MOSCOW – President Vladimir V. Putin has made it clear that he will not tolerate dissent, but a new opposition party is thriving.
And that party, curiously, has spoken out on the same issues of anti-corruption and repression that have made opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny the Kremlin's number one enemy, while the government would send him to a penal colony.
The new party is thriving even now that Navalny & # 39; s own party has been banned. The reasons, say Russian analysts, are to undermine Mr Navalny, divert his movement and divide the liberal opposition – all while providing a layer of multiparty politics in a country where there is little meaningful electoral choice.
The new party, called New People, appears to appeal to Mr Navalny's followers.
"For two decades we lived in a situation of wrong choice: freedom or order," the platform proclaims. The government, she says, “should stop seeing enemies and traitors in those who have different views.
The Kremlin has worked on many fronts to destroy Mr. Navalny's movement – by arresting its supporters in protests and, according to Mr. Navalny and Western governments, tried to kill him last year. Government officials have smeared him as a Western intelligence front man, and government-backed flash mobs have emerged to support Mr Putin.
But Mr. Navalny has also faced a steady stream of competing anti-corruption reformers who appear to be operating with the blessing of the government – most recently New People, which stepped up its campaign for parliamentary elections in September, when Mr. will be in a criminal case. colony.
The founder of a cosmetics company, Aleksei Nechayev, founded the party last year to channel what he described as opposition sentiment in society, just as Mr Navalny has done. But Mr Nechayev refrains from direct criticism of Mr Putin and is not calling for his impeachment.
Navalny and his allies hailed the arrival of New People with disdain, identifying Mr. Nechayev as the latest in a long series of political doubles called on by the Kremlin to try to free Mr. Navalny from his leadership of disaffected young professionals.
"They are trying to make it clear to us that these new people will now be the real competition for United Russia," Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally, said of the ruling pro-Putin party in a YouTube analysis following the new party's action last year. year.
“It's pretty funny,” she added. "They say the right things, more or less, but obviously never will. They are just spoilers."
The Russian political system is sometimes called & # 39; managed democracy & # 39; Named after the practice of Kremlin political advisers creating, guiding, or funding alleged opposition members and parties – and tolerating some others as long as they do not directly criticize Mr Putin.
These parties are allowed to compete with each other, letting off some steam in the population, while the necessary losers to create an illusion of choice in elections that the ruling party usually wins.
Variants of such fig leaf democratic systems exist in autocratic countries around the world. Outside of some Middle Eastern monarchies and remaining communist dictatorships such as North Korea, elections, even falsified, are the only accepted means of legitimizing power.
This statement about Russia's iron rule emerged in the early 2000s under a former domestic political adviser to Mr Putin, Vladislav Y. Surkov, although Mr. Surkov has since been pushed aside. In the last presidential election in 2018, Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite known as a goddaughter of Mr Putin, filled the role of the ersatz opposition while keeping Mr Navalny from fleeing.
Likewise, New People allows Russians who support Navalny & # 39; s modernization agenda to vote for a legal alternative, without the headache of arrests and repression.
Mr Nechayev denied consulting with the Kremlin before forming the party, which now has 72 regional offices, two of which were added just last week, and even won a few seats in regional elections last fall.
Yet political analysts have rejected the idea that the party came into existence without the Kremlin's blessing. In Russia, "the real opposition is the unregistered parties," Andrei Kolesnikov, a political scientist at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, said in a telephone interview.
In an interview at the party's spacious headquarters in a luxury Moscow office tower, Mr. Nechayev listed the three conditions for registering a political party: refrain from criticizing Mr. Putin or his family, avoid foreign funding and abstain of unapproved street protests.
“We are not breaking these three red lines,” he said.
"Often, and especially in the West, Russia is portrayed as simply Putin and Navalny," but many Russians want moderate opposition, he said. "Most people understand that the world is not black and white."
As useful as it may be in dull movements like Mr Navalny's, managed democracy has not always been smooth. On rare occasions, politicians have been ridiculed when Kremlin puppets targeted real opposition.
Members of Just Russia, a party Mr Surkov helped form in 2006 to fill the fake center-left opposition position in Russian politics, did just that in 2011 with the endorsement of a previous street protest movement led by Mr Navalny.
One of those politicians, Gennady Gudkov, has since fled Russia and is openly speaking about the Kremlin's hand in fake opposition parties, a threat facing the real opposition along with the police crackdown.
Of Mr Surkov's crucial role in creating Just Russia, "there were no secrets," said Mr Gudkov in a telephone interview from Bulgaria.
In a macabre turn, a political figure believed to have originated as a fake or curated copy of Mr. Navalny has even died in what Bellingcat, the open-source research organization, has documented as a probable poison murder.
As an anti-corruption blogger, Nikita Isayev and his New Russia group had imitated many of Navalny & # 39; s tactics and exposed corruption among lower-ranking officials. He was called "the New Navalny". However, he refrained from criticizing Mr Putin.
Mr. Isayev died suddenly at the age of 41 during a night train ride in 2019. One of the possible motives Bellingcat identified was palace intrigues. Mr. Isayev was seen as having a bond with Mr. Surkov, so when Mr. Surkov fell out of favor according to this theory, his Kremlin rivals agreed to take out his fake Navalny as well.