MOSCOW — In a bid to save or reshape his country's troubled democracy, President Vladimir Putin is turning to 42 famous Russians - from ice skaters to nuclear scientists - who stand above the political fray.
President Putin ordered the creation of the Public Chamber, which some call a "parallel parliament," in the wake of last year's Beslan tragedy. Set to debut in January, it appears to be sidelining the unpopular but elected State Duma in favor of an appointed body.
The Chamber is tasked with personifying the public interest in supervising government, the Duma, media, and law enforcement. It may hold public hearings, call officials to account, and scrutinize draft laws. It might even draft legislation.
Supporters argue that the weak influence of public opinion, as well as institutions riddled with corruption, have given rise to the need for the chamber.
But critics argue that Putin, having muzzled the media, subordinated parliament, and cowed most independent social organizations, is aiming to replace genuine public opinion with a group of celebrities whose recommendations he can safely ignore.
"While the Kremlin is liquidating democratic freedoms, it is also busy creating institutions to imitate democracy," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent deputy of the Duma. "It reminds me of Soviet times, when we had huge trade unions that did nothing to defend workers' interests, a peace movement that didn't criticize the USSR's arms buildup, and so on. I don't see how any good can come of this."
Last month, Putin selected captains of industry, science, sports, culture, and academia, who will in turn tap 84 more citizens to join them. Members include champion figure skater Irina Rodnina, nuclear scientist Yevgeny Velikhov, TV personality Eduard Sagalayev, children's doctor Leonid Roshal, and Russia's Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar.
"If society isn't able to put forth initiatives on its own, then we must stimulate it," said Vladislav Surkov, head of the Kremlin administration, on launching the Chamber last month. "There will be no place for crude lobbying in this body, because the people there will be honorable."
Alexander Shokhin, president of Russia's biggest private business lobby and one of the 42, says the body will not simply be a decorative institution.
"The mood is to turn the Public Chamber into a force that will exert real influence on the country," he says.
"The idea was to create a nucleus of famous people who could not be bought, self-made people who would establish a body that will be truly independent," says Pavel Gusev, editor of the feisty daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, who has also been named to the chamber. "You may say that a Kremlin-appointed body can't avoid becoming 'presidential soldiers.' But I answer you: I am no such person."
The Public Chamber has split Russia's fragile, and fractious, civil society down the middle.
"The authorities are dividing the public into two parts: loyal and disloyal," says Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert with the independent Center for Political Technologies. "The disloyal part is being written out of the political process, while the loyal part is being invited to come and work in the Public Chamber."
While some highly respected public figures have accepted Putin's invitation to join the assembly, others are adamant in their rejection.
"I call it the 'Ministry of Civil Society,' " says Svetlana Gannushkina, chair of Civil Partnership, an association of regional NGOs. "If it were a genuine public organization, it wouldn't be created by the authorities and given special working conditions. None of my colleagues have agreed to join it, though many were asked."
The Kremlin's need for an infusion of credibility was highlighted this week by a public opinion poll showing that more than half of Russians consider all state institutions to be "dishonest."
The survey, conducted by the independent ROMIR monitoring group, found that barely 3 percent trust the State Duma. Flying in the face of other polls that have shown Putin's approval ratings hovering around 70 percent for the past five years, the survey found that Putin holds the confidence of just 30 percent.
In a televised question and answer session recently, Putin expressed dismay at the ineffectiveness of government. "I am not sure everything is being carried out as it should," he said. "The level of legal culture is fairly low on the part of those whose duty is to discharge the functions of the state."
Even some members of the new chamber seem uncertain about how it will work. "Democratic institutions don't emerge in perfect form in countries with no democratic tradition," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, chairman of Politika, an independent think tank, who says he wants to use his position in the chamber to produce assessments of presidential strategy. "Does Russia need this new body? We'll see."
Mr. Gusev says he will agitate for hearings in the chamber on Russia's dwindling press freedom, but he sees no point in trying to confront the Kremlin.
"I don't think Putin wants us to go out there and struggle for anything; that would be a bit utopian," he says. "But we do expect him to listen. After all, Putin created the Public Chamber, so he's going to have to accept at least some of our recommendations."