Destroying by Co-Opting

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The Union of Right Forces is trying to transform its platform and image. Most voters have long associated the party, known as SPS, with the two poster children of the painful reforms of the 1990s -- former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and privatization chief Anatoly Chubais.

But it is now poised to shed its name and merge with two Kremlin-manufactured parties, Civil Force and the Democratic Party. The Kremlin gave these parties the official green light to run in the 2007 State Duma elections for the sole purpose of siphoning votes away from SPS and Yabloko.

The strategy was successful. Both Yabloko and SPS buckled under the combined weight of United Russia's enormous administrative resources and the negative coverage against opposition parties on state-controlled television. The Kremlin-backed spoiler parties grabbed as many votes as their two competitors and, as a result, liberals are completely absent from the Duma.

But Moscow's tactical victory threatens to become a strategic defeat. While the Duma rubber-stamped the Kremlin's actions in Georgia with a predictably unanimous vote of support, a survey conducted by the Kremlin-connected Public Opinion Foundation found that only 75 percent of voters favored the war. Thus, the remaining 25 percent -- about 27 million people -- have no representation in the Duma.

This segment consists primarily of highly-educated people who share Western values and principles. Although small in percentage terms, this 25 percent has tremendous potential to shape public opinion -- in particular, against the government's policies -- and therefore is a cause of concern for the Kremlin.

As long as the Kremlin attaches the labels of "marginal" and "fifth column" to this group, this actually boosts their authority in the eyes of most liberals. Therefore, since Moscow's leaders cannot silence this influential 25 percent, they are trying to fold them into their own political machine.

One year ago, the Kremlin demonstrably turned a cold shoulder to the liberals, but now it is chumming up to them. Apparently, the Kremlin is expanding its tried-and-true principle: If you can't completely destroy the liberal opposition, try to co-opt them.

Given the ongoing financial crisis, it is not difficult to imagine a resurgence of the political left and renewed support for the Communist Party. Kremlin deputy chief of staff and political strategist Vladislav Surkov therefore wants to form a capable and loyal coalition of liberal political forces that can counter this threat. Now we are likely to see an intensification of the backroom struggles between the hard-line siloviki and the rational economists. The two groups hold diametrically opposing views on the cause of the financial crisis and how to resolve it. Given this political milieu, the Kremlin probably considers its new, loyal "pro-business" party as an additional support base that will help it defend itself against new political and economic challenges.

Meanwhile, SPS has its own serious problems. The party's war chest is running low because potential donors know that giving support to a party that is at odds with the Kremlin will incite revenge from the authorities. In addition, the party is heavy in debt after failing to exceed the 7 percent barrier in December's Duma elections. Finally, most media outlets have also avoided riling the Kremlin at all costs and are therefore careful to keep SPS in an informational vacuum.

For SPS, the choice is clear. It must either consign itself to extinction as an opposition party or play by Moscow's rules. Last week, SPS, under Leonid Gozman's command, chose the second option. This immediately provoked a sharp reaction from the liberal community, which was upset with SPS for two reasons. First, the party sold out its principles. After it had earned a reputation as the implacable opponent of the Kremlin, SPS turned 180 degrees around and became a Kremlin lapdog, content to live on the boyar's table scraps. Second, the new status as a Kremlin favorite gives SPS access to television coverage, which other liberal parties like Yabloko do not enjoy. Moreover, SPS was given an unofficial guarantee that the Kremlin would help control the level of criminal activity in the regions (recall the killing and disappearance of local SPS and Yabloko leaders in Dagestan last year.)

In short, by today's standards, Gozman's SPS received a gift of tsarist proportions.

Dmitry Oreshkin is a Moscow-based political analyst.