Last month, Russia’s Justice Ministry registered four new political parties, giving them the right to take part in scheduled regional elections in September and potentially in next year’s national parliamentary vote as well. All the new groups fulfilled the cumbersome requirements for registration in record time — even though most of the country remains under strict quarantine measures. Registration officials voiced no concerns.

Neither the ease nor the speed should give cause for surprise: As reported in Russian media, the new parties — like most of the nearly 50 political parties now on the register — were created with the political blessing of the government. As the 2021 parliamentary election draws closer, the Kremlin is increasingly concerned about the prospect that the ruling United Russia party might suffer the same kind of humiliation it did last year in Moscow, when many pro-regime lawmakers lost to technical shadow boxers even after disqualifying opposition candidates. Kremlin strategists are reportedly planning to flood the 2021 ballot with dozens of different-sounding parties to dilute the opposition vote — a classic “spoiler” tactic that is sometimes used even in developed democracies.

The trouble is, there is almost no one left to “spoil.” To the superficial observer, the names of Russian political parties listed on the official register embrace a wide spectrum of ideologies. For all this apparent diversity, though, genuine opponents of Vladimir Putin’s regime are hard to find. Unlike, say, the Cossack Party or the Party of Gardeners, which had no trouble fulfilling the registration requirements, the party led by anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny — one of Russia’s most prominent opposition figures, who received nearly 30 percent of the vote when he ran for Moscow mayor in 2013 — was denied registration by the Justice Ministry a total of nine times. Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights accepted the party’s complaint against the Russian government over the denial. Whatever the court’s decision, Navalny’s party has already secured its place in the Guinness Book of Records.

Another party, led by former opposition lawmaker Dmitri Gudkov, was recently suspended by the Supreme Court at the request of the Justice Ministry — because the ministry itself had refused to recognize Gudkov’s election as leader. “Justice for my friends, the full weight of the law for my enemies” — the recipe from 19th-century Mexican strongman Benito Juárez has, it seems, been well heeded by the Kremlin.

In fact, Putin’s regime has enriched political science with a new classification — a “pretend party system” in which real political groups, with popular leaders and a genuine support base, are denied a license while their places on the ballot and in the legislatures are taken by impostors whose purpose is to imitate competition while toeing the general line. The sole exception (for now) is Yabloko, a long-established liberal party with a history of opposition to the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policy that still maintains ballot access. However, a bill recently flagged by lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party would revoke the registration of any party that “discredits the government authorities of the Russian Federation abroad” — specifically citing Yabloko and its leaders.

Given the current state of Russian politics, there is little doubt that the ballot in next year’s election will look exactly as Kremlin spin doctors design it. But this may no longer be enough to stop the rising tide of public opposition to Putin’s regime — opposition that is evidenced even in opinion polling, with all its caveats and built-in bias in an unfree society. According to the Levada Center, Russia’s most reputable pollster, public confidence in Putin has dropped to 25 percent (from 59 percent three years ago), while half of Russians oppose his intention to stay in power beyond 2024 through hastily proposed constitutional changes. The plebiscite to approve these changes — yet another pseudo-democratic sham — has been set for July 1, despite the continuing pandemic.

Last year, after most opposition leaders were barred from the Moscow legislative election, voters followed Navalny’s call to send a message to the Kremlin by backing technical candidates from smaller registered parties against government-supported lawmakers. These “accidental opponents” — including spoilers put up by the authorities themselves — ended up winning in nearly half the districts, and actually beat the official candidates in the vote totals. It should be difficult to lose an election when your opponents are not on the ballot — but Putin’s regime has managed this, at least in the capital city.

Next year, this experience could well be repeated nationally. Where there’s a will, there is always a way — and Russians’ growing will for change after two decades of single-man rule is becoming increasingly difficult to hide.

Read more: