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MOSCOW/YEKATERINBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Opponents of President Vladimir Putin say elections in Russia are rigged in favour of his ruling party and are instead holding their own Internet contest to choose a "shadow parliament" they hope will reinvigorate the flagging opposition movement.
Putin has dismissed those who took part in the biggest protests against his 12-year rule this year and last as "chattering monkeys", but has said the movement may produce civic leaders.
But while the Internet election has generated a buzz of excitement among Muscovites plugged into Russia's opposition-oriented blogosphere and independent media outlets, few Russians outside big cities know the vote is even happening.
The 211 candidates standing include student activists, entrepreneurs, a former investment banker, bloggers, a socialite restaurateur, an author and politicians of every stripe.
Veteran opposition leaders such as former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov will compete with a host of lesser known contenders.
Nearly 160,000 people have registered for the weekend vote that will elect a 45-member Coordinating Council in what some backers call "primaries" for a "shadow parliament". Organisers hope the election will help counter accusations that the opposition protest movement is leaderless and adrift.
Ilya Segalovich, a co-founder of Russia's popular home-grown Internet search engine Yandex (YNDX.O), helped design a web-based platform for the vote - becoming the highest profile Russian businessman to openly side with the opposition.
Slick web clips have publicised the virtual contest and popular opposition-oriented cable-and-internet TV channel Dozhd has aired hours of vibrant debates among the candidates.
In a video that launched the online campaign in August, protest leader and anti-graft blogger Alexei Navalny touted it as the solution to the "problem of the opposition's legitimacy."
"This is how we will respond to the annoying but somewhat justified criticism of all these Kremlin sidekicks who say that they are ready to hold negotiations (with the opposition) but do not know who to talk to," Navalny said.
On Facebook, many have swapped their profile pictures for one of them holding open their passport - one way to register for the vote, which is open all Russians 18 and up. Another way is to wire a symbolic sum, as little as one rouble, to organisers who rely on banks to verify voters' identities.
But it is unclear what role will be played by the council and critics have dismissed the vote as a popularity contest.
In a nation of more than 140 million, the relatively small number of voters risks playing into the hands of Putin supporters who have dismissed his critics as "Internet hamsters" and wealthy urbanites out of touch with the majority.
The Kremlin says it will ignore the opposition vote, but cyber attacks on the vote's website, legal pressure on organisers and mud-slinging documentaries on pro-Kremlin television suggest the authorities are not indifferent.
Federal investigators on Wednesday opened a criminal investigation into potential fraud by vote organisers. Critics say Putin has clamped down on dissent since starting a six-year term in May, with new laws increasing fines for disorder and protest leaders facing possible prison terms.
"If the opposition has even the smallest chance of electing a leader, they'll just jail him," said Valery Sheperyov, a 33-year-old lawyer in Moscow, who has not participated in street protests. "This vote will make the authorities' job easier."
The online poll comes a week after local and regional elections in which the opposition failed to make inroads.
Winning candidates will have to fight the impression that the spirit of the street protests - which were fuelled by allegations of vote fraud - has retreated to the Internet.
"We have little interest in this," a Kremlin source told Reuters, dismissing participants as politicians "incapable" of taking part in real elections.
The opposition vote is the brainchild of Leonid Volkov, a programming expert turned city councillor whose 2011 book "Cloud Democracy" is about how to use the Internet to shake up a political landscape dominated by state television.
Huddled in the backroom of a hip office in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, his team of programmers says it has worked non-stop to sift through an avalanche of queries from would-be voters and combat denial of service attacks (DDOS).
Yet despite his activist's fervour, Volkov believes only Russia's business and political elite can change power. He described the online poll as an "initial public offering" to lure rich and powerful Russians to invest in the protest movement as an alternative to Putin's rule.
"Business knows well what to expect from Putin's continued dominance: a doped-up oil price, an unbalanced budget, a failing pension system, a stagnating manufacturing sector, but it is a known evil," Volkov told Reuters.
"If we show them that the 'revolutionary scenario' is better than Putin's ... we provoke a split in the elite, and the situation will end very quickly in a palace coup."
But Galina Soldatova, a 60-year-old who works as a courier in Moscow to supplement her pension, had not heard of the vote.
"I don't think anyone is interested or cares about this vote," she said. "People have their own problems to sort out."
Reporting by Gleb Bryanski and Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Steve Gutterman, Jon Hemming and Andrew Osborn