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Unity eludes Russia's reformers

With elections next year, their best hope lies in a new coalition. But can they put aside differences?

Russia's beleaguered free-market reformers appear increasingly frustrated in their attempts to unify forces despite rapidly approaching parliamentary elections in 1999 - and a possible emergency presidential poll.

"There is a substantial electorate in favor of market reforms and democratic development in Russia, but our tragedy is that reform politicians have never been able to concentrate their forces," says Vladimir Petukhov, an analyst with the independent Institute for Social and National Problems in Moscow.

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Through most of the turbulent years since the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union a vigorous President Boris Yeltsin ensured that proponents of market reform were strongly represented in successive Russian governments.

But August's financial crash, combined with Mr. Yeltsin's health problems, led to the formation in September of a government with almost no reformers in top posts.

Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, whose Cabinet includes Communists and economic nationalists, has vowed to correct what he calls the "failures of market reform" and sharply increase the state's role in economic management.

"The reformers have suffered a major reverse," says Sergei Tarasenko, of the Fund for Realism in Politics, a private Moscow think tank. "If they don't unite they could be wiped off the political map entirely."

Elections to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, are scheduled for next December. In order to enter the Duma, a party must garner at least 5 percent of the vote. Russia's two previous post-Soviet parliamentary elections, in 1993 and 1995, saw several reformist parties win a combined total of about 30 percent of the vote. But most failed to get into the Duma.

President Yeltsin's health has sparked doubts that he will serve out his full term, which ends in June 2000. Should he die or step down, preterm presidential elections must follow in three months. "The coming year will be full of upheavals, both planned and unscheduled," says Mr. Petukhov.

The murder last month of Galina Starovoitova, a founder of Russia's democratic movement, in what some believe was a politically motivated contract killing, led to urgent calls for reformers to close ranks.

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Last week a group of leading liberal politicians launched an as-yet-unnamed center-right coalition that they hope will meet this challenge. In the words of one founder, Yegor Gaidar, the basic idea is to "bring together all those who believe that Russia's current woes stem from insufficient, rather than too much, market reform."

The new movement's stars are all young, reformist public figures who rose to power and prominence through Yeltsin's personal support - and who were later, without exception, tossed to the winds of political expedience by their survival-minded patron.

As post-Soviet Russia's first prime minister, Mr. Gaidar slashed government spending and pried open the national market to foreign investment and competition. Another founder, Anatoly Chubais, was the architect of Russia's mass privatization drive and the mastermind of Yeltsin's 1996 reelection campaign. Boris Nemtsov, a successful provincial governor, was made vice premier in 1997 to spearhead the struggle against giant corporate monopolies.

"The new center-right coalition is composed of people who have all been in power and know the realities of administration intimately. This is their strength," says Sergei Markov, director of the Russian Association of Political Consultancies in Moscow. "But they are also tainted with the failures of the reform process over the last several years, and this is their weakness."

Despite the brave speeches that marked its founding conference the new movement is already prey to the tendency of Russian democrats to split along personality lines. The biggest problem is the unwillingness of Russia's most credible democratic leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, of the liberal Yabloko party, to join the new coalition.

Most experts say there are no major ideological differences between Mr. Yavlinsky and leaders of the new center-right party. But it may be impossible to bridge the divide between Yabloko activists, who have toiled for years building a national party, and those such as Gaidar, Mr. Chubais, and Mr. Nemtsov who chose the high road to power.

"It is impossible for us to unite with people whose record in government discredited the ideas of democratic and market reforms in the eyes of the Russian people," says Yabloko deputy Sergei Mitrokhin.

But Yabloko's great advantage - that it is untainted by the economic disasters of the reform years - may also be a fatal drawback. "Yavlinsky has no track record in power," says Mr. Markov. "He looks like a typical intellectual, standing aside and criticizing. This is associated with weakness in the Russian mind, and Russians want a strong leader."

A coalition between the two groups could produce a synergy between the grass-roots democrats of Yabloko and the proven practitioners of market reform. Their continued division might doom both wings of Russia's fractured liberal movement to defeat.

"Much depends on how forces on all sides of the spectrum consolidate over the next few months," says Leonid Sedov, an analyst with the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research in Moscow, one of the country's largest private polling organizations. "Large sections of the electorate can move this way or that way, depending on how they perceive the key players. So far, the outlook for democrats and market reformers does not look good."

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