The tortuous birth of a credible opposition
He took off the Kremlin dog collar,' explained a friend of Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia's third-richest man, as the political party Prokhorov had founded to run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the December elections blew up in his face. Prokhorov spent millions setting up the new party, Right Cause, and the Kremlin stole it from him, he claims, though he never blames President Dmitry Medvedev or Putin personally.
Putin & Co allegedly encouraged Prokhorov to launch Right Cause to provide a safe repository for the votes of businessmen and intellectuals who just couldn't bring themselves to vote for Putin's own United Russia party any more. It wouldn't be a real opposition party, of course, but it would improve the optics of the situation. Such opposition is sorely needed, because many people in the Russian elite are getting fed up with Putin's rule.
So if you belong to the more intelligent wing of the ruling elite, then you try to create a place where disgruntled intelligentsia and businessmen can park their protest votes. Perhaps a centre-right party that will defend their economic interests, but offer an articulate critique of the regime's policies. It's entirely possible that some people around Putin - perhaps even the great man himself - thought that cogent criticism from a loyal opposition might do them and the country some good.
Putin doesn't need to control the political system as tightly as he does. Even after 11 years in power, he is immensely popular, for he has given Russians back their self-respect and a modest degree of prosperity. He would win a free election hands down.
So in Russia's interest, he should lighten up and allow the political system to evolve towards a genuine democracy. Only slowly, of course - and maybe that's what he had in mind in allowing the creation of Prokhorov's party. So what went wrong?
There are undoubtedly elements within the Putin regime who think no opposition should be tolerated. According to Prokhorov, the name of the chief villain is Vladislav Surkov, Medvedev's top aide. 'We have a puppet master in the country, who long ago privatised the political system, and who for a long time has misinformed the leadership of the country about what is happening in the political system, who pressures the media ... and tries to manipulate public opinion,' Prokhorov claimed.
Who knows? It could have been Putin changing his mind. It could have been Surkov circumventing his wishes. But this is not going to be the year when a credible non-communist opposition party emerges in Russia.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist