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  Putin has hand in own opposition, analysts say
They say the Russian leader is creating bogus parties designed to be hidden allies.

Associated Press | November 4, 2006
By Henry Meyer

MOSCOW - To ensure there is no effective opposition in parliamentary elections next year, President Vladimir V. Putin and his allies have invented one.

Analysts say Putin has been secretly promoting bogus opposition parties - the leftist Fair Russia and liberal Free Russia - designed to be hidden allies of the pro-Kremlin United Russia movement in the December 2007 ballot.

It's all part of what experts see as maneuvering by the former KGB officer to ensure he controls Russia from behind the scenes after he steps down as president in 2008.

Leonid Sedov, a political analyst at the respected polling institute the Levada Center, said Putin intended to keep a hand on the reins even while nominally giving them up.

Since he took office in 2000, Putin has taken gradual steps to centralize power and eliminate democratic checks and balances. Now he appears to be laying the groundwork to emerge as the force behind the throne.

Analysts say he likely will take over as leader of United Russia, giving him a political platform to play puppet master.

Olga Khrystanovskaya, a sociologist who is an authority on Putin's inner circle, said the distribution of power among the presidency, the prime minister's office and parliament could be changed to ensure the new president would not hold too much power.

So far, there is no clear successor to the immensely popular Putin, 54, whose approval ratings are close to 80 percent. Only 3 percent of Russians say another politician could defeat Putin's handpicked choice as his successor, an opinion poll by Levada Center says.

The two main contenders for that role are hard-line Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and technocrat Deputy Premier Dmitry Medvedev, both of whom have been tested on the electorate through regular appearances on state television.

But Putin has hinted he isn't limited to those choices.

The two new political groups seemingly tied to Putin aim to win over voters who have been backing ineffectual and divided opposition parties.

Fair Russia came into existence over the weekend in what some characterized as a shotgun merger of the Party of Life, Party of Pensioners and Homeland, a nationalist movement.

Sergei Mironov, the former leader of Party of Life, now heads Fair Russia, which has a populist platform and claims it will compete against United Russia but also swears loyalty to the president.

Igor Mintusov, a political consultant who was an adviser on the Fair Russia merger, said the new party hoped to capture 20 percent of the vote to United Russia's likely 40 percent, relegating the opposition communists to third place.

The other new party, Free Russia, is still in its embryonic stage but it plans to appeal to the fragmented liberal electorate - estimated at 15 percent.

Free Russia's leader, Alexander Ryabkin, said on the party's Web site it is counting on "moral support" from the government.

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