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Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday co-opted leaders of the country’s parliamentary opposition into the State Council, as opposition figures continue calling for protests and the government fears further political instability. Kremlin spin-doctors are touting the move – Putin’s first political gesture toward systemic opposition since returning to the Kremlin in May – as a way to improve relations with the parliamentary opposition parties, many of which have been dissatisfied with some of the Kremlin's initiatives. But other analysts see the move as part of the Kremlin’s canny maneuver to co-opt Russian political actors and politically neutralize them ahead of the regional and mayoral elections in October.
The heads of the main Russian political parties will henceforth have a permanent seat in the State Council, whose membership has until now been limited to regional governors and top state officials, the RBC daily reported on Tuesday. The inclusion of political party heads is expected to boost the council's status and facilitate more authoritative decision-making. "Now the State Council will not just be an advisory body; it will assume some practical function since the people directly involved in the subsequent implementation of the decisions taken at the meeting will be part of it," the paper cites unnamed sources inside the Kremlin as saying.
Tuesday’s meeting, the first since Putin returned to the Kremlin, focused on regional development and the means of achieving it. In what looks like a confirmation of the council’s new role, Putin called on participants to make concerted efforts to enshrine the principle of the separation of powers in the governance of the country. Efficiency of government, he said, depends on the openness of public administration and feedback from the public. "The people in the regions must feel that their opinions are important, that they are taken into account, that the views of citizens, their suggestions and wishes are reflected in our practical work," Putin said.
Since his return to the Kremlin, Putin has initiated a number of measures that critics say were aimed at rolling back freedom and encroaching on people’s liberties. Deputies protested in the State Duma last month when the pro-Kremlin United Russia-controlled chamber approved an amendment to dramatically hike fines for disorder at public rallies. The Communist and Just Russia Parties have since indicated that they would appeal this and another law on gubernatorial elections recently passed by United Russia to the Russian Constitutional Court. With the new arrangement, the Kremlin hopes to nip such protests in the bud while giving opposition leaders a modicum chance to participate in the decision-making process.
Analysts have also said that the inclusion of party leaders in the State Council is merely cosmetic and suggests that the Kremlin is making a strategic political move in the face of opposition protests that have refused to subside. "The Kremlin is preparing different scenarios just in case social unrest extends into the fall," said Nikolai Petrov, a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "I believe the key moment will be October, when elections will take place. October will also be a reality check for the Kremlin because the results of its social programs will be clear for people to see."
Petrov cautioned though that it will be a great miscalculation for the opposition to interpret the Kremlin’s move as the beginning of large-scale political reforms in the country. "They are certainly eager to explore different options at the moment. But all signs now point to a further entrenchment of the authoritarian rule and the power vertical structure," Petrov said. Ilya Ponomaryov, a Duma deputy from Just Russia, dismissed the State Council “as a discussion club for regional leaders." "It's of no use attaching any importance to the gathering because apart from exchanging compliments and other niceties, the council does little else," Ponomaryov said.
Even if the Kremlin's endeavors to liberalize political discourse through the State Council succeed, the tiny presence of the opposition may still be crushed by the politics of numbers, analysts say. The problem with the new State Council format is that leaders of parliamentary parties are not just a minority among 82 regional leaders, but they are de-facto outsiders, said Alexei Makarkin, the deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies. "It could have been effective if some regional leaders are part of the opposition, but the authorities blocked that option through municipal filters,” Makarkin said. “So, everything looks like a formality – the party leaders may voice their opinions, but not much else."
After decades of political passivity, the Russian official opposition does not appear ready to assert itself even through such political establishments as the State Council. “All the present leaders of the official opposition see themselves as Putin’s allies,” Petrov said. “They don’t want to rock the boat and they don’t want to invite competition from borderline democratic groups. They would rather go to any length to maintain the status-quo."
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