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Clever boxing by Russia's champion of democracy

Phil Reeves meets the combative Grigory Yavlinsky
Moscow - Grigory Yavlinsky used to be a boxer, but these days he likes to win his bouts with a rhetorical upper-cut, culled from the pages of 20th- century history: "The successful reform of Germany and Japan after the war was prepared by completely changing the political elite. In Russia, that did not happen."

Doubt has long been raised about the politics of the autocratically inclined President Boris Yeltsin, the magnates who underpin his rule and the former apparatchiks who crowd the corridors of government.

Many are assumed in the West to be reformers and democrats, despite evidence that their priorities have less to do with ideology than a desire to retain power.

But Mr Yavlinsky, head of Russia's Yabloko (Apple) party, has impeccable credentials, being leader of what he describes as "a real, federal democratic party of European values, of human values, of human rights, of competition, private property and the open market." That makes him relatively rare in Moscow: a largely pro-Western liberal ideologue. With Mr Yeltsin's second term in intensive care, Mr Yavlinsky has also emerged as one of his most caustic opponents, matching and often outsparring the Communist- nationalist opposition which dominates parliament.

Russia is in the grips of a "semi-criminal oligarchy" which has sprung from and coalesced around the remnants of the Soviet system, he told the Independent. The media is tamed; even the opposition is something of a sham. "The government is working hand-in-hand with the Communists and the nationalists ... They are the main forces which are supporting the government."

The timing of such attacks is no coincidence. Like everyone else, the 44-year-old economist senses Russia is preparing for the possibility of a future with a new president, amid a mood that dusk has set on the Yeltsin era. Last week he was on the offensive again, writing in the Financial Times: "The ruling elite is neither democratic nor Communist, neither conservative nor liberal, neither red nor green. It is merely greedy and rapacious."

Given such failings, the leadership is, he warns, unable to cope with new menaces to Russia and the West: loss of control over nuclear weapons, development of a breeding-ground for terrorism and crime, and the "high probability" of an environmental disaster.

He told the Independent: "A very small number of people have benefited from what happened in the last five years, maybe a million out of 158 million. That million is really rich. But all the others ... got no access to resources, access to property, freedom to set up their own business."

Mr Yavlinsky wants Mr Yeltsin's successor to be subject to more checks and balances; there should be no more massive tax breaks issued with a stroke of the pen, no more secret decrees. "We need a system where it would not be possible for the president to have a morning cup of tea, and then to start a war."

Should an election be called, Mr Yavlinsky would run, although he is overshadowed by the front-runners, notably the nationalist-leaning Alexander Lebed and Yuri Luzhkov, Mayor of Moscow.

Yabloko enjoys strong support among the urban educated but Mr Yavlinsky's 10 million supporters are too few to put him high in the field. He could winkle a promise of a top position by offering an alliance with whatever candidate the ruling establishment fields under the tattered banner of democracy and reform. But he prefers to remain aloof, an uncompromising democratic voice.

"If we went to the oligarchy, they (the voters) would say 'you are the same. You are only looking for your own'. The people would be disappointed. We have to show that there can be a clean democracy, with clean hands." Fine words. But in a country angered and humiliated by Nato expansion, the loss of the Chechen war, and botched economic reforms, the outlook for liberal ideologues is not great.