#11 - JRL 7250
July 16, 2003
Yabloko Still Counts On Khodorkovsky
By Francesca Mereu
Special to The Moscow Times
The liberal opposition Yabloko party says it is not worried about losing the financial support of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, despite a sense that his political activities are one cause of his current conflict with the Kremlin.
Of bigger concern, Yabloko says, is getting out the party's message and expanding its electorate ahead of December's elections to the State Duma.
Khodorkovsky has been funding Yabloko and other opposition parties, which has been read as a threat to plans to form a two-thirds pro-Kremlin majority in the next Duma. With a two-thirds majority, the Kremlin would be able not only to push through legislation that could make life harder for big business, but also change the Constitution, and Khodorkovsky has an interest in trying to prevent this.
Valery Fyodorov, director of the Center for Current Politics in Russia, predicts the prosecutors' investigations involving Yukos will only make Khodorkovsky less willing to trust those in power and more willing to support the opposition. "For this reason Khodorkovsky will now invest more in Yabloko, to see the party stronger and able to offer a real alternative to the pro-Kremlin parties," Fyodorov said last week.
Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that if Khodorkovsky -- who has transformed Yukos into a transparent, well-managed company attractive to foreign investors -- is investing in Yabloko, "it means the party has good prospects."
Sergei Mitrokhin, Yabloko's deputy chairman, said Khodorkovsky has been funding the party since 1999 and has committed to financing its election campaign. Mitrokhin would not say how much money the party needed.
The party's main challenge, he said, was not securing financial support but expanding its political base. Yabloko has lost one percentage point in each State Duma election; from nearly 8 percent of the vote in 1993, to 7 percent in 1995 and to less than 6 percent in 1999.
Yabloko, like the Communist Party, has a stable core of support. Its voters mostly live in big cities of more than 1 million people. The bulk of the party's electorate is composed of well-educated people who believe in democracy and a market economy but have been left behind by the changes of the past decade. Yabloko also appeals to businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals who are well integrated in the new economic and political system and get medium-low incomes. The common thread of the Yabloko electorate is opposition to the reforms of the past 10 years and the way these reforms were carried out.
Mitrokhin said one of the party's strategies for attracting voters is to do a better job defining its ideology and differentiating itself from the other liberal party, the Union of Right Forces, or SPS.
"We are a social-liberal party, and we want social liberalism, that is liberalism for everyone, plus social security," Mitrokhin said. "While SPS is more oriented to achieving liberalism only for the monopolists and for their employees."
Khodorkovsky has also acknowledged providing some funding for SPS.
Early this year, SPS proposed merging the two parties to create a strong coalition in the next Duma and offered Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky the No. 2 spot on the parties' combined electoral list. In exchange for giving up his role as leader of a Duma faction, Yavlinsky would be the sole SPS/Yabloko candidate in the 2004 presidential elections. Yabloko said no.
Mitrokhin said the differences between the two parties were too great. For instance, Yabloko in the spring session voted against the housing sector reform and the privatization of the energy sector, while SPS supported both.
Yabloko has been monitoring the communal-housing and public-utilities reforms by collecting complaints about services such as water, elevators and electricity, Mitrokhin said.
Yabloko also allied with the Communists this spring in voting no confidence in the government over its unpopular domestic policies, including the communal services-housing reform. The vote failed.
Ryabov said these initiatives are able to bring Yabloko more votes. "People now are very concerned about everyday problems, rather than foreign policy or amendments to the Constitution, and Yabloko is doing a good job in this direction," he said.
In an April poll conducted by the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Studies, or VTsIOM, more than half of the respondents said their life is going to get worse as a result of the housing and electricity sector reforms.
One of the main obstacles to Yabloko winning more votes is the disregard, even hostility, from the press. Ryabov said the reasons for this are linked to the fact that for a long time the media have been strongly influenced by SPS and its strong anti-communist stance. Yabloko has been seen a bit like a traitor.
"Yabloko has been able to find compromises with the Communists. They spoke against many of the reformers of the Yeltsin era, even if at the time things were seen in black and white -- 'either you are with us, or you are against us' -- and there was no place for flexible positions," Ryabov said.
The newspapers concentrate on Yavlinsky, portraying him unfavorably as a talker and as a leader afraid of taking responsibility, rather than on reporting the party's achievements, analysts said.
"Even if Yabloko has few members, they are really qualified people who could do a lot at the Duma. But people don't know anything about them," said Grigory Tochkin, an analyst with the Panorama think tank. "People know what the media say, and Yabloko is portrayed as a party of unlucky fellows who never do anything but criticize."
Ryabov said he expects Yabloko to get 7 percent to 8 percent of the vote in December, but this could change. "The pre-election process is going very dynamically this year," he said.