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Moscow Times
December 17, 2001
A More Conservative SPS Emerges at Congress
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
Staff Writer

The Union of Right Forces, or SPS, a political faction of nine liberal groups that often haven't seen eye to eye, projected an image of increased unity and conservatism as its delegates gathered for a congress Friday.

Although some members -- mainly those from Yegor Gaidar's Democratic Choice of Russia -- are likely to leave later this month for an opposition liberal party backed by Boris Berezovsky, SPS founders praised the party's progress over the past year and its growing influence on Kremlin policies.

"SPS is becoming more and more a unified party," said Anatoly Chubais, an SPS founder and the head of Unified Energy Systems.

The tone of the speeches reported by Russian media signaled a shift toward greater conservatism on the part of SPS politicians, once considered the country's leading liberal reformists.

Gaidar said he is looking forward to the time when the "systematic reform" of Russian economics is over and SPS can "become a normal conservative party."

Boris Nemtsov, who was re-elected chairman of SPS's political council, said the party "should not be ashamed of being a patriotic party."

The party's co-chairs -- Nemtsov, Chubais, Gaidar, Irina Khakamada and Sergei Kiriyenko -- were all re-elected to their posts, Interfax reported from a resort outside Moscow where the congress took place.

The main agenda item was a vote to transform SPS into a political party as required by a new law on political parties. The measure was easily passed. Delegates also voted for a plan to boost SPS membership from the current 17,686 to 40,000 by 2003, garner 10 percent of seats in the next State Duma and nominate a presidential candidate in 2004.

Gaidar touted the party's economic platform, saying the government is, in fact, carrying out SPS's economic policy.

"When a government emerged willing to and capable of doing something, our [reform] projects turned out to be in demand," Gaidar said.

"We can consider the government's work satisfactory," he added wryly, in a nod to the language used by the ruling Communist Party at Soviet-era congresses.

The only display of discord came when Nemtsov criticized some of President Vladimir Putin's picks for government positions and state-run companies, saying the president was appointing the "St. Petersburg mafia." Over the past year, Putin has promoted officials from his hometown such as Boris Gryzlov as interior minister, Alexei Miller as head of Gazprom and Sergei Mironov as speaker of the Federation Council.

"Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], there are good people not only in St. Petersburg," Nemtsov told the congress, Interfax reported.

Speaking after Nemtsov, Chubais, who is himself from St. Petersburg, said that despite obvious "mistakes," both Gryzlov and Miller are "decent people."

"Boris Yefimovich [Nemstov], not everybody in St. Petersburg is a complete idiot, either," Chubais said.

On a more serious note, Chubais singled out "Russia's place in the world" as the major issue for the country for the next five to seven years. He said Putin's increasingly pro-Western policies are likely to create major domestic tensions that will require SPS's support.

"There will be a huge, historical turnaround in this field that will change the country's political landscape, the president's internal policies and his ratings," he said. "Our party is so far very weak in this field -- we have a low presence among the defense, intelligence and foreign-policy elite, and expansion in these areas should be a key aspect of SPS activities."

Against the backdrop of a possibly closer alliance with the Kremlin, some SPS members in the Duma are planning to form the liberal opposition party Liberal Russia, which has Berezovsky's blessing. State Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, who plans to hold a congress for Liberal Russia next Friday, said in a telephone interview that SPS is becoming less liberal.

"SPS policies are far from the principles they proclaim," Yushenkov said. "They advocate a strong regulatory role by the government and a highly centralized budget. They back the concept of government intervention [in the economy], which is halfway between liberalism and socialism."

Yushenkov said that regional SPS chapters in Pskov, Perm, Belgorod and Khanty-Mansiisk are expected to join Liberal Russia after the party's congress.

State Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin will also quit SPS once the congress is held, he said.

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