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Union of Right Forces party goes through discontent

Union of Right Forces party, once a pillar of Russia's political establishment, will experience a bitter winter of discontent.

Ahead of the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections, local party leaders say police have seized more than a million copies of the liberal, pro-business party's manifesto in this Siberian city, while a state-run bank has refused to process campaign contributions and managers of meeting halls have torn up rental contracts.

Russia's opposition parties have long faced similar harassment. But the Union of Right Forces, which represents Russia's up-and-coming entrepreneurial class, had once been in President Vladimir Putin's camp.

Known by its Russian acronym SPS, the party counts among its founders Anatoly Chubais, head of the state-owned electricity monopoly. It had supported Putin in the March 2000 elections and remained loyal even as it found itself pushed to the margins.

Now the party faces political extinction, with polls predicting it will barely muster 1 percent of the vote next month.

That's far short of the 7 percent needed to claim a single seat in parliament, under tight new rules passed since the last elections four years ago.

During Putin's nearly eight years as Russia's leader, the Kremlin has retreated from Russia's efforts at democratic reforms, media freedom and political pluralism. Now all independent voices will be shut out of the legislature in the Dec. 2 elections.

Noted intellectuals like the former chess champion Garry Kasparov and the free-market economist Andrei Illarionov, once one of Putin's top advisers, months ago joined anti-Kremlin street protests. So did Vladimir Ryzhkov, a member of parliament whose Republican Party was one of more than half a dozen denied registration under the new election rules.

SPS party leaders refrained from direct criticism of Putin until it became clear that they would not be allowed into parliament. They then turned against him in terms as harsh as those used by their radical counterparts who have been beaten by police in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

"We consider the main problem in Russia to be the cruelty, cynicism and indifference of those in power," Boris Nemtsov, another national SPS leader, says in a television campaign ad. "They think only of themselves, of their wallets. We are against Putin's plan because it is all lies."

Last week, Nikita Belykh, the party's national leader, accused Putin's government of using "totalitarian and barbaric methods" to sabotage the SPS campaign. He said candidates have been offered bribes - or even threatened - in efforts to push them off the party's lists.

In a televised debate, Belykh said he regretted SPS's support for Putin eight years ago.

"Yes, we were wrong," he said. "Putin was our mistake."

Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, said the Kremlin has driven the leaders of SPS into a corner. "They could either resign themselves to losing or try to go out with a lot of noise and protest," he said.

Now the party plans, for the first time, to join a coalition of opposition groups of the left and right in a protest march Saturday in Moscow.

The Krasnoyarsk region's SPS chapter came under pressure last spring after it unexpectedly won seats in the regional legislature. Both the mayor and governor are members of the United Russia party, the Kremlin's chief ally in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, and the victory was seen as an embarrassment for both politicians.

But SPS's problems in Krasnoyarsk have multiplied, local party officials say, since Putin announced last month that he would lead the list of United Russia candidates in the upcoming parliamentary vote. That turned the election into a referendum on Putin's presidency, putting even more pressure on United Russia leaders to ensure a big victory.

"The governors ... must show brilliant results for the president," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst who heads the Moscow-based Mercator Group. "How they do it is their problem."

Vladislav Korolyov, who heads SPS in the Krasnoyarsk region, said police entered a printing plant here Nov. 7 and seized more than 1.5 million copies of the party's campaign newspaper. The grounds: In an article on inflation that mentioned a protest outside a Moscow supermarket, the paper printed the store's name, which authorities claimed was prohibited negative advertising.

Police could not immediately be reached for comment.

Korolyov said SPS had trouble opening a bank account with the state-owned Sberbank, which cited technical problems. That delayed the start of the SPS campaign for several precious days in the one-month election campaign.

Korolyov said Sberbank employees told several would-be contributors that the bank could not process their donations - as required by Russian law. In one case, he said, a clerk said she had been told by a superior not to deposit SPS contributions. Sberbank officials declined immediate comment.

Many meeting hall managers, sometimes citing pressure from authorities, have turned down SPS requests to rent space for rallies - and in some cases revoked signed contracts, Korolyov said.

"They are pressuring us in every way possible," Korolyov said, sitting in his cramped office in the Krasnoyarsk regional legislature, off a square where a statue of Vladimir Lenin still broods.

The tactics, he said, are reminiscent of the Soviet era. "I consider this political censorship and a return to the police state."

Other parties challenging United Russia for seats in the State Duma also have had their campaign newspapers confiscated in some regions.

Meanwhile, United Russia's campaign here is in full swing. Billboards trumpeting United Russia's slogan, "Putin's Plan is Russia's Victory," line the streets. The Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy, one of the few media outlets where criticism of Putin can be heard, was taken off local airwaves earlier this year.

Selling cuts of pork from behind a counter at Krasnoyarsk market, a resigned Natalia Ivanova said the election's outcome will be dictated by officials, not voters.

"We've talked to friends, neighbors, family, even customers," said Ivanova, 43. "They don't vote for United Russia, but United Russia somehow wins."