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06:42 GMT +3 hours23 December 2014
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Russia’s Anti-Putin Opposition: One Year On

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When thousands of Muscovites swept into the streets to protest alleged vote-rigging in favor of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party at the December 4, 2011, parliamentary polls, they revived a passion for politics not seen here for some two decades and set the scene for the greatest challenge to the ex-KGB officer’s long rule.

MOSCOW, December 5 (Marc Bennetts, RIA Novosti) - When thousands of Muscovites swept into the streets to protest alleged vote-rigging in favor of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party at the December 4, 2011, parliamentary polls, they revived a passion for politics not seen here for some two decades and set the scene for the greatest challenge to the ex-KGB officer’s long rule.

“We exist! We are the power here!” screamed Alexei Navalny, the popular anti-corruption activist soon to become the most troubling thorn in the Kremlin’s side, as some 6,000 people rallied near Red Square the evening after the disputed parliamentary elections. “Russia without Putin!” responded the crowd, breathing new life into the tired mantra of radicals and veteran dissidents.

That evening’s protest, the first of many to come, would go down in opposition folklore. 

“Protests back then usually drew around 100 people, so I wasn’t entirely sure that we would see a big turnout,” said Ilya Yashin, whose Solidarnost movement organized the December 5 rally. “It was pretty clear people were really angry about the polls, but I was afraid this discontent might just stay online. Of course, when I arrived and saw how many people had turned up, it was clear this was the start of something.”

That “something” was the crystallization of long-term discontent over Kremlin policies into a street movement that – for a short time at least – appeared to have a genuine chance of forcing meaningful political concessions from the authorities. Five days after the December 4 polls, some 100,000 people, according to opposition estimates, flocked to a snowy central Moscow square for the largest anti-government protest of Putin’s over-a-decade-long rule.

As the winter went on, the protesters – quickly dubbed “Snow Revolutionaries” by Western media – defied repeated predictions that the movement would run out of steam, with similar-sized crowds gathering in the Russian capital on two more occasions to demand a rerun of the polls and – increasingly – Putin’s resignation.

Putin’s Election Victory

Putin’s victory in the March 2012 presidential elections and his subsequent return to the Kremlin for a third term presented a major challenge to the fledgling protest movement, seeding doubt over its long-term aims and triggering a divisive debate over tactics.

“Putin’s election win was, to some extent, a blow for the protesters,” said Moscow-based political analyst, Dmitry Oreshkin, a former member of the Kremlin’s human rights council. “People began to think ‘why should I just go out and protest if the machine just keeps grinding on?’”

Critics have suggested the protest movement missed a chance to capitalize on the winter protests by failing to at least nominate a candidate to run against Putin, whose four rivals at the polls all faced allegations that they were part of the Kremlin’s game plan. But Navalny, the obvious choice to stand, was marking time in a pre-trial detention center when the deadline to register for the elections came around.

“Not that they would have allowed him on the ballot anyway,” noted Yashin.

A rally in central Moscow the evening immediately after the presidential elections saw the first violence of the protests, as leftist, firebrand leader Sergei Udaltsov, Navalny and around two dozen supporters occupied an ice-covered fountain on Pushkin Square and declared they would not leave “until Putin resigns.” Their attempt at adopting more confrontational tactics lasted around an hour before riot police moved in to make arrests, quashing in the process any hope the opposition may have had of establishing a protest camp in the heart of the capital.

The inevitability of Putin’s election triumph and the mounting danger of a police crackdown appeared to scare off protesters from what organizers had hoped would be a massive show of dissent in downtown Moscow the weekend after the presidential polls. Although the turnout – some 25,000 by organizers’ count – would have been unthinkable just months before, numbers were far down from previous rallies.

And although the crowds flocked back for another rally on the eve of Putin’s May 7 inauguration, serious clashes between police and protesters – twinned with a number of anti-protest laws – meant, as analyst Maria Lipman put it, that the demonstrations were “no longer fun.”

Rallies in June and September saw numbers down again, with the autumn protest the smallest since the demonstrations began.

“One year ago, people were invigorated by the massive turnout at the protests. There was this feeling of togetherness and euphoria,” said Lipman, of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank. “But now it has become dangerous and risky to go to protests.”

Oreshkin, the independent analyst, suggested however that even if numbers at rallies were down, dissatisfaction with Putin and his ministers would persist.

“Even if fewer people are going to protests, there is no doubt that irritation and weariness with Putin is increasing – and this can’t go on forever. Eventually, there will be a flash point,” he said.

Some quantitative signs of this disappointment have already surfaced. A November poll showed that Putin’s credibility rating had fallen from 41 percent in January to 34 percent last month and his approval rating, in the same 11-month period, from 69 percent to 63 percent.

Apathy in the Heartland

Despite Russia’s extreme wealth inequality – the highest in the word according to an October report by the Swiss financial services company Credit Suisse – the anti-Putin protests have been fuelled by, as Navalny put it at a rally in September, “abstract ideas like freedom and morals,” rather than economic disparity.

Moscow is by far Russia’s richest city, but it is here that the movement was born and developed, tapping into a growing desire for greater political and social freedoms. In the provinces, where living standards generally lag far behind Moscow’s, the protests have so far – with a few notable exceptions – failed to take off.

“People only start to demand civil rights when they have a certain level of material comfort,” said Yashin. “When people are busy exclusively with feeding their families, they have no time for politics.”

