In its large but faded local headquarters in the Russian city of Penza, communist politician Alexander Rogozhkin insists his party is doing everything it can to win power from Vladimir Putin’s regime — except join forces with the man who has most shaken the president’s rule.

“We are oppositionists . . . We hate United Russia and Putin,” he said. “We support people who protest against the status quo, but not the programme of Alexei Navalny.”

Navalny’s team of anti-corruption investigators and regional political activists built the biggest political challenge to Putin’s 21 years in power. That resulted in him being arrested and jailed earlier this year after surviving a nerve agent poisoning.

But Navalny’s opposition movement, which led 100,000 people to protest against his arrest across the country this spring, has also exposed the failure of Russia’s elected opposition parties to challenge Putin’s rule.

While many of these parties’ grassroots members joined the rallies to protest against the authorities, their party leaders in Moscow condemned the unrest. That tension between party bases and leaders may well grow during September’s parliamentary elections, when the supermajority of Putin’s ruling party will be threatened.

“We communists are under even more pressure than supporters of Navalny,” said Rogozhkin, sitting in an office adorned with posters of Joseph Stalin while the activist serves time in a harsh prison colony. “We are willing to go even further than him.”

Under Putin’s system of so-called sovereign democracy, where the stability of the state is promoted above individual freedoms, the group of parties that Rogozhkin’s communists belong to is referred to by Kremlin officials as the “systemic opposition”.

The parties ostensibly compete for votes, but not for power. In a nod to true democracy, they take seats in parliament but tacitly support Putin’s administration and receive direction from the Kremlin.

The difference with Navalny is striking: last week, his organisations were outlawed after a Russian court deemed them “extremist”, meaning that anyone associated with them is barred from running in elections and faces the threat of lengthy jail terms.

US president Joe Biden, who meets Putin this week in Geneva, has said he will “make it clear we will not . . . stand by and let him abuse” human rights.

Among the parties included in Russia’s so-called official opposition are the Communist party (KPRF), nationalist Liberal Democratic party (LDPR) and a handful of smaller organisations.

“The local KPRF and LDPR party activists are our allies . . . but the leaders [in Moscow] are collaborators, of course,” said Anton Strounin, the head of Navalny’s organisation in Penza, a typical provincial city more than 600km south-east of Moscow that relies on financial support from the federal budget.

“This ambiguity, it’s not about a lack of understanding of the true situation, but about accepting the rules of the game.”

As part of that ambiguity, Communist and LDPR party activists took part in the protests organised by Navalny’s team this spring. Many, such as Rogozhkin, were detained by police. But the communist, who has a seat in the Penza city parliament, said protesting against Putin was not the same as protesting for Navalny.

Supporters of Alexei Navalny shine torches on their mobile phones at a rally in April

He rejects as “absolute rubbish” his party’s systemic opposition tag, saying it often votes against Putin’s ruling United Russia party in the federal parliament, where its 43 MPs make it the largest opposition party in the 450-seat chamber.

Given United Russia’s supermajority, when opposition MPs sometimes dissent with the Kremlin they do it knowing it has little consequence. Consciously or not, their existence also helps neutralise falling popular support for United Russia, or Putin himself.

Thus, while United Russia is heading into September’s election with its ratings at a historic low of 29 per cent, the Kremlin knows that any swing towards the systemic opposition will not alter its control of parliament in the same way that MPs from a non-systemic party would.

“The unpopularity of Putin does not at the moment equate to the popularity of Navalny. People are cautious about new political figures,” said Strounin. “I think that the majority [of people upset with Putin] would join us instead of the Communists or LDPR, but they are scared of persecution.”

Asmik Srkeyan, a student at a Penza university who attended the Navalny protests this spring, tacitly confirms that view. “Many young people here do not see Navalny as their leader, but as someone who creates an opportunity for protest, to express their anger and voice their opinions,” she said.

“There are no safe spaces left for opposition voices or opinions in Russia . . . KPRF and LDPR do not actually organise any oppositional events,” she added. “They are parties for older people, they belong to the past.”

There have been some examples of collaboration between Navalny and the systemic opposition. His organisation helped arrange sustained mass protests in Khabarovsk, in Russia’s far east, after its LDPR governor was detained on charges of ordering contract killings. A handful of senior KPRF officials have also condemned Navalny’s jailing.

In both cases, though, the respective parties’ leaders vehemently disavowed any links, and repeated Kremlin attacks on Navalny.

Meanwhile, Navalny’s smart voting initiative, which informs his supporters as to which KPRF or LDPR candidate stands the best chance of defeating a United Russia incumbent, has had some successes.

Rogozhkin was one such candidate, but he retorted that such support was “useless” and his 2019 election was based on visiting voters at home personally.

In Penza, Strounin admits that, given candidates from Navalny’s team are now barred from the September ballot, the least worst option is to support KPRF and LDPR candidates instead.

“We want to create competition. Even if it is between artificial parties,” he said. “Maybe that will push them into actually becoming real politicians.”