In the aftermath of a string of opposition victories in local elections in Tolyatti, Chernogolovka, and Yaroslavl -- and with key municipal races looming this summer in Omsk and Krasnoyarsk -- the ruling elite is casting about for a new strategy.
The decision to shift gears followed the April 1 mayoral election in Yaroslavl in which opposition candidate Yevgeny Urlashov took nearly 70 percent of the vote against the United Russia-backed Yakub Yakushev.
"After the election in Yaroslavl, the Kremlin finally realized that the old strategy of neutralizing its political opponents is no longer working," journalist Yekaterina Vinokurova wrote in a thoroughly reported piece in Gazeta.ru this week.
"The Kremlin's candidate, Jacob Yakushev, used all the old-fashioned methods: minimum engagement with the independent media, and maximum use of administrative resources -- including getting himself named acting mayor two weeks before the vote. The result was disastrous."
According to Vinokurova's story, which is based on numerous interviews with unidentified Kremlin strategists, the new strategy will involve "inviting dialogue" with opposition figures while "trying to trick them" at the same time.
"Everything is going to change," one Kremlin strategist is quoted as saying. "The conservative strategy no longer works, and there is an understanding of this within the administration."
According to the Gazeta.ru story, the authorities plan to move toward a strategy dubbed by some officials as "managed chaos."
Instead of isolating and marginalizing the opposition, the Kremlin plans to use a lot of subterfuge, co–optation, and the targeted use of wedge issues to achieve desired electoral results.
Rather than betting the house on one officially sanctioned candidate in local races, the authorities will back several contenders at once -- some of them stealthily.
Manufactured scandals and controversies will be utilized more frequently to divide and confuse opposition-minded voters.
And in cases where opposition candidates win, the Kremlin will quickly try to co–opt them.
"Everybody understands the inferences of Urlashov's win in Yaroslavl," an unidentified administration official told Gazeta.ru. "He isn't from the non-systemic opposition. He's a regional politician who isn't seeking to overthrow the federal authorities or to challenge the Kremlin. Why not use this to our advantage? In other cities it would be easy to find such politicians who have the support of the opposition but who are also manageable. It will be then impossible to figure out who is actually a puppet of the Kremlin."
The strategy dovetails with the recently passed law easing the rules for registering political parties and candidates. As "Moscow News" reported this week, the change -- which requires parties to have only 500 members in order to register -- plays into the Kremlin's hands as it seeks to confuse and divide opponents.
The Justice Ministry has already received 130 applications from organizations with names like "The Party of Love" and "The Party of Against All." When all is said and done, many of these will undoubtedly be Kremlin clones established to confuse and divide the electorate.
"A voter comes to a polling station and is faced with more than a hundred parties [to choose from]," Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst and leading member of the opposition Solidarity movement, told "Moscow News." "If he can't find a single familiar face, it will disrupt the election process completely."
Likewise, Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin told the newspaper that the "new 'liberal' law will in fact disrupt any strong liberal progress, and most liberal parties will have new rivals, which will weaken them and draw votes from them."
If this is indeed where the Kremlin is moving, it is actually nothing new. Similar strategies were utilized by Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin in the 1990s -- although they were often clumsily executed.
According to Gazeta.ru, the new strategy should be in place by the end of May, when a restructuring of the Kremlin's political operation will be complete. That will be just in time to test-drive it in mayoral elections in Omsk and Krasnoyarsk in June.
-- Brian Whitmore