Dispute Threatens to Split Yabloko

Yabloko will convene over the weekend for a national congress amid an internal rift that threatens to split the party into competing factions.

At the heart of the conflict lies the question of whether the party, founded in 1995 as a mouthpiece for intellectuals calling for liberal reforms and democratic changes, should cooperate with radical anti-Kremlin groups as its influence on national politics continues to fade.

Despite continually losing votes since 1996 and dropping out of the State Duma altogether in 2003, Yabloko has resisted pressure to team up with like-minded parties.

But over the past two years, several high-profile Yabloko members have cooperated with The Other Russia, the loose coalition of anti-Kremlin groups that includes activists from the banned National Bolshevik Party, sparking the outrage of party leader Grigory Yavlinsky.

When the 250 delegates convene Saturday in the town of Moskovsky, 8 kilometers southwest of Moscow, on the agenda will be the possible eviction of party activists that have worked with The Other Russia, senior Yabloko official Sergei Ivanenko said.

"The party has repeatedly said that we won't unite with ultranationalists, Stalinists or anti-Semites," Ivanenko said, referring to certain factions within The Other Russia.

Aside from the National Bolsheviks, the coalition includes a number of activists with Communist leanings and a radical youth movement Oborona. The Other Russia has organized several Dissenters' Marches throughout the country in recent years, many of which were violently quashed by police.

Ivanenko accused supporters of the coalition within Yabloko of supporting ideologies that "contradict the party's principles."

Those facing possible eviction from the party include Yabloko youth group leader Ilya Yashin and Maxim Reznik, head of the party's St. Petersburg branch.

Yashin said the question of how the party's relationship with the political elite should develop is splitting it into a moderate and radical wing.

"There is a moderate wing that believes that we should engage in a dialogue with authorities, and there is a more consistent opposition wing that believes that it is absolutely unacceptable to cooperate with the current authorities," Yashin said.

Exacerbating tensions between the two sides, more than 20 Yabloko activists, including Yashin and Reznik, took party in the so-called "National Assembly" last month, organized by The Other Russia as a kind of alternative parliament.

Yashin and Reznik declined to say what their response would be should they be kicked out of the party, saying only that they would not leave of their own accord.

The strife within the country's notoriously fractured liberal opposition in recent years has often resembled the bickering between the Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea in the 1979 Monty Python film "Life of Brian."

Reznik now speaks of an "opposition inside the party" that he accuses Yavlinsky of trying to crush, while Yashin said he believes Yavlinsky fears losing his influence inside the party.

"For Yavlinsky, as someone who has headed the party for a long time, it is psychologically difficult to see a young generation competing for influence inside the party," Yashin said.

Yabloko's St. Petersburg branch has nominated Reznik as a candidate to replace Yavlinsky in a vote to be held at the weekend conference.

Reznik said the party was at a turning point. Either the party welcomes cooperation with other opposition group, or it turns into "the cult of Yavlinsky," Reznik said by telephone from St. Petersburg.

Yavlinsky's spokeswoman, Yevgenia Dillendorf, declined to comment on the possible eviction of Reznik and Yashin from the party. "There's nothing to discuss," she said, adding that Yavlinsky was unavailable for comment.

In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty earlier this month, Yavlinsky said his party's goal was to transform Russia's "authoritarian system into European social democracy," while The Other Russia's goal was merely "to overthrow Putin and Medvedev."

Analysts say Yavlinsky's unwillingness to cooperate with radical opposition groups could be a political survival instinct.

"They fear that if they mess with the National Assembly, they will be destroyed" by the authorities, Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies said of Yabloko's moderate wing.

Both Makarkin and Alexei Mukhin of the Center for Political Information said Yabloko had little chance of boosting its popularity or influence regardless of whether it associates with The Other Russia.

"Both options are losing propositions when the party has a rating of 2 percent," Makarkin said.

Yabloko, which captured just 1.59 percent of the vote in the December State Duma elections, may "die soon," Mukhin said, adding that Yavlinsky had long ceased to be a serious political player.

Yavlinsky has headed Yabloko since co-founding the party in 1995.