The New York Times reports:
For a few days this month, Moscow political circles were transfixed by a rather exotic spectacle: the leader of an opposition party was criticizing Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin.
This was not just any leader. It was Sergei M. Mironov, whose career in the opposition has been distinguished by passionate loyalty to Mr. Putin. When he ran against Mr. Putin for president in 2004, he said he was running because “when a leader you believe in goes into battle, you can’t leave him alone, you must stand with him.” Two years later he promised that A Just Russia, his new party, would “follow the course of President Vladimir Putin and will not allow anyone to veer from it after Putin leaves his post.”
Many observers long ago wrote off A Just Russia as “pocket opposition,” devised to give the appearance of political competition where none existed. So it came as a surprise when Mr. Mironov, who Mr. Putin installed as speaker of the upper house of Parliament, told the television talk show host Vladimir V. Pozner that it was “outdated information to say that we, and personally I, have supported Vladimir Putin in everything,” noting that the party members “categorically opposed” Mr. Putin’s budget. Mr. Pozner was taken aback — “nobody in that position has said anything negative about Putin,” he said later — and watched with real curiosity to see if officials at state-controlled Channel One would edit out the remark before it was broadcast in Moscow. They did not.
For six strange days, Mr. Mironov defended his right to criticize Mr. Putin while officials at the governing party, United Russia, said he should lose his post for his show of ingratitude. The fuss ended with a public reconciliation between the pro-Putin parties, and all the planets seemed to realign. But during an unpredictable political season in Russia, a question was left hanging in the air: Under the right set of circumstances, could a docile, dependent opposition turn into the real thing?
Konstantin V. Remchukov, editor in chief of the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which is often critical of the government, has been mulling this question since October. That was when all three minority parties, including Mr. Mironov’s, staged a walkout from the State Duma to protest alleged vote tampering by United Russia. Were they pressing the limits of permitted dissent? Yes. Were they motivated by a love of democracy? Hardly.
“They feel a risk of disappearing from the political scene,” Mr. Remchukov said. “It is a vigorous fight for their personal physical existence. It has nothing to do with real opposition to the Kremlin.”
In an interview, Mr. Mironov was cheerful about the fallout from his remarks about Mr. Putin, saying that the feud with United Russia had brought him more fan mail than at any other point in his career. With several weeks remaining before elections in eight crisis-wracked regions, he clearly is hoping to tap the anti-incumbent feeling that set off last month’s protests in Kaliningrad, what he called the “real indignation of the people.”
The focus of that anger, he argues, is United Russia. Mr. Mironov said he had watched the governing party take on the monopolistic arrogance of the Soviet Communist Party, which “ended with the crash of a great state.” During the feud, he said, “I had the feeling that if they were allowed, they would shoot me. It cannot be faked, they were all shaking, they hated me, they were all calling me names.
“Where is it coming from?” he said. “Hatred toward a person who allowed himself to think and say something that contradicted them. It’s the right of every person. We live in a free and democratic country.”
But Mr. Mironov is not likely to expand on his criticism of Mr. Putin. To end the feud with United Russia, he signed an agreement promising not to oppose Mr. Putin and President Dmitri A. Medvedev on a list of major policy issues, and in the interview he quoted the prime minister and with unbridled admiration. He called Mr. Putin “a genius — I am not afraid to use this word” for retaining a measure of independence from United Russia.
“A trade union of bureaucrats may serve a function for the prime minister today,” Mr. Mironov said. “But the prime minister may change his views, his needs, or something may happen and the need for this drive belt may disappear.”
The hard reality is that A Just Russia, envisioned by its founders as a left-wing alternative to United Russia, has never gained much traction with voters, and risks dropping below the 7 percent level needed for representation in Parliament. A Just Russia’s best chance is to define itself more sharply as opposition, especially at a moment when Mr. Medvedev is insisting on more political competition in the regions.
Sergei S. Mitrokin, leader of the liberal party Yabloko, scoffed at the idea that Mr. Mironov’s party, which he called “a political structure created by the authorities themselves,” could serve as a counterweight to power. His own party, which has been marginalized to the point of near extinction over the last decade, was disqualified last week from two of the eight regional elections to be held March 14, after local election commissions rejected its signatures.
Mr. Mironov’s party, he said, “can express some degree of the protest spirit in society. But only with the goal of neutralizing it, and strengthening the control of the ruling group.”
Mr. Remchukov, the editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, also watched the drama with a dose of skepticism. In an editorial last week, he urged Mr. Medvedev to grant access to the “real opposition,” parties so shut out from mass media and public life that illegal street rallies are their only outlet.
But, he added, the political self-interest of insiders like Mr. Mironov carries its own subtle threat to the system. Every time a prominent figure breaks ranks, as in the brief show of defiance after the October elections, it carves out a little more freedom.
“People begin to think they can speak out,” he said. “This fear lives and lives in the kitchens, and then someone speaks out,” criticizing United Russia or Moscow’s powerful mayor, “and then people begin to understand, ‘Look, they’re not in jail.’ That’s how all these things begin to soften, these structures, these rigid structures.
“This is good for Russia,” he said. “If we can’t get it from normal sources, let it be from this.”