Rodina Will Merge With the Party of Life

Sending a shockwave through the stagnant political scene, Rodina and the Party of Life announced Tuesday that they would merge to take on United Russia as an opposition party in next year's parliamentary elections.

The union promises to spell the end of Rodina, a party founded on a nationalist platform just two months before the last State Duma elections. The centrist, Kremlin-loyal Party of Life is headed by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov.

"We have decided to merge the two main opposition parties," said new Rodina leader Alexander Babakov, a wealthy businessman believed to be close to the Kremlin.

Rodina, however, has seen its popularity plummet from 7 percent to 3 percent since Babakov took over in March, after winning a surprising 9 percent of the vote in the 2003 Duma elections. The Party of Life's national popularity rating hovers around 1 percent.

The Communist Party remains the most popular opposition force, with a current rating of 19 percent, according to the independent Levada Center.

Babakov trumpeted the planned merger as a way "to consolidate the left forces and balance the influence of United Russia."

"Neither the Communists nor the social democrats are capable of creating a real leftist party because they have discredited themselves," said Mironov, flanking Babakov at a news conference.

He said the as-yet-unnamed party would tackle poverty and rights abuses.

"Russia has always been and will remain a leftist country where ideas of social justice find the strongest support," he said, Interfax reported.

While insisting the party would be left-leaning, he said he remained a Kremlin loyalist and would support President Vladimir Putin's chosen successor in 2008.

Former Rodina leader Dmitry Rogozin said the merger suggested the Kremlin was considering betting on two parties -- not just on United Russia -- in the Duma elections.

"There is very little political space in Russia, and it makes sense for the parties to merge to survive," Rogozin said by telephone.

On the other hand, the Kremlin's decision to destroy Rodina by merging it with the unpopular Party of Life might indicate that it is putting all its bets on United Russia, said Yury Korgunyuk, who monitors political parties at Indem think tank. He noted the Kremlin had backed a series of changes to federal legislation that promise to help United Russia in the elections.

A first voice of dissent sounded from within Rodina shortly after the merger announcement. "I am categorically against the merger ... because the ideological positions of Rodina and the Party of Life are completely different," Deputy Andrei Savelyev said, Interfax reported.

He said he would call for a Rodina congress to remove Babakov as leader.

Rogozin said Mironov was interested in Rodina because it had a faction in the Duma and a recognized brand name, while Rodina needed the support of an influential figure such as Mironov to survive.

At the very least, regional elections officials might now stop removing Rodina candidates from the ballot, Rogozin added. Rodina has been removed from many regional elections in recent months, usually for technical reasons such as improperly filled-out forms. Notably, however, Rodina was banned from the Moscow City Duma elections in December after Rogozin appeared in a campaign commercial that likened dark-skinned migrants to garbage.

Mironov on Tuesday complained that the Party of Life had also faced problems. Regional election officials have been accused of blocking candidacies to secure easy victories for United Russia.

The Party of Life's branch in the east Siberian republic of Tuva was denied registration over a technicality recently, meaning the party will not run in local legislative elections this fall, Kommersant reported Tuesday.

Rogozin said the merger was logical, noting that Mironov recently called for the preservation of the nation, a cornerstone of Rodina's platform.

Mironov's party, however, is not known for having a nationalist stance. It is perhaps best known for advocating the preservation of the muskrat, which it adopted as its official symbol in 2003.

Rogozin, who led Rodina from the beginning and participated in several anti-Kremlin rallies, was ousted at a party congress in late March and replaced by Babakov, the president of the CSKA Moscow football club and owner of several Ukrainian businesses. Rodina activists no longer participate in opposition activities, although Babakov insisted Tuesday that the party remained oppositional.

Babakov met with Putin on Monday for talks billed as a regular meeting between a Duma faction leader and the president. The content of the talks was not disclosed.

By getting rid of Rogozin, the Kremlin was reining in a monster of its own making, observers say. Rogozin and others have said the party was slapped together by the Kremlin to take votes from the Communists, but it subsequently emerged as an independent force.