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Published: Saturday, 8/9/2003

Split in Russia's political landscape not likely to have heavenly ending

Distance is no barrier to love. Similarly, hate abhors closeness, as Russia demonstrates.

Separated by hundreds of miles, a Russian cosmonaut in orbit and his fianc e on Earth are getting married via a TV hookup.

At the same time, two camps of mutually hateful Earth-bound Russian bureaucrats are finalizing their split.

This became clear last month after a so-called People's Party announced that it will have its representatives compete with the United Russia Party for seats in the parliament.

There is a problem. In a country as volatile as Russia, the situation may be a threat to nothing less than social order.

Consider:

wUnited Russia is financed by the rich Yeltsin-era oligarchs such as former government officials and robber barons who are clinging to political power, notably their dominant representation in the parliament.

w A younger People's Party is dominated by the former and current state security officers -brought to key government positions by their former colleague President Vladimir Putin - who are hungry for the oligarchs' fortunes.

Until recently the two parties were identical in that their only visible function was unconditional support of Mr. Putin, notably the war in Chechnya and attempts to strengthen the federal government at the expense of regional authorities. But the new elite is no longer content with its supporting role in United Russia.

In fact, it was the would-be founders of United Russia who in 2000 brought Mr. Putin to power to guard their riches once Mr. Yeltsin became too frail to complete his term. But Mr. Putin has since grown his own protective layer of bureaucrats whose mercantile appetites he cannot or does not want to control.

The Kremlin assault on the oligarchs has begun. It became obvious when the government launched a criminal investigation of YUKOS, Russia's largest oil company, by jailing its second-in-command a month ago. So the Kremlin obviously realizes that it has antagonized United Russia and now relies on the People's Party as the December parliamentary election and the next year's presidential election approach.

Right now People's Party activists are recruiting new members and sympathizers en masse across Russia's 11 time zones, vowing their support of President Putin who is up for a re-election next year.

Unfortunately, hate of the super-rich and a hidden promise of redistribution of the oligarchs' wealth are great selling points. So the recruiting process is in full swing.

That support comes at a price, not for Mr. Putin, but for Russia as a whole.

Independent Russian media carried reports of Kremlin plans to rewrite Russia's liberal constitution. Interestingly, lawmaker Gennady Raikov, the head of the People's Party, recently told reporters in Russia that the constitution could use an “editing” to put more emphasis on citizens' responsibilities as opposed to their rights.

The People's Party's bid for power is an ominous development. It makes me worry about the fate of the new couple and their countrymen.



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