Gorbachev's Gallant Example

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I was heartened to learn that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and billionaire Alexander Lebedev are founding a new political entity, the Independent Democratic Party, which is scheduled to make its debut in the 2011 State Duma elections. The two men are already partners in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Lebedev has an interesting background that combines KGB, Ph.D. and CEO on one resume. Now holding significant stakes in several banks and Aeroflot, Lebedev's doctoral dissertation was titled "The Problems of Debt and the Challenges of Globalization." He left the intelligence services with the rank of lieutenant colonel and immediately did so well in the private sector that he was tagged "the spy who came in for the gold."

Lebedev and Gorbachev are to be commended for their courage because the Kremlin hardly takes a more-the-merrier attitude toward political parties other than the dominant United Russia and the tolerated Communist Party. Of course, this new party poses little real threat to the status quo. But the Kremlin was not very tolerant of other such challengers in the 2007 Duma election and the 2008 presidential election, when the price of oil was high and the world economy stable. The Kremlin can be expected to be even less tolerant in times of shock and volatility, when suddenly nothing seems solid or sure.

Although there are already rumors in Moscow that this party will be used by the government as a sort of Potemkin village of democracy, this is no doubt only the Russian weakness for operatic hyperbole that thrives in a vacuum of trust and reliable information.

Gorbachev remains unpopular in Russia. He received less than 1 percent of the vote in the 1996 presidential election, and he probably wouldn't have done any better if he ran in 2008. If he were truly popular at home and had a solid power base, that might put him and his new party in jeopardy. Chess champion Garry Kasparov can be dismissed with a few bureaucratic dirty tricks, but someone like former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had a real power base, had to be dealt with more radically. So, in an odd way, Gorbachev's unpopularity at home can buy him some time to build his political structure.

Conversely, the fact that Gorbachev remains famous and respected outside of Russia could also contribute to the success of his venture. It is one thing to move against Kasparov, darling of The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, but quite another to move against the statesman who presided over the Soviet Union's soft landing and received a Nobel Peace Prize. The scrutiny of the world media makes direct attacks less likely, especially after witnessing the capital flight that occurred after Russia's defeat in the court of public opinion following its victory in the Georgian war.

It's perfectly possible that the Independent Democratic Party will prove a quixotic venture. Fearing their own proclivities to larceny and anarchy, Russians may decide that democracy is at best a dubious luxury for a generation or so.

But even if this new party does not perform especially well in the next Duma elections, its real importance lies elsewhere. As much as anything, Russia needs institutions and examples that feel homegrown, not imported. The Independent Democratic Party can provide an example of what a political party can be. The other Gorbachev-Lebedev venture, Novaya Gazeta, is an example of what a free newspaper can be. It was not, however, the co-owners of the newspaper who faced danger but its journalists, like Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered two years ago.

Gorbachev and Lebedev deserve applause for creating a new political party in a hostile climate, but the best tribute the outside world can pay them is to keep a sharp eye on that party's fate in the Russia of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Richard Lourie, author of "Sakharov: A Biography," is now writing "The Death of Russia."