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Russia’s Opposition Parties Struggle to Counter Putin’s Political Dominance

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Winning isn’t everything for today’s Russian opposition.

After months of infighting, the motley alliance of opposition groups known as the Other Russia is looking beyond December’s parliamentary elections to bring together those already united in their hostility toward the Kremlin.

So far, the Other Russia’s bid to consolidate the ranks of Russia’s unruly opposition parties has yielded few concrete results.

Started last year as a coalition led by three prominent but divisive figures — the radical writer and activist Eduard Limonov, the suave ex-prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov – the Other Russia occasionally has captured the public interest with mass rallies but gained little traction in the wider political arena.

This summer, Kasyanov parted ways with the coalition to form his own political party, and in recent weeks several other factions broke away.

The Other Russia congress last weekend voted overwhelmingly to name Kasparov, whose father is Jewish, as the party’s candidate for the presidential ballot next March. Kasparov has vowed to keep the movement united, but its uncertain electoral prospects mean the party faces an inevitable makeover and transition in the months ahead.

President Vladimir Putin’s decision last week to back the United Russia party in the upcoming parliamentary elections and possibly runs as its prime minister after the ballot will further consolidate support for United Russia, leaving only one or two other parties competitive in the polls.

“Under these conditions, everyone who wants to stay politically active will look for another platform for dialogue,” Kasparov said. “The Other Russia is standing up for the notion of reviving within society a tradition normal public discussion.”

Kasparov supports the idea of creating a shadow parliament as a symbolic alternative to its present Russian counterpart. The idea is that the proxy structure will promote an exchange of ideas between opposition parties, regardless of their ideological leanings, in the hope of fostering a more viable opposition able to negotiate with the government and coordinate political activity.

Other roundtable participants echoed Kasparov’s calls for unity beyond mere unanimous opposition to the Kremlin’s current authoritarian course, as they described it.

“We will carry out a full-fledged electoral campaign, even when you factor in our lack of access to television and other constraints,” Limonov said. “Our goal is free elections with the participation of all parties, and we remain full of resolve in demanding our right to take part in the political process.”

After a decade in the political wilderness, Russia’s liberals remain splintered and have shown little ability or inclination to join forces in the upcoming elections.

Russia’s two oldest liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) are campaigning separately and stand little chance to pass the minimal 7 percent threshold required for election to Parliament.

At a news conference in Moscow in late September, longtime SPS leader Boris Nemtsov said, “Jews and Arabs will reconcile before we settle our differences with (Grigory) Yavlinsky,” head of Yabloko.

Political scientist Maxim Dianov, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Regional Problems, said liberal parties must unite if they are to have any electoral viability.

“The potential liberal constituency across the country includes as much as 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, but it’s fragmented between parties,” Dianov said. “The opposition’s only chance is to unite, getting some representation in the Duma and showing their competency and political vision.”

Given Putin’s high approval ratings, his decision to lead United Russia promises to translate into a dominant showing for the party that already has been aligned closely with the Kremlin. The elections effectively become a vote of confidence for the president who is now seeking the premiership, leaving little maneuvering room for other political parties.

“Putin’s move has drastically changed the campaign outlook, turning the elections into a kind of referendum on Putin,” said Evgeny Ikhlov, a veteran analyst at the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights and a participant in the Other Russia’s internal deliberations.

“The opposition will overcome its deep divide the moment polls close on December 2, as countless politicians will be driven out of the political process,” he said. “What is long overdue is a review of the existing forms of organized opposition. Despite the recent defections from the Other Russia, it has not exhausted itself as an umbrella organization capable of overcoming the mostly artificial divisions that exist within the liberal camp.”

Ikhlov says the Kremlin’s policymakers are split on the benefits of allowing a token liberal faction into Parliament. They seem to have decided to block several compelling and popular politicians, representing a range of movements – independents, moderates, extreme right – from contending in the elections.

Ikhlov also predicted that none of the Other Russia candidates will be registered to run.

How the liberal parties respond to the challenges they now face will be the true test of their political viability. In 2003’s parliamentary elections, the liberal parties were unable to coordinate their campaigns and fared disastrously on the ballot. Now they must find new ways to mobilize the voters or else they’ll wither away, Ikhlov said.

“They didn’t meet the challenge during or after 2003, but formulating an effective response now is a matter of survival,” Ikhlov said. “A wise government turns revolutionaries into bureaucrats, but in Russia the reverse is true.”

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