MOSCOW -- Gennady Gudkov recalls a time not so long ago when members of his A Just Russia party would lightheartedly banter and socialize with opponents in the State Duma after a parliamentary session.
But that camaraderie, the veteran lawmaker says, is now a distant memory. Even before disputed legislative elections in December led to unprecedented street protests and roiled the elite, the lower house of Russia's parliament had become a much less congenial place.
"For the first time in the State Duma, conflicts between factions have taken to the lobbies and the deputies' cafe. It was never like this," Gudkov says.
"Before, we used to argue, sometimes extremely emotionally in public, and then go to the cafe and sit at the same table -- personally we didn't disagree. Now we do and this began about a year ago."
This little change in lawmakers' social habits is indicative of a larger transformation of the Duma, which is showing signs of becoming less of a rubber-stamp body that simply does the Kremlin's bidding. The increased infighting in the legislature, analysts say, reflects deep discord within the broader ruling elite over Russia's direction.
A Man Of The System
In many ways, Gudkov embodies this discord. As a KGB officer in the 1980s and a former member of the United Russia faction, the portly, mustachioed 55-year-old is in many ways a creature of the system.
A four-time member of parliament and deputy chairman of the Duma's Security and Anti-Corruption Committee, he swaggers down the legislature's long corridors in a pinstriped suit cracking jokes and shaking hands with colleagues.
His office is adorned with medals and plaques. A portrait of Feliks Dzerzhinsky betrays his decade in the KGB.
Gudkov joined the center-left A Just Russia soon after it was formed in 2006, in an attempt by the Kremlin to create an obedient and docile opposition party to siphon votes from the Communists.
When Gudkov did express opposition in those days, it was usually seen as pro forma -- part of the facade of being part of the nominal, regime-loyal "opposition."
But over time, very real tension between the two pro-Kremlin parties -- the ruling United Russia and the ostensibly opposition A Just Russia -- became more apparent. In October 2009, Gudkov and A Just Russia joined the Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Liberal Democrats in a walkout of the Duma to protest alleged vote fraud in favor of United Russia in local elections that month.
'Leader Of The Opposition'
As the 2011-12 election cycle approached, Gudkov's opposition became increasingly manifest as he became identified with a faction of the elite that opposed both Putin's return to power and the continued dominance of United Russia.
In a floor speech in November 2011, Gudkov lambasted United Russia
, alleging that they planned to rig the vote, and warning this would cause Russians to take to the streets.
That speech proved prophetic. The following month, Gudkov became one of the first politicians to address the tens of thousands of disgruntled Russians who massed on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square to protest alleged fraud in the Duma elections and Putin's imminent return to power.
And in April, shortly after Putin was elected to a third term as president, Gudkov and A Just Russia embarrassed him by demonstrably walking out during his address to the Duma.
Gudkov now chuckles at how he has become a "leader of the opposition," as if it happened by accident.
"Putin himself has changed. Out of a reformist president there has emerged an awful conservative who is trying to crush the entire protest movement. There is now a mechanism of repression in place," Gudkov says.
"It's absolutely wrong and it's wrong to agree to it. This isn't to do with me and me changing my views toward Putin, but rather that Putin has changed into a different person."
He praises Putin's early promise as a reformer, citing the tax reform he implemented early in his first term.
But although he says he seeks to establish democracy now, Gudkov joined the United Russia Duma faction in late 2003, shortly following moves by Putin -- criticized by democrats -- such as Gazprom's takeover of the NTV television channel and the arrest of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
No More Rubber Stamp
Since December, Gudkov has helped organize street protests and has spearheaded parliamentary opposition in the Duma alongside his 32-year-old son, Dmitry Gudkov, and Ilya Ponomaryov, both also members of A Just Russia.
This month, the trio staged a rare filibuster, or "Italian strike," in which they tried to derail a draconian law punishing unruly protesters by introducing hundreds of frivolous and time-consuming amendments to the bill.
The tactic failed, but gained wide publicity and illustrated that today's Duma is different from the one that former Speaker Boris Gryzlov infamously branded "no place for discussion."
"The State Duma is leaving its usual format of being 'no place for discussion'. Some of the brake pads are simply worn out," says Aleksei Mukhin, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information.
"A Just Russia, the Communist Party, and [Liberal Democrats] have received a much greater ability to speak out because of United Russia's loss in influence and the replacement of its leadership in the State Duma. Discussion has simply become more public."
Underestimating The Opposition
Gudkov says the Kremlin is underestimating the gravity of the current situation and is making a serious mistake by not compromising with the opposition.
Parliamentary pedigree and security credentials, however, have not insulated Gudkov from official harassment.
Prosecutors announced on June 26 that he was the subject of a tax-evasion probe. In January, he was secretly filmed with opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov in a cafe and the footage was published on the Lifenews.ru website, which has ties to the Federal Security Service.
And in recent months, the security company he founded has seen 700 of its 3,000 employees leave due to what Gudkov describes as official harassment. He says he's considering leaving the company he founded in 1992 to prevent it from being destroyed.
Despite the harassment, Gudkov says he favors dialogue with the authorities. He believes that discord among the elites could get worse.
"There is a kind of naive confidence among a certain quarter of the elite that everything will calm down and that this isn't that kind of political situation and they have no need to be worried," Gudkov says.
"I think that people are just underestimating the risks that could emerge."