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The Kremlin Perfects 'Divide And Conquer'

It's time the Russian word "razvodka" entered the global lexicon, just as the words sputnik and pogrom have before it. The regime of Vladimir Putin has made the tactic of razvodka -- creating divisions and setting partners to squabbling with one another -- a universal approach both in foreign and domestic affairs. The Kremlin promises some Europeans preferences and others sanctions. They tell one oppositionist what another oppositionist 'really' said about him, while whispering into the ear of the second the 'mean thoughts' of the first. The arguments lead to divisions and enable to the Kremlin to rule.

The announcement that billionaire Aleksandr Lebedev and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev plan to create a new democratic party is the latest story of this type. Russia's obedient press suddenly began to advertise this new project at the very moment when efforts to form a united democratic movement were becoming noticeable.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, and former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov (Nemtsov and Milov are the co-authors of two damning reports on the Putin era) are trying to bring together the genuine opposition to the Putin regime and offer Russia a European path of development. For the first time, representatives of the Yabloko party -- headed by Maksim Reznik and Ilya Yashin -- are ready to join this bloc. Organizational conferences are being held across the country. Coalition talks were conducted by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Former Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Nikita Belykh -- before he resigned from that post last week -- suggested making the SPS the legal face of the opposition.

But last week the Kremlin demanded that the SPS stop criticizing Putin's anti-Western course. The regime's political curators said that if the SPS merges with two pro-Kremlin parties -- Civic Force and the Democratic Party of Russia -- they would forget about the multimillion-ruble debt the SPS owes the state for broadcast airtime provided during the party's disastrous 2007 parliamentary campaign. Further, if the "proper democrats" agreed to campaign as supporters of President Dmitry Medvedev's pseudo-liberal course, they would be allowed to participate in elections. Having lost this debate with co-opted SPS member Anatoly Chubais, Belykh quit the party on September 26.

Already on September 29, Lebedev announced his plan to create an "independent" democratic (or social-democratic) party together with Gorbachev. The billionaire immediately invited Belykh to join the party and his friend Vladimir Ryzhkov, leader of the banned Republican Party of Russia. And the razvodka is working -- the ranks of the opposition have been thrown into confusion: the Kremlin lured the "dissenters" with promises of a thaw. There are no guarantees, but the politicians who were driven into the ranks of the opposition by the Kremlin are counting on getting access to television and the businesspeople who sympathize with them are now hoping their livelihoods won't be destroyed.

It isn't a problem for the Kremlin to let both of the new parties appear on television and participate in elections. Over the last eight years, Putin's propaganda machine has instilled in the majority of Russians a firm nostalgia for the greatness of Stalin's USSR. It has successfully explained away all the regime's problems by blaming the intrigues of the West, which purportedly wishes ill to sovereign Russia as it "gets up off its knees."

But there are two nonnegotiable conditions. First, Chubais -- now the head of the state Russian Nanotechnology Corporation, but also the most widely hated technocrat of the Yeltsin era -- must personally campaign for the first party. Second, Gorbachev must personally work for the second. The extreme unpopularity of the great reformer will guarantee that this "independent party" (just like the party of "court liberals") -- no matter what budget it has at its disposal -- will come to absolutely nothing in today's Russia.

Why is Lebedev playing by the Kremlin's rules? During this period of financial crisis, only Prime Minister Putin can guarantee that his National Reserve Bank will survive. Politically, the banker risks nothing, just as he risked nothing in his unsuccessful 2003 bids to become mayor of Moscow and to get a seat in the Federation Council.

But Gorbachev's decision is harder to understand. Why would a man who has become one of the key figures in 20th-century world history agree to participate in a banal Kremlin razvodka of the 21st?

Mikhail Sokolov is a correspondent with RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL