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New liberal parties aim to crack Russia's political monopoly

Two Russian political parties – one with a billionaire's backing and the other supported by well-known liberal leaders – is taking on United Russia's lock on power.

By Correspondent / June 28, 2011

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meets with Mikhail Prokhorov (r.) at the Gorki presidential residence outside Moscow on Monday, June 27. Russian tycoon and New Jersey Nets basketball team owner Mikhail Prokhorov was confirmed Saturday, June 25, as the new head of a Kremlin-friendly political party.

Vladimir Rodionov/Presidential Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP

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Moscow

Two small liberal parties tried to spread their wings in Moscow over the past week. One was shot down by the authorities, who refused to even register it as a participant in upcoming elections, while the other was warmly welcomed by Russia's leaders and given intensive coverage on state-run TV.

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Call it a tale of two parties with an unfolding plot that may reveal if there are genuine reformist forces inside the Kremlin scheming to undermine the centralized, authoritarian system built by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during his presidency.

There seems little ideological variance between the Just Cause party, a formerly marginalized right-wing group that elected billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov as its leader last weekend, and the Peoples' Freedom Party, known by its Russian acronym PARNAS, which is headed by several well-known liberal politicians, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanovl, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, and former Independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov.

But the Just Cause party, which few Russians had heard of until recently, suddenly looks like a real political contender and is the focus of media attention.

Mr. Prokhorov, who is worth $18 billion according to Forbes magazine, has vowed to invest up to $100 million of his own cash to transform Just Cause into an alternative ruling party, with himself possibly as prime minister. Following his elevation as party chairman, Prokhorov held a widely publicized meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the presidential dacha just outside of Moscow.

"Many of your ideas correlate with mine," Mr. Medvedev told Prokhorov. "Now is the time to think about how our whole system ... could become less bureaucratic, freer, and considerably less centralized."

Russia's power monopoly

Prokhorov, an "oligarch" who made his fortune though murky dealings in metals during the 1990s, says he wants to break the power monopoly of United Russia, which is headed by Mr. Putin, expand the numbers of officials who must face popular election and privatize at least one major TV channel.

"Russia calls itself a federation but it is built like an empire. Only presidential power functions," he said Monday, according to the independent Interfax agency. "This arrangement does not provide even stability."

According to supporters, the sudden emergence of Just Cause is a sign that powerful forces within Russia's elite realize that the country desperately needs to complete its transition to full democracy and market economy, but for stability's sake they need to work from within the system.

"Russia faces a choice between social revolution, which could be bloody, or a peaceful route to major reform," says Leonid Gozman, a former cochair of Just Cause who stepped aside for Prokhorov last weekend.

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