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Putin opponents unsure how to keep momentum

The protest movement's vigour has given way to a far more measured assessment of the movement's potential.

MOSCOW // The future of the Russian opposition movement has been thrown into question after Vladimir Putin's victory in the presidential elections and the small protest rallies that followed.

The reality of Mr Putin's victory on March 4, though marred by claims of fraud, has begun to settle in the capital. The US President Barack Obama called to congratulate him on Friday and activists and ordinary citizens alike are uncertain about the opposition's staying power.

The protest movement's vigour and excitement, on full display during rallies in December and February, which attracted upwards of 100,000 people, has given way to a far more measured assessment of the movement's potential.

The prominent journalist and protest organiser, Serguei Parkhomenko, told the Russian press that large rallies - the movement's trademark thus far - might be a thing of the past.

"I think that this three-month cycle has ended," he said. "There will undoubtedly be new events, but only when there is a need for them. We're not going to organise them automatically."

The palpable change in atmosphere was reflected at an anti-government demonstration on Saturday. Opposition leaders had promised to attract 50,000 people; only 20,000 attended.

Earlier last week, a similar protest concluded with a crackdown on protesters who heeded calls from opposition leaders to occupy a Moscow square after the rally ended.

Police arrested about 250 demonstrators, including the opposition leaders Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, who were later released. About 100 more were detained during a similar demonstration in St Petersburg.

Analysts have noted that the opposition, while having earlier staged impressive rallies and waged media campaigns to draw support, is now faced with the far more difficult task of hashing long-term plans.

"It must work on building stable civil society institutions. Only with the help of such channels will it be able to successfully deliver its demands to the upper echelons of power," said Alexei Mukhin, the head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information.

He added that the protest movement had already exhausted its ability to establish an effective dialogue between the Kremlin and opposition forces.

A glimmer of hope shines in a new crop of budding politicians who won district council seats throughout Moscow in the March 4 elections. Out of about 200 independent candidates, more than 70 won seats on local councils.

Among them was Vera Kichanova, a 20-year-old journalism student at Moscow State University, who was invited to address the crowd at the Saturday rally.

"I told my voters that the government should be accountable and understandable, and that the state should work for society and not the other way around," Ms Kichanova said from the stage.

"I think my victory, and that of many other independent candidates, shows that at least in Moscow, people don't want to see the same faces in politics and they don't want to vote for so-called 'stability', which has been symbolised by comfortable bureaucrats working for the ruling party," she said.

Opposition leaders say such grassroots efforts are the key to carrying the anti-Kremlin movement through a period of dwindling protests and growing disenchantment.

"It's far more important who sits in mayors' offices and municipal councils than who sits in the Kremlin, because the future of the opposition depends on ordinary people becoming the bosses of their own regions and getting more involved in self-rule," said Yevgenia Chirikova, an environmentalist and opposition leader.

Mr Mukhin also noted that lower-level regional actions were "a very effective way to gain the trust of voters".

Ms Chirikova, whose own grassroots activism has been aimed at saving one of the Moscow region's last remaining forests, countered that the protests have not lost steam, but had merely passing through a new phase.

Ordinary demonstrators, meanwhile, acknowledge the long road ahead, though they say they are ready to contribute whatever they can to the effort.

Anastasia Korolyova, 40, said that despite the protest movement's loss of momentum, she would continue to push for free elections.

"After [the authorities] once again spit in our faces, it seems like some have given up the cause, but I think this is wrong," she said on the sidelines of the rally on Saturday.

Clutching a pamphlet written by the opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, which details corruption in the Putin regime, Ms Korolyova says she has been involved in "small-time propaganda" for the opposition.

"I've been walking around my neighbourhood and leaving copies inside the lobbies of nearby apartment buildings, and I think that everyone who didn't vote for these authorities should do the same," she said. "We have to start somewhere."