“This is why the protests have been of a largely political, rather than a social or economic nature,” he said. “But things won’t go on like this forever – sooner or later people will get fed up with the eternal struggle to make ends meet.”

But Oreshkin suggested the protests had not taken off in some areas far from Moscow due to stricter policing and political controls.

“Everyone knows election results are fixed in Chechnya, for example,” said Oreshkin, referring to the volatile North Caucasus republic where United Russia took 99.5 percent at the 2011 parliamentary polls.

“But how can you protest there? If you go out on the streets of Grozny to demonstrate, they’ll tear your head off. We are dealing with a North Korean system of political control here,” he added.

Getting Organized

The protest movement has united a bewildering number of political movements, from liberals to nationalists, from monarchists to anarchists, and while its diversity has been one of its strengths, it has also proven to be its Achilles’ heel.

Putin was quick to seize on the lack of a common position – or even a central, identifiable leader – among the protesters after the first two mass rallies in December.

“Who should we talk with?” he pondered aloud, when asked if the authorities would hold negotiations with the demonstrators. “They should come together with some form of joint platform and joint positions so we can understand what these people want. They are very different.”

As if in response to Putin’s criticism, the movement organized an online election for a Coordinating Committee in October. Despite a massive cyber attack that threatened to cripple the process and visits by security service officers to some of the few physical polling centers, some 80,000 people took part in elections to choose the organization’s 45 members.

“The Coordinating Committee was a very important step,” said Yashin. “For the first time we have a body that will organize and represent the protest movement.”

In a nod to the movement’s diversity, five seats apiece on the committee were set aside for its nationalist, leftist and liberal wings. The remaining 30 seats were for activists unaffiliated with any political ideology.

“There are massive political differences within the protest movement,” said Gennady Gudkov, a former opposition lawmaker who says his controversial removal from parliament this summer was “Kremlin revenge” for his involvement in anti-Putin demonstrations. “It is a major achievement that we have managed to stay united.”

But Gudkov, like Putin an ex-KGB officer, dismisses suggestions that this diversity means the protest movement has little to offer aside from the prospect of a “Russia without Putin.”

“We have come together in our desire to create the conditions for a normal political system,” he said. “This is something we can all agree on and something we are all demanding. Without it, our individual political views are irrelevant.”

Legacy and Future

As the protest movement enters its second year, with Putin seemingly secure in the Kremlin, the leaders of the historic demonstrations have been taking stock of their accomplishments and prospects.

“The greatest achievement of this year’s protests is that we have realized that we can resist the authorities,” said Chirikova. “We know now that we are not just people the Kremlin can treat as it wishes.”

And Chirikova, who stood unsuccessfully for mayor in the Moscow region town of Khimki this autumn, believes fellow protest leaders should engage more with the electoral system in a bid to “get our message across.”

“We need to explain to people how we differ from Putin and his system,” she said. “And, for me at least, this is a desire to move away from an economy solely based on natural resources like oil and gas. Such systems are not generally conducive to democracy and human rights – just look at countries like Saudi Arabia.”

While the protests have failed to topple Putin, they have, analysts suggested, rattled the Kremlin and sparked a shift away from “modernization” – the buzzword of Dmitry Medvedev’s one-term presidency – to a deeper conservatism, typified by the high-profile Pussy Riot trial.

“The protests, in themselves, have never been a serious threat to the government,” said Lipman, the Carnegie Moscow Center analyst. “The movement has failed to put forward any clear demands since the December 10 parliamentary protests.”

“But the protests have been very significant in shaping state-society relations and government policies,” she added. “Everything has changed since the first protests – if the government’s policies on society were previously manipulative, they have now become repressive.”

And Gudkov suggested that the government’s recent adoption of controversial laws on treason, protests, foreign-funded NGOs and censorship, as well as the criminal charges filed against Udaltsov and Navalny, could backfire.

“The future development of the protest movement depends largely on the authorities,” said Gudkov. “If they refuse to enter into dialogue, then this will play into the hands of the more radical members of the movement, such as supporters of Eduard Limonov.”

Limonov, a veteran political dissident and writer who has remained aloof from the protest movement, was scathing in his evaluation of the tactics employed by the new breed of anti-Putin activists. Instead of acceding to City Hall’s demands that the December 10 rally be held on an urban island far from the Kremlin, Limonov insists the movement should have taken a page from the playbook of protesters in the so-called Color Revolutions that swept the former Soviet Union in the 2000s.

“They’ve been playing by Putin’s rules since the beginning,” Limonov said.

The next test of the anti-Putin movement comes on December 15, when protesters take to the streets again in Moscow and nationwide. Another decline in attendance is likely to see speculation that the movement is on its knees.

But analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the Moscow-based Institute of National Strategy, suggested any talk of the protest movement’s demise was premature.

“The existence of a new generation of educated, well-travelled Russians, who have seen Europe and want the same for their own country, means we will continue to see significant numbers of people at anti-Putin demonstrations.”

“The protest movement will not die,” he insisted. “It has already had a direct or indirect influence on Kremlin policies, from the anti-protest laws to the current anti-corruption campaign,” he said, referring to a recent, much-trumpeted public crackdown on high-level graft.

Yashin was equally confident over the future of the movement he helped to kick start.

“It’s impossible to constantly maintain the same level of intensity,” he said. “The anti-Putin movement is a marathon, not a sprint. We will get there eventually.”