Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#14 - JRL 8427 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
October 26, 2004
Yabloko Party Finds Itself at a Crossroad
By Francesca Mereu
Staff Writer

Yabloko is stepping up its opposition to President Vladimir Putin in hope of winning over new voters as it struggles to stay alive with very little money and virtually no coverage in the mainstream media.

The liberal political party finds itself at a crossroads a year after its main donor, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was thrown into jail and 10 months after it suffered a stinging defeat in State Duma elections. The direction it picks will determine whether it can reemerge as a viable political voice or will be relegated to the scrapheap of liberalism's short history in Russia.

The good news is that support for the party appears to be swelling as one-time liberal rivals come calling and former supporters return to the fold after growing disenchanted with Putin's ever-growing grip on power.

Still, Yabloko leaders are clearly worried at the party's once-humming headquarters in an elegant three-story mansion on Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa in central Moscow.

"Our financial situation is extremely bad," Yabloko deputy leader Sergei Mitrokhin said in a recent interview in his office.

"There are a lot of businesses that are ready to help us because they believe in our policies, but they want us to get the Kremlin's approval for their financing," he said. "They are afraid of losing their businesses if they give money to a party that opposes the Kremlin."

Mitrokhin said Yabloko is barely making its monthly rent on its headquarters and has no money for regional branches, which are financing themselves or closing down.

Yabloko also has laid off a number of staff at its headquarters because there is little money for salaries, he said.

In its fight to remain relevant, Yabloko is strengthening its criticism of Putin, Mitrokhin said.

"We have decided that President Putin's course is leading the country into a deadlock. We cannot close our eyes ... and will oppose Putin until he changes his policies," he said.

The aim of the sharpened attack on the Kremlin, Mitrokhin said, is to broaden the party's appeal and attract other opposition-minded voters.

Yabloko, which worked closely with the Communists to challenge alleged fraud in the Duma elections, is looking to team up with any political party that opposes the Kremlin's course "except for fascist parties," Mitrokhin said.

He said Yabloko can count on 85,000 members, 10,000 more than before the Duma elections. After the party's defeat, Mitrokhin said, many voters decided to join the party to show their support. Yabloko has two deputies in the Duma, both of whom won their seats in individual races.

The big question is whether Yabloko will be able to drum up enough support from a public that is spoon-fed the Kremlin line on state television and is naturally wary of politicians, especially a party that for years has run on a platform of civil freedoms. Such freedoms are the foundation of Western democracies but have little resonance with most Russians.

Yabloko's voice is all but lost since the party gets no airtime on the main television channels, which are under the Kremlin's control, said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank.

"It is easy to be forgotten when you do not appear often in the mainstream media," Pribylovsky said.

Mitrokhin said Yabloko is countering "political censorship in the media" by publishing articles stating its position on its Yabloko.ru web site and in pamphlets handed out to people in Moscow.

Yabloko is fighting an uphill battle because there is little demand for liberal parties, said Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"There is no desire for civil liberties. People were given these liberties from above during perestroika and the early years of [President Boris] Yeltsin, but they never had to fight for them," Lipman said.

This, even more than Yabloko's financial woes, severely limits its chances of gaining more popularity, she said.

"People are very passive and have little trust in any political initiatives. They prefer to stand still and to mind their business," she said. "Money is a problem, but the main problem for Yabloko is the public's attitude."

The legal difficulties of Khodorkovsky, who has acknowledged funding Yabloko since its creation in 1993, threw the party into a financial crisis ahead of December's Duma elections, and it failed to pass the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in parliament.

Khodorkovsky was arrested Oct. 25, 2003, on charges of fraud and tax evasion in a case widely seen as punishment for his political and business ambitions. Khodorkovsky's Yukos is on the verge of being broken up by the state.

On Monday, the anniversary of the arrest, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky issued a statement criticizing the prosecution of Khodorkovsky, his partner Platon Lebedev and Alexei Pichugin, a former Yukos security chief who is accused of organizing a double murder in 2002.

Yavlinsky insisted on proper medical examinations for Lebedev and Pichugin, whose health is said to have suffered in jail; protested "the unconstitutional prosecution of citizens for political reasons"; and called for an open dialogue between the authorities and society over a way out of the situation, "which was a result of the criminal privatizations of the mid-1990s, for which the authorities bear the main share of responsibility."

"Ignoring these demands not only discredits our country but engenders more and more distrust and even the alienation of citizens from the key state institutions and destroys Russian statehood," Yavlinsky's statement said.

Going into the elections, Khodorkovsky also funded the Communist Party and the liberal Union of Right Forces, or SPS -- posing a very real threat to the pro-Kremlin United Russia party's plans to form a two-thirds majority in the Duma. United Russia went on to gain two-thirds of the Duma and is now moving to win control of all regional legislatures as well.

Irina Khakamada, a former co-leader of the liberal SPS party, echoed Yabloko's concerns earlier this month, saying the opposition could count on the support of various businesses a year ago but now businessmen are afraid of going against the Kremlin. "None of us has any money left," Khakamada said at a conference of opposition politicians. "Only those that sell themselves to the Kremlin get money, but nobody funds those who don't because they are simply scared."

She urged the opposition to create a democratic party that incorporates Yabloko's platform.

"They have always proclaimed freedom and democracy, and they always had a strong social position," she said. "It must be broadened now to attract everybody ... including the left and the softer left who do not want to be in the Communist Party anymore. In other words -- all the opposition."

Yevgeny Yasin, who served as a liberal economics minister from 1994 to 1997, told the same conference that Putin's plans to scrap the popular vote for governors and individual races for Duma seats have created an opportunity for liberal parties.

"However true claims may be about the passivity of our society, I should say that the 'small issue' of people being stripped of their right to choose their regional leaders has changed the situation because for the first time people's rights have been truly affected," he said.

"The share of the voters who were prepared to vote for democratic parties was 15 percent, and now it is 30 percent," he said, citing surveys by the respected Levada Center polling agency. "I am not claiming that this situation will remain the same and that this is a permanent change."

Mitrokhin, who held one of Yabloko's 17 seats in the last Duma, will get a chance to test the accuracy of the survey on Dec. 5, when voters in Moscow's Preobrazhensky single-mandate district vote for a deputy to fill the seat vacated by Alexander Zhukov, named deputy prime minister in March.

Mitrokhin is running on the Yabloko ticket against economist Mikhail Delyagin, a member of the nationalist Rodina party, and a United Russia candidate named, curiously enough, Alexander Zhukov.

Mitrokhin said he is not optimistic about getting back into the Duma.

"For Surkov, I'm Enemy No. 1," he said, referring to Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the presidential administration who coordinates the Kremlin's work with United Russia and oversees the Kremlin's relations with the Duma. "The Kremlin is likely to use its administrative resources against me."