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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Liberals Without a Cause

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The Union of Right Forces — SPS — held its congress Sunday. The main order of business was to unite a number of small political factions into a single party and to choose a leader. They chose former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. While it is obvious that the country has long needed a united liberal party, it remains unclear exactly whom the new SPS will represent.

In recent months, SPS has been billing itself as the party of big capital. In this regard, SPS leaders certainly distinguished themselves during the recent NTV crisis, openly siding with the state monopoly Gazprom. Throughout the conflict, SPS leaders spouted a lot of words about defending property rights, which boiled down to the idea that property rights take precedence over other rights and liberties, including freedom of speech.

SPS's reliance on big capital doesn't make any sense. This is not because the economic elite makes up less than half a percent of the electorate, but rather because Russia's political structure is such that big capital simply doesn't need political parties in order to advance its interests. The Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs — dubbed the "union of oligarchs" — can settle any issues directly with the Kremlin. Thus, they don't need SPS.

The ones who might be genuinely interested in a strong liberal political party are small and mid-sized businesses, trapped between the hammer of the state and the anvil of the oligarchs. However, SPS is in no hurry to take up their interests. Small business can no longer tolerate our enormous state, which is growing not by the day but by the hour. SPS, on the other hand, is organically intertwined with the state and with the top bureaucrats; it doesn't want to spoil its relations with them.

Further, SPS cannot and does not want to quarrel with the oligarchs, including Gazprom, for the simple reason that its informal leader — Anatoly Chubais — heads the country's second- largest state monopoly. This is a classic example of conflict of interest (as is the position of another SPS leader, Sergei Kiriyenko who is a top Kremlin bureaucrat). And it will inevitably continue as long as Chubais and Kiriyenko insist on playing two roles — SPS leaders and head of Unified Energy Systems (in Chubais' case) and governor general (in Kiriyenko's) — at once.

The result is that SPS's natural ally and popular base — small and mid-sized businesses — invests its money and votes anywhere except SPS. If one is fated to live between the hammer and the anvil, it is only logical that one would try to make peace with the hammer. That is why the rating of the pro-Kremlin Unity party rose by 6 percent in the last three months and is now more than seven times greater than SPS's rating.

One other potential SPS resource is the intelligentsia or, as they are called in the West, "professionals," people who don't have their own businesses but who have adapted to market conditions. These people take no joy in the suppression of the nonstate mass media or in stepped-up nationalistic and anti-Western rhetoric. They have enough education to understand that authoritarianism poses a serious threat to them.

But the constant SPS appeals to power and their supplications to the president make it evident that SPS is not going to defend them.

And what about the young people to whom Nemtsov appeals so strongly? They probably don't care too much for ideals such as freedom of speech, not least because they are too young to remember what life was like without them. But this generation is attracted by strong leaders and clear positions. SPS's indecision over the last few months has demonstrated anything but strength.

If SPS's rating continues to fall at the rate that it has over the last few months (1.5 percent per month), they will have no support by the time of the next parliamentary elections — whether they are held in the fall or next year. And no "administrative resources" will be able to change that.

Therefore, SPS's real task is to properly position itself. In other words, it must finally formulate its priorities, its target audience and its relationship with the Kremlin. And it must do all of this as honestly as possible.

The time when it was possible to play games with the voters has passed. It is time to get serious, and SPS must face this fact.

Yevgenia Albats is an independent, Moscow-based journalist.