Yavlinsky Resigns as Yabloko Leader

Moskovsky, Moscow Region — Grigory Yavlinsky has abruptly stepped down as Yabloko leader, apparently ending a rift that had threatened to split the liberal party and spurring hopes that it would be able to make a political comeback.

Yabloko members, gathered in the town of Moskovsky for a party congress over the weekend, elected Sergei Mitrokhin, the head of the party's Moscow branch, as their new leader.

"I have headed Yabloko for 15 years. That's enough," Yavlinsky, who had led the party since he co-founded it in 1993, told The Moscow Times on Sunday. "The party has to be renewed to be able to develop."

Yavlinsky, 56, unexpectedly withdrew his candidacy in favor of Mitrokhin during a vote Saturday evening for the party's leadership.

He praised Mitrokhin, 45, as the right person to lead the party.

Mitrokhin said he would oversee structural and staff changes within Yabloko and work harder to let voters know that the party would fight for their rights as Russian citizens.

"This will guarantee the support of voters," he said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio.

Outside the congress, he told reporters that he would follow Yavlinsky's political course.

Mitrokhin's victory represents the victory of Yabloko's moderate wing, led by Yavlinsky and Mitrokhin, over a more radical wing led by Yabloko's St. Petersburg leader, Maxim Reznik; its Karelian leader, Vasily Popov; and its youth leader, Ilya Yashin. The moderate wing believes in cooperation with the authorities, while the radical wing opposes this and has called for anti-Kremlin street protests.

Reznik and Yashin, who withdrew his candidacy ahead of Saturday's vote in favor of Reznik, were not ready to lead Yabloko, Yavlinsky said Sunday. "They don't have enough understanding of what is going on in the country," he said.

Reznik, who said he did not vote for Mitrokhin, sounded irritated when asked about the change of leadership. "It's always good when new people come in," he said. But he criticized Mitrokhin for his "rudeness toward his subordinates" and voiced hope that Mitrokhin "would be able to overcome it."

Mitrokhin was elected by 75 votes of the 125 regional delegates who attended the congress on Saturday night, said Yavlinsky's spokeswoman, Yevgenia Dillendorf. Twenty-four delegates voted for Reznik and 20 voted for Popov, she said. The remaining six votes were invalid.

Yavlinsky took off Sunday's agenda the possible ouster of Reznik and Yashin and about 25 other activists for their support of The Other Russia, a loose coalition of anti-Kremlin groups that includes members of the banned National Bolshevik Party. "This is not a pressing question," Yavlinsky said.

Mitrokhin is a former State Duma deputy who now serves in the Moscow City Duma. He has made a name for himself among Moscow residents for his fierce campaigning against construction projects, sometimes by City Hall itself, that he considers illegal.

It was unclear what immediate effect the change in leadership might have on Yabloko. The party has been in disarray for much of the past four years, after it failed to win seats in the State Duma in 2003 elections. Calls mounted for Yavlinsky to be ousted after last December's State Duma elections when the party failed to win seats again. Speculation has been rife in recent months that the Kremlin might offer him a post.

Some Yabloko delegates voiced concern over Yavlinsky's departure. "I don't see any people who surpass him in the qualities required of a leader, such as the skills needed to work with people, organizations and the government," said Nikolai Frank, the head of Yabloko's Belgorod branch.

Frank called Mitrokhin "rather famous" but young and said he lacked experience. "Mitrokhin's faction in the City Duma is small. It didn't give him an opportunity to lead a group," Frank said in an interview.

"We will be able to assess this in a year or two," he said.

The party leader is elected every four years.

The head of the Chelyabinsk branch, Alexander Kuznetsov, said "the party must be renewed" and praised Mitrokhin as an experienced person who has been part of Yabloko since the beginning.

Yavlinsky, a favorite among Western politicians and a regular at U.S. Embassy functions, made no comment on what he planned to do next. The Yabloko congress was voting late Sunday on its other leadership positions.

But Yavlinsky took a dig at President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in his speech to the congress on Saturday night, saying that the two leaders were dependent on Russia's centralized power structures to rule the country.

"Our party has shown that we cannot be sold and act on our principles," he said.