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Russian Opposition Party Merges With Pro-Kremlin Rivals

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- A small Russian opposition party has decided to merge with two pro-Kremlin rivals, thinning the already sparse ranks of parties that are prepared to openly challenge Russia's powerful rulers.

Some analysts say the Kremlin is seeking to use the new party as a safety valve for white-collar voters who stand to lose out from the turmoil on global markets that has also knocked confidence in Russia's economy.

Leaders of the Union of Rightist Forces, known by its Russian initials SPS, voted at a session in Moscow to amalgamate with the Democratic Party of Russia and Civic Force -- two liberal parties broadly supportive of the Kremlin.

Boris Titov, who will co-chair the merged party, said the Kremlin had been involved in creating the new force. "We coordinated our actions with the Kremlin. We consulted with them and to an extent they played the role of moderators," Titov told a news conference. "But we will build an active party which will seek success among the voters. Whether it is a Kremlin project or not, the results will be determined by what we do."

SPS is a liberal party founded by reformers who worked closely with Russia's first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin. It promotes business-friendly policies and favors closer integration with the West.

It has no seats in the Russian parliament and did not put up a candidate in this year's presidential election. That vote was won comfortably by Dmitry Medvedev, who was endorsed by outgoing President Vladimir Putin as his replacement.

A source close to the party leadership said last week it had decided that seeking an alliance with the Kremlin was the only way it could survive.

Safety Valve

Analyst Dmitry Badovsky said the new party could be useful to the Kremlin to channel discontent if problems on world financial markets bring a halt to what in Russia has been the longest economic boom in a generation.

"There is a strategic view that in the near future there will be a significant social trend connected to the fact that the good years are over," said Badovsky, the deputy head of Moscow State University's Institute for Social Systems.

"If the white collar [voters] become more active, then a right-wing liberal party will also become much more relevant," he said.

Russia's parliament is dominated by Unified Russia, a pro-Kremlin party led by Putin. The Communists are the only opposition party represented in the chamber, while others have struggled to win over 1 percent of the vote in elections.

One opposition coalition, led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov, has turned its back on Russia's political system, saying it is skewed in favor of the Kremlin.