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.
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.
"The authoritarian system we have has reached its limits, and faces breakdown. Many people who work at the top of the system understand that it needs to be changed," he said. "The fact that Prokhorov has taken charge of Just Cause assures everyone that the party will have sufficient money, and it's also a signal that top people in Russia have agreed to the establishment of this party."
Pollsters estimate the number of Russians willing to vote for an avowedly liberal party at 5 percent or less, but with lots of backing and good media access that could rise above the 7 percent needed to win Duma representation by election time in December. Mr. Medvedev last week pledged to lower the Duma threshold to 5 percent, but the change would only take effect in 2016.
In an interview last week, Medvedev suggested that he was waiting for a sign from the people about whether or not he should run for reelection as president next March. He has also suggested that he might affiliate with a political party in future, though he declined to say which. A good showing for Just Cause in December's parliamentary polls might encourage Medvedev to sideline Putin and stand for reelection on a reformist platform, say some experts.
Putin is also widely expected to make another bid for the presidency in March elections.
Rejection of PARNAS
Leaders of PARNAS, and other critics, offer a completely different narrative. They say their party was denied registration, and has been hounded by officialdom in a host of ways, because it is a truly independent group the Kremlin wants to clear away in favor of its own liberal-flavored party. Last week, Russia's justice ministry refused to register PARNAS, a necessary first step for getting on the ballot, due to a number of technical problems in its application.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a party leader, says PARNAS has more than met the stringent requirements for registration, and the faults found by the ministry were too minor to be the real reason behind the rejection.
"The authorities made a political decision, because they don't want a real opposition party taking part in the elections," Mr. Ryzhkov says. "In the Kremlin they realize that Russia's political system is facing a crisis of legitimacy, and that's why they want to create a tame opposition of their own [to draw away protest votes]. But people should realize that Just Cause is a false liberal party, a Kremlin creation that is not designed to serve the popular will."
Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says that the choice of Prokhorov to lead the new official liberal party probably ensures that the masses of Russians will never vote for it. Prokhorov may stand for political liberalization, but he has also called for major cuts in social benefits and drastic revisions to the country's labor code, to crush the influence of trade unions and even legalize a 60-hour work week.
"Just Cause is a very well thought out political project, but it's certainly not an autonomous one that aims to create real change," says Mr. Petrov. "It's completely under supervision, and it has no chance of getting into the Duma without the Kremlin's backing. If it gets into the Duma, it will serve as a junior partner of United Russia there, and it will be useful to blame it for any economic pain due to ongoing [Kremlin-backed] market reforms."
But Mr. Gozman says the reformist credentials of Just Cause are solid, and that leaders of PARNAS like Mr. Ryzhkov should stop their futile pounding on the Kremlin gates and accept an invitation to join forces.
"I'm just a regular member of Just Cause today, but if I were still a leader I'd talk to the leaders of PARNAS and urge them to join us," he says. "Of course the rejection of their party's registration was illegal, immoral and absurd. But we must live within the reality that we have, and try to do something with it. If you join Just Cause, together we can break the rule of United Russia and effect changes. That's the way forward."