MOSCOW -- On February 1, best-selling author Zakhar Prilepin sat on a stage strapped to a lie detector, its readings projected onto a large screen above his head.
The stunt headlined the launch of Prilepin's new political party, For Truth, a nationalist grouping befitting of the Russian writer's transformation in recent years from left-wing dissident to one of President Vladimir Putin's most outspoken supporters on the right.
In a rambling, disjointed speech peppered with references to 16th-century wars against Polish invaders, Western "Russophobia," and warnings about the spread of gay marriage, Prilepin announced that For Truth would act like a standing army to protect Russia's interests.
"Our task is to influence the elites, ensure the change of elites, and replace those elites when necessary," he said. "We are not an enemy of the state. We are the real foundation of the state."
But despite the showmanship and the stars in the audience -- including American action-film actor Steven Seagal, who has Russian citizenship and was appointed by the Foreign Ministry in 2018 as a special envoy for humanitarian ties with the United States -- the launch of For Truth did not rock Russia's political elites. In fact, the event barely registered with the general public.
With loud but vague slogans like "Russia was, is, and will be an empire," For Truth is among a crop of political parties that critics say the Kremlin has helped launch in recent months as Putin and his government prepare for 2021 elections to the State Duma, the Russian parliament's lower house.
'Illusion Of Democracy'
Opinion polls show a widespread desire for political change in Russia. One way the Kremlin has addressed that demand was by replacing the cabinet last month and initiating constitutional amendments that readjust the power structure, a process that began after Putin cited the need for change in his state-of-the-nation speech on January 15.
Another has been a boom in political activity, at least on paper. The Justice Ministry has reported 39 new groupings over the past year, with 17 forming in the final three months of 2019 alone. Critics charge that the wave of new parties is part of an effort to fragment the opposition vote and create an illusion of democracy.
There is "no intention here to create a serious party organization with regional branches, leadership organs, a rational basis and a long-term view. The most important thing is to make a big impression and get media attention," the Russia-focused news outlet Meduza quoted an unnamed source in Putin's administration as saying, calling the new structures "TV show parties."
That may have sounded like criticism, but it dovetails with what Kremlin critics claim: that the parties are pawns in the government's effort to achieve its aims.
Regional elections this fall will prove the first test for these parties, which will qualify for the 2021 Duma vote without the added hurdle of having to collect signatures if they pass the 5 or 7 percent vote threshold in even just one of the regional legislative contests in the autumn. If they don't -- which at this point is the expectation for most -- they may help offload voters' anger without gaining actual representation, and aid ruling party United Russia by siphoning votes away from its main competitors.
Those competitors -- the Communist Party, flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR, and A Just Russia, which are the only other parties with seats in the Duma -- often support the Kremlin on key initiatives and are seen as part of Putin's ruling system. But as Putin looks to 2024, when he cannot seek a new presidential term, analysts say he needs United Russia to be strong in order to maintain a grip on the succession process and a possible transition to a new position of power.
The party's approval rating remains low at around 30 percent, according to most surveys, meaning a fresh approach may be needed to ensure it wins votes.
"The point is not to have many parties, but for there to be a bottleneck at the vote threshold, when several parties receive a large number of votes but don't cross the barrier," political analyst Aleksandr Kynev told Vedomosti. "But for that to happen they need to stand for something."
By design or not, each of the new parties launched since October is speaking to select portions of the Russian electorate. A new Green Alternative will give Russians concerned about climate change an ecological movement to support; the Decent Life party will make overtures to Russia's youth; and the Party Of Direct Democracy, launched last month by the creator of popular Russian computer game franchise World of Tanks, will reach out to gamers and the disenchanted.
In order to register in time for participation in the fall elections, the new parties must hold official launches by March. For that, they'll each need at least 400 members and chapters in at least 43 of Russia's 80-plus regions -- the latter a seemingly insurmountable task without financial and political support. If they don't fall at that hurdle, Kynev said, many will likely fail to open all those regional branches by a June deadline.
"This can be done only with direct administrative support," said Kynev, using a Russian euphemism for state funding. "This will be the test: if [a party] gets through registration quickly, that means it was done with patronage from the authorities." Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, Putin's most prominent critic, has been unable to register his party for seven years.
Analysts and Kremlin critics suspect that some of the fledgling parities may be selected to succeed -- at least until the 2021 Duma elections. Meduza cited officials in two regions as saying on condition of anonymity that spin doctors have been arriving from Moscow since December to help appoint regional representatives for Prilepin's For Truth party.
Prilepin has denied that his party gets direct support from the Kremlin. But others have been coy. In a revealing radio interview shortly after he announced the launch of his Party of Direct Democracy in January, World of Tanks creator Vyacheslav Makarov struggled to outline the political ideas his party represents and avoided voicing an opinion about Putin. Asked whether representatives of the president's administration had been in contact, Makarov said he was yet to hear from them.
"I expect I'll have to make contact with them," he said, adding that he has "no desire to fight with the current government."