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Back from the Dead: Although There Isn't One Truly Liberal Party in Russia Today, a Large Part of Society Shares Democratic Values Claim Liberals

Mikhail ProhkorovFollowing the scandal at the Right Cause's pre-election conference, which ended with the dismissal of its leader, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, a number of senior members have left the discredited Kremlin project and announced a revival of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) - a liberal party that was popular in the late 1990s and the early 2000s - which was seen as one of the few political movements in Russia to support Western-style democracy. Although this initiative's prospects are nebulous, experts point to a strong demand for some political force that would protect the interests of the liberal part of Russian society. "At least 15 to 25 percent of Russia's population adhere to liberal-democratic values. The liberal part of Russian society is mostly made up of highly educated residents of big cities. Most of them are young or middle-aged, but there are groups of elderly people who support liberal ideas as well. Now these people are actively emigrating," said Leonid Gozman, the president of the all-Russian public movement The Union of Right Forces.

Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Solidarnost opposition movement, believes that the liberals' potential political force in Russia is huge, but underestimated. "Most people in Russia have basic liberal-democratic values. You can rarely meet a person who is against free elections, private property, an independent justice system and freedom of speech. However, the authorities carry out large-scale propaganda to discredit the idea of liberalism itself. Obviously, this drives down the level of support that liberal organizations have in society. At the same time, the authorities are obviously afraid of competition on behalf of liberal politicians: just take their refusal to register the People's Freedom Party (PARNAS) or the permanent pressure put on democratic opposition," he said.

Yashin believes that liberal democrats would take 20 to 25 percent of seats in the Russian Parliament and partake in forming a new government if the elections were free and honest. "The main support groups behind liberals are the middle class, students, intellectuals, residents of large cities and even representatives of the working class, whose rights are not being protected by anyone in modern Russia," he said.

For obvious reasons, The Union of Right Forces, which is now registered as an NGO but not as a political party, cannot take part in the State Duma elections in December. "We don't have any plans regarding the elections. These elections are foregone, and this will probably lead to increased social unrest in the country," Gozman predicated. "But demand for a liberal-democratic political party exists in Russian society. It means that such a party will be created in the future."

Yashin is skeptical about the idea to revive the Union of Right Forces, despite the demand for liberal organizations in society. "I don't see any political prospects for the renewed Union of Right Forces. Most likely, it will be like a club for the veterans of the annihilated party. They will meet each other now and again to talk and think of the old times, when their party was really influential in Russian politics," he said.

Meanwhile, the International Democrat Union (IDU), a center-right international alliance of conservative and liberal political parties headquartered in Oslo, Norway, suspended the Right Cause as an associate member. "Following recent changes in the leadership of the Right Cause, it has become clear that the party is now under the direct control of the Kremlin, and that all liberal voices within the party have been sidelined. The IDU founding declaration agreed on in London in 1983 states that IDU Member Parties are committed to the 'right of free speech, organization, assembly and non-violent dissent; the right to free elections and the freedom to organize effective parliamentary opposition to government.' As Kremlin rulers consistently violate these principles, the IDU has judged that any party under the direct control of the Kremlin cannot be considered fit for IDU membership," a statement on IDU's official Web site reads.

Now that there is no "legal" liberal party in Russia that would be recognized by the international community, and no true liberal organization that would be allowed to become a real political force by the authorities, there are few candidates who want to fill this niche. The Union of Right Forces has a legendary past, but limited influence in the present. Established in 1999, it is often associated with the names of the "young reformers" of the 1990s ­ the mastermind of privatization in Russia Anatoly Chubais, the former Deputy Prime Minister and current opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and the "father" of economic reforms Yegor Gaidar, who died in 2009.

In 1999, the Union of Right Forces won 8.6 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections and received 32 seats in the State Duma. The elections in 2003 were less fortunate for the party: it won only four percent of the vote and failed to cross the five percent threshold for representation in Parliament. Irina Khakamada, one of SPS' charismatic leaders, later ascribed this failure to the liberals' negative image. According to her, most Russians didn't want to vote for the liberals because they appeared responsible for all the negative consequences of economic reforms, including dramatic inflation and the default in the 1990s. After the failed election, SPS Leader Boris Nemtsov resigned. From 2005 to 2008 the party was lead by Nikita Belykh, who now governs the Kirov Region. He passed the baton to Leonid Gozman.

Another independent liberal organization, the People's Freedom Party (PARNAS), co-founded by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, ex-lawmaker Vladimir Ryzhkov and former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov, was denied registration in Russia. The party's leaders are now calling on their supporters to vote against all candidates who will take part in the upcoming parliamentary elections, to protest against political monopoly. One more famous figure in the Russian liberal community is Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion. In 2007, he announced his intention to stand for the Russian presidency as a candidate from the Other Russia coalition; he was then arrested and held for several days. Kasparov now runs his own online newspaper and remains in the opposition. Other liberal organization and movements appear and disappear spontaneously, as groups and communities unite to protect property and civil rights as needed. Some experts believe that this is the future of Russian liberalism.


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