So powerful is the democratic idea that its enemies must usurp it. Thus Lenin’s democratic centralism, the old German Democratic Republic, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A phrase gaining currency in Russia today is “managed democracy,” in which law serves the state and ensures that governors can claim the consent of the governed. Pro-democracy stalwarts of the 1980s and 1990s–including Yuly Rybakov, Sergei Yushenkov, Yelena Bonner, Lev Ponomarev, Valeria Novodvorskaya and Igor Yakovenko–accuse the government of seeking the “liquidation” of liberal reforms. In an open letter published last week in Boris Berezovsky’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta, they said the government “deletes” the opposition from national politics by denying it television exposure. Grigory Yavlinsky, a Duma deputy and founder of the small but fiercely independent Yabloko party, said “managed democracy” includes government control of the mass media, elections in which candidates suddenly withdraw or are disqualified, politically inspired or directed judicial decisions, and the transfer of power from the regions to the Kremlin.

The Kremlin’s efforts to create a broad pro-government political coalition are either managed democracy at its most subtle, or political management at its most crass. In 1999, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin created Unity, a nonideological “party of power” that swapped Kremlin favors and access for political support. In 2000 Unity cut a deal with the Communists that squeezed Fatherland, the party of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, out of leadership positions in the parliament. After a brief show of petulance Primakov came to understand his situation clearly. He withdrew from the 2000 presidential race and left Putin an easy winner as the only serious alternative to the Communists.

Last year, Unity took control of the legislature through a political fusion with Fatherland and the antifederalist All-Russia movement led by Tatarstan’s President Mintimer Shaimiev. Last week regional branches of the new organization, called United Russia, held founding conferences. The meetings were often ragged and rivalrous, with losers asking Moscow to change the outcome. For example:

–Chelyabinsk: A group of dissident “Afghantsy,” veterans of the Afghan war, gained control of the conference and excluded the local Unity leader, deputy governor Vladimir Dyatlov. When Dyatlov complained, the national leadership declared the local results invalid.

–Lipetsk: Yevgeny Syrov was supposed to win the local leadership, but he didn’t even make it to the council from which the leader is chosen. Now the national Unity party has the ballots under review.

–Saratov: Governor Dmitry Ayatskov kept two Unity members out of the conference and provoked a walkout by several others, who appealed to the national leadership for relief.

–Conferences in Altai Krai, Khabarovsk Krai, the Jewish Autonomous Region and Orel had similar conflicts.

Press reports say the national party wants to expel defiant regional branches and get rid of “gubernatorial license.” But high-handed bosses like Dmitry Ayatskov are more the rule than the exception in much of the country, and the Kremlin is likely to tell the party leadership that sometimes, politics really is local.