A week after the presidential elections, the Union of Right Forces (SPS), one of the most widely known democratic parties in Russia, held a session of its Political Council. Although it was, in essence, a thoroughly internal party affair, it became a talking point throughout the country, because the fate of the SPS in the next four years is one of the biggest unknowns in Russian political life.
However, the meeting did not make things much clearer, as it only showed that the party was still in a state of uncertainty. Any real decisions will evidently have to wait until the party congress, which will take place in either May or June.
The following problem will have to be discussed: many SPS members believe the lack of a clear political position on Vladimir Putin's presidency led to the democrats' defeat at the December parliamentary elections and their non-participation in the recent presidential elections. SPS member Irina Khakamada ran against Putin on March 14, but as an independent candidate and not representing her party. Her success was minimal.
When assessing the present state of the country's parties, Gleb Pavlovsky, a well-known political scientist, has expressed his opinion that at least a year should pass between presidential and parliamentary elections. He believes that if there is only a brief interval between elections, the parties have no time to digest the results of the first vote and make corrections to their policies and formulate a new position. This is completely applicable to the SPS.
The electorate of the democrats still vacillates between support for Putin and opposition to him. The Putin supporters within the party outnumber the opponents. For the majority of SPS members one issue has always been decisive when judging a head of state or a prime minister - whether they conduct a market reforms or not. President Putin and his cabinets have been conducting these reforms with determination, moreover according to some quarters, in so doing they have borrowed the right-wingers' economic programme and recruited their best professionals, such as Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref.
SPS member Anatoly Chubais is continuing to work for the state. Alexei Golovkov, who in 1992 was the chief of staff in Yegor Gaidar's "government of reforms," has been appointed deputy chief of staff to Mikhail Fradkov's government. And Gaidar and his Institute of the Economy in Transition continue to co-operate with the authorities. How then can the SPS be in opposition to the president?
"The SPS is agonizing," says Arkady Murashov, a well-known 'first wave' democrat. "Irina Khakamada has left and is forming a new party, Boris Nemtsov has retired into business, he categorically refuses to support Putin and is going to concentrate on work on Committee 2008, to find an alternative to the successor Putin is to name in 2008."
In his opinion, there is no political ground left for the SPS. "If it supports Putin, the party will become just like United Russia," he says. "And if it becomes an opposition party, it will become a second edition of Yabloko."
Indeed, strange things are happening within Yabloko, the liberal party led by Grigory Yavlinsky, whose ideology, though, differs from the SPS. Since the December State Duma elections, very little has been heard from the party. Meanwhile, there has been a steady flow of Yabloko members into the government and state agencies. Vladimir Lukin, the party's number two, has accepted the post of human rights commissioner. Igor Artemyev, head of Yabloko's St. Petersburg branch, is now in the Fradkov cabinet supervising the antitrust department. It has even been claimed that Yavlinsky himself expects an offer from Putin.
In the past, the rigidly oppositional Yabloko expelled its members for any step in the direction of the authorities. However, many Russian political scientists are inclined to believe that both the SPS and Yabloko will soon depart from Russia's political scene.
Gleb Pavlovsky believes that energetic party activity in the opposition field will start even before summer, but any results are hard to predict. Few people believe that Khakamada will succeed in forming an influential party, as the former presidential candidate has been criticised for splitting democratic forces instead of consolidating them. Another point to bear in mind is that the parties will have to overcome a 7% eligibility barrier, rather than the previous 5%, to take seats in the Duma in the 2007 elections.
Moreover, there are experts who go even further. In their view, the energetic market reforms being pursued by the Fradkov cabinet may split United Russia, which is made up of ardent liberals and people with left-wing views. This means that neither the SPS nor Yabloko, but parts of United Russia, will become the nuclei of two new, dominant parties: one left of centre and one right of centre. So, the multiparty system in Russia may be in for fundamental changes in the next four years.