomer will join the opposition Solidarity movement or
other opposition organizations. It is sad, however, that the only way to cure schizophrenia
was decapitation.