The powerful and pro-Kremlin United Russia party has a new opponent -- one, however, that bears all the marks of a Kremlin creation.
The leaders of three small Russian parties -- Motherland, the Party of Life and the Party of Pensioners -- announced a merger Tuesday. The union followed a series of meetings between the leaders and President Vladimir Putin, who blessed a venture that appears designed to leave him with loyalists on both sides of the Russian political aisle.
The consolidation offers new evidence of the Kremlin's intolerance of political pluralism or democratic competition in any kind of undirected manner. Since Putin came to power in 2000, his government has established extensive new controls over the news media, industry and grass-roots organizations.
The United Russia party dominates the federal parliament and most of Russia's regional governments. The new party, which will have 30 seats in parliament and says it wants to become the country's largest opposition group after elections in 2007, also swears fealty to the president.
"What do we mean by political opposition in our country?" Sergei Mironov, head of the Party of Life and speaker of the upper house of parliament, asked Tuesday at a news conference in Moscow. "First of all, I would like to declare we back the course laid down [by] the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin. . . . But we do not believe that one political party, one political force should have the monopoly of implementing the presidential" program.
The Kremlin hopes the new party, which has yet to be named, will form the basis of a nominally two-party system in parliament, analysts said. It will give voters an alternative to United Russia and siphon off votes from the Communist Party and others while remaining subservient to the presidential administration, analysts said.
The leaders of the new party immediately sounded a populist note, saying in a joint statement that they would "defend and uphold the interests of the working man."
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has had a string of fake opposition parties, manufactured to create the pretense of political competition. On Tuesday, critics immediately labeled the new party a rehash of earlier efforts.
"They will dance in the left flank," said Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, which is now the largest opposition group in parliament. He promised that his party would "debunk this contrived creation."
Individually, the three parties that came together Tuesday have anemic support, registering in the low single digits, according to opinion polls. Whether as a unified group they can acquire a popular base remains uncertain. But with the Kremlin's backing, the new party can gain the kind of financing and media exposure that has vaulted United Russia into a dominant position and almost completely sidelined parties that oppose Putin.
"Presidential support is already a sign of our success," said Alexander Chuev, a member of parliament for Motherland in an interview Tuesday. "I don't see anything bad in the fact that the leaders of three political parties met with the president and united their positions."
The new party is looking to the elections in 2007 to challenge United Russia's huge majority in parliament. "We need a big faction" in the future parliament, Mironov said.
But the Putin aide who is credited with fostering United Russia's near-monopoly in party politics cautioned recently that there were limits to the role that a loyal opposition would play.
"Your party could attract to its side everybody the authorities in the broad meaning of the word cannot attract," Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, said in a meeting with Party of Life activists when the idea of a new configuration was floating in political circles here. "It is simply that for a long time to come United Russia should remain the largest party around which the political process will be based."
Moreover, analysts said, the new party may find itself having to line up with United Russia to back any person Putin anoints as his successor in presidential elections in 2008. "It will be completely untenable for two client parties to be fighting for the same patron," said Georgy Satarov, who heads a private group that monitors corruption in Russia.
The Motherland party, called Rodina in Russian, began life in similar fashion to Tuesday's announced alliance. With the approval of the Kremlin, it was set up to challenge the communists in a 2003 election and offered voters a socially oriented program tinged with nationalism. Over time, however, it began to steer an independent line, challenging, for instance, the Kremlin plan to replace benefits such as free transportation for the elderly with cash payments that were derided as paltry.
Since the beginning of the year, the party has been reeled back in.
In March, seven separate court decisions prevented it from fielding candidates in seven of eight regional elections, including in Moscow, where it ran an incendiary advertisement attacking immigrants.
Party leader Dmitri Rogozin said in an recent interview that after the Moscow election he was invited to a downtown hotel, where two Kremlin officials told him to resign or see the Motherland party crushed. The Kremlin denied the accusation. Rogozin resigned and was replaced by businessman Alexander Babakov.
In July, Babakov met Putin at the Kremlin in what he called a regular meeting between the president and a party leader. That night, he told the Motherland governing council that the party would unite with Mironov's Party of Life, party officials said. The next day Mironov, a presidential loyalist who like Putin comes from St. Petersburg, announced the planned merger of the two, which on Tuesday became a merger of three.
"Putin simply gave him the order," said Mikhail Delyagin, whom Babakov expelled from the Motherland party for attending an opposition conference in advance of the July meeting of the Group of Eight industrial countries in St. Petersburg. "The Kremlin is not just creating a managed party, it's also destroying Rodina for displaying some independence."
Delyagin and other Motherland dissidents predict their party will be completely absorbed into the much smaller Party of Life as will the Party of Pensioners, which analysts here say is a creation of Putin aide Surkov. They predicted Mironov would lead the new party.
"The president nodded favorably and that was that," said Andrei Savelyev, the only member of Motherland's governing council who voted against the merger. "But no artificial creation has succeeded in the past, and whatever effort the Kremlin makes, I don't think the people will support it."
At their news conference Tuesday, party leaders dismissed the charge that they were puppets of the president. "The easiest form of discrediting any organization today is saying that it is the Kremlin's project," Babakov said. "Our decision is not just a decision by leaders of our parties. It is a decision by our regional branches, party members. Believe me, all those people are very far away from the Kremlin."