For Liberal Parties, a Win of Sorts in Moscow

By Peter Finn
Published December 5th 2005 in The Washington Post

MOSCOW, Dec. 5 -- Russia's moribund Western-oriented liberal movement registered the political equivalent of a pulse in Sunday's elections for the Moscow city parliament, in a vote swept by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party as predicted.

With only the scale of United Russia's victory in doubt, attention here had focused on whether the liberal Yabloko party, in alliance with other small parties, could cross the threshold of 10 percent of the vote to guarantee itself seats in parliament and create a modicum of optimism for national parliamentary elections in 2007.

Both Yabloko and its major ally, the Union of Right Forces, failed to get into the national parliament in 2003 elections. In the run-up to Sunday's vote, political analysts here had predicted the death of this strand of the Russian opposition if it failed to win seats in the city parliament.

The Union of Right Forces, setting aside past differences with Yabloko, subsumed itself under the Yabloko banner along with some other small political groupings. Some figures in the liberal movement would like to see this alliance go forward to the next national elections.

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, speaking on Echo Moskvy radio Monday, called the election an "important event" but criticized what he called "unequal and unfair treatment," citing United Russia's dominance of broadcast media coverage. His party also has charged that United Russia is able to pressure public employees to vote for it.

"Holding elections in an authoritarian system is a serious thing. Everyone who wants some kind of result finds himself in a position of having to plead with the authorities for this or that percentage," said Yavlinsky, echoing the kind of rhetoric that dominated the party's campaign message.

United Russia's ticket was led by the city's powerful and popular mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. The party secured 47 percent of the vote, winning all 15 directly elected seats in the 35-seat parliament. In addition, it got 13 seats that are assigned on the basis of each party's overall take of the vote. The Communist Party came in second with 16.8 percent of the vote and four seats. Yabloko squeaked over the 10 percent barrier with 11.1 percent, taking three seats.

Turnout was about 33 percent among the city's 7 million registered voters, election officials said.

Communist Party officials, who had also expressed concern about a decline in votes in the face of United Russia's strength, pronounced themselves satisfied with the result. They also began to look forward to 2007.

"We stopped the fall of support for the Communist Party . . . and turned for the better," Ivan Melnikov, who led the party's list, said on Echo Moskvy. "Thus we prepared a good platform for strong results to the parliament."

The Communists also might have benefited from the absence of another party, the nationalist grouping Rodina. It was removed from the ballot because of a political advertisement that the courts said incited ethnic hatred. Opinion polls had predicted that Rodina would finish second.

"Our victory was stolen from us," party leader Dmitry Rogozin said at a news conference Monday, promising to continue to build the party as an alternative to United Russia. "After a court decision, we found ourselves in a difficult situation, and it is important for us at present to strengthen our organization, rather than dwell on things past."

United Russia leaders explained their victory as the inevitable result of effectiveness. "United Russia is the party that gets things done," Vyacheslav Volodin, a party leader, said on ORT television. "And we hope our deputies will justify the trust that voters have shown in them."