The public part of the ruling United Russia party's selection of candidates for December's parliamentary elections appeared little different from a similar process four years ago.
In October 2008 -- when Vladimir Putin announced he'd consider becoming prime minister after his presidential term limit expired -- the party held a lavish conference at which a worker, a man in a wheelchair and a scientist praised him in Soviet-style eulogies. Never mind that Putin, who now leads the party, refuses to become a member to this day.
Last week, the party presented another cross section of society as its newest parliamentary candidates, trotting out a factory worker, a farmer and a teacher at a news conference on August 26.
Among them, the head of an automobile drivers' association named Vyacheslav Lysakov commended the primaries that selected them for showing United Russia is the only party to have opened itself to scrutiny by ordinary people.
"Not one other party has allowed such open competition, nor will it want to," he said. "Because when you go out to the people, they see who you are."
'The Duping Of The People'
Other participants were less sure. Accusations of corruption and vote rigging sounded across the country. In the Far East city of Vladivostok, vote counters complained to local media about ballot stuffing, saying most votes went to the candidates backed by Governor Sergei Darkin, a United Russia member.
In the Kostroma region east of Moscow, United Russia member Vladimir Mikhailov posted an Internet video
addressing Putin, saying the primaries were carried out with "serious violations."
"Voters were given lists with the names of candidates for whom they were supposed to vote," he said. "In the party newspaper, one candidate was given space for a big interview, while what was written about me was a pack of lies."
Mikhailov said police conducted an illegal search of his office and that the party leadership pressured him to keep quiet after he complained. "It wasn't the people's vote," he said, "but the duping of the people."
Despite touting their primaries as an indication of honest competition, United Russia leaders said the list of candidates is yet to be determined, saying a victory in the voting doesn’t guarantee a spot on the party's final list of candidates.
The party, which holds a majority of 315 seats in the 450-seat State Duma, conducted its primary voting together with the All-Russian Popular Front, a new group Putin inaugurated in May to rally nonpolitical groups to help counter United Russia's falling ratings.
But if the party hopes to shore up its sagging popularity by appearing to replace some of its veteran bureaucrats with fresh faces, it may be in for disappointment.
'Absolutely Nothing' In Common With U.S. Primaries
Political observers saw last week's primaries as a stage-managed show to obscure the party's authoritarian nature. Mikhail Tulsky of the Political Analysis Center, told RFE/RL's Russian service that United Russia's voting had "absolutely nothing" in common with primaries in the United States, where tens of millions of ordinary party members vote for candidates engaged in heated debates.
Political scientist Mikhail Tulsky
"The United Russia primaries had no debates, arguments, or discussions," he said. "Moreover, the party says it has a million members, but for some reason only 200,000 had the right to vote."
Earlier this month, United Russia announced a slew of celebrities would take part in the elections, including chess master Anatoly Karpov, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, and tennis star Marat Safin. The party says it will announce its candidates at a congress next month.
President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree on August 29 officially setting a December 4 date for elections to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament.
RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report