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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Liberals Struggle to Survive

Voters woke up Monday to the news that liberal parties had been ousted from parliament for the first time in a decade, a defeat roundly labeled as a setback for democracy and a threat to the future viability of the parties themselves.

Although Yabloko won four single-mandate seats and the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, won two, both failed to pass the 5 percent threshold in the party list vote needed to win a block of seats -- the first time a liberal party has failed to do so since 1993. In the previous State Duma, the two parties held 50 seats between them.

"The democrats no longer exist," Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading political analyst, told Agence France Presse. "The democratic movement has been enfeebled, decapitated, destroyed."

Yabloko leader Vladimir Lukin was marginally more upbeat in remarks carried on Ekho Moskvy radio Monday. "Democracy has not disappeared," he said, "it has simply lost its voice for a while."

The question on many political observers' minds now is whether Yabloko and SPS can rise from the ashes and get that voice back. The short answer is yes, but the two parties will have to overcome the bilateral backbiting that led to their downfall, the analysts said, adding that the energy spent fighting each other, not fighting for votes, sealed their fate.

SPS leader Irina Khakamada, also speaking Monday on Ekho Moskvy, called the dismal election results "the price we paid for all our ineffectiveness. We [SPS and Yabloko] must merge. This is the last wake-up call."

In the best-case scenario, the crisis will serve as just that, prompting the two parties' leaders to get over their personal divisions and regroup.

The liberal right hopes that with a fresh start and a blank slate, the two parties can find a way to reach the 10 million or so voters estimated to share their values, which include the defense of private property and human rights. However, it will not be easy -- experience shows that parties whose leaders are not in parliament wither into obscurity.

That is the worst-case scenario, said Michael McFaul, who studies Russian elections at Stanford University: "They drift off into the political wilderness and never come back."

Getting shut out of the Duma is not only a giant setback for liberals, it is also a setback for President Vladimir Putin, who counted on them to help balance the more extremist members of parliament and move his economic policies forward. Sunday evening, when the numbers were not looking good, Putin called a televised meeting with Yabloko in an effort to boost their political chances, but it was too little, too late.

"In 1999, Putin went out of his way to help get SPS into the Duma, appearing with party leaders and saying, 'These are my guys.'" McFaul told reporters at a press briefing. "This year, the photo ops weren't with [SPS leader Boris] Nemtsov," he added, but with Rodina leaders Sergei Glazyev and Dmitry Rogozin, for whom highly coveted appearances on state-controlled television made all the difference.

This year, SPS counted on Putin to stand behind the pro-business policies they advocated, but as the anti-oligarch campaign around embattled Yukos gathered popular support, the Kremlin cut them loose, leaving them to flounder.

In many ways, Putin adopted SPS's economic agenda as his own, leaving some analysts to wonder where Putin will look for ideas over the next four years. "Increasingly, people who oppose liberal reforms will be able to point to these election results and say, 'This is not the will of the people,'" McFaul said.

The "real paradox of our time," he said, is that Putin embraces liberal economic policies, though the public is not behind them.

Putin on Monday asked the losers not to dramatize the situation. "Their ideas ... will be in demand," he said.

Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Putin was likely to bring a number of liberal former lawmakers into his government. "He'll use them as specialists, as technocrats."

Ryabov said that in Putin's eyes, Yabloko and SPS, just like the Communists, "belong to the heritage of the Yeltsin era," and that the Kremlin was eager to cultivate new opposition parties on its own terms.

There is talk, for example, that the pro-Putin United Russia, which won a landslide victory Sunday, may lend some deputies to join forces with the six representatives from SPS and Yabloko to form a new pro-democratic faction.

If SPS and Yabloko are less than successful in their efforts to reinvent themselves as a cohesive team, that faction, potentially with a liberal-leaning minister from Putin's Cabinet at the helm, could serve as the rallying point for liberal forces in the next Duma elections, in 2007, Ryabov said.

Yabloko's voter base is considered to be perestroika-era dissidents who voted for democrats on principle, despite having suffered economically since 1991. SPS, meanwhile, was seen as drawing its support from a younger generation that had benefited from the new system.

The years-old question of whether a merger of the two would have strengthened that voter base or alienated it remained a topic of acrimonious finger-pointing from the moment it was proposed again this fall to after the votes were counted.

Speaking to party loyalists Sunday night, SPS co-leader Anatoly Chubais blamed Yabloko for refusing to join forces with SPS. He accused its founder, Grigory Yavlinsky, with whom he has a long-standing rivalry, of resisting the proposal out of his personal interests. "I hope Yavlinsky will proceed now with the country's best interest at heart," Chubais said.

Across town at his party headquarters, Yavlinsky fired back, saying the merger Chubais wanted would have done more harm than good. "If we had merged, we would have received half as many votes. The rest would have gone to 'against all.'"

Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and Kremlin insider, unequivocally placed the blame on SPS, telling reporters Monday it was "an open secret that SPS's so-called proposal to Yabloko to unite was ... a cold-blooded calculation designed to demoralize and destroy Yabloko."

Pavlovsky said Chubais, famed for his management skills, should now make a decision whether to stay on as CEO of power monopoly Unified Energy Systems, or throw all his energy into rallying all democratic forces behind him.

Chubais said he would do both.

"From the very beginning of the campaign, when asked whether I would leave UES, I clearly said no ... and nothing has changed," Chubais told Rossia.

And Sunday night, he told supporters that he would spend the next four years "fighting to eradicate the national socialists." "We have lost the battle, but we have not lost the war," he said.

Boris Nadezhdin, an SPS leader in the last Duma and one of the two party members to win a seat in the next, said that the party's leadership, including Chubais, had promised to resign if the party failed to get into the Duma.

"We might elect former leaders, maybe we'll elect different ones" at the party council's meeting next Monday, Nadezhdin told Ekho Moskvy. "We fully take responsibility for this defeat."

"The liberal forces were a voice of reason in the Duma and punched above their political weight by serving on a number of the more important economic committees," Renaissance Capital wrote in a research note Monday. "They are likely to be sorely missed in the new Duma."

Staff Writer Alla Startseva contributed to this report.