Movement opposed to Russia leader Putin shows signs of strain

The movement to prevent Vladimir Putin from reclaiming the presidency and tightening his grip on Russia has barely launched, but already faces the threat of stalling because of infighting and recriminations among major opposition figures.

Protests of suspected ballot-rigging in parliamentary elections brought tens of thousands of people into the streets of Moscow and other cities in December, the largest demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. But then, Russians took a break for the holidays.

Now that they’re back, the differences within the opposition are hard to hide. One leading figure has gone so far as to accuse a rival of being a traitor, and suggest the battle was already lost.

Putin gave up the presidency after eight years because of term limits, has served close to four as prime minister and now is seeking to reclaim the top office in a March election. Under new legislation, he could serve two new six-year terms as president.

The opposition’s dilemma is the result of a long-standing inability to find a leader and a program acceptable to Putin foes who vary from Communists to pro-business forces, and of a Kremlin campaign to systematically weaken it. Powerful figures who could challenge Putin, such as businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, are in jail or exile. Political parties find it next to impossible to officially register.


The opposition’s leading figures include veteran rabble-rousers, longtime politicians with a small following and a large amount of baggage from their days in public life, writers, nationalists and radicals of various stripes, and a few up-and-coming figures who can excite a crowd but have yet to prove they are capable of building an organization.

The December protests they organized were largely wasted, said Eduard Limonov, a longtime opposition leader. Although the Kremlin promised some concessions, it didn’t meet key demands, such as canceling the results of the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, releasing political prisoners and postponing the March vote for president to give the opposition a chance to organize.

“I think that our last two rallies ended in defeat,” Limonov said. “The Kremlin saw that we don’t really pose any danger.”

“I am very much afraid that we won’t be able to bring out as many people for our next demonstration, as people are already losing their protesting spirit,” Limonov said.

He called another opposition figure, former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a traitor for leading a smaller group at one protest farther away from the Kremlin where authorities were less likely to crack down.

But Ilya Yashin, who spent 15 days under arrest last month for protest actions, accused Limonov of trying to provoke authorities, who have refrained from using force to halt the mass protests.

“I wouldn’t overestimate our progress, and wouldn’t say yet that we have achieved a victory, but we are on the right track,” Yashin said. “Today our main achievement is that tens of thousands of quite different people who were not interested in politics before have joined our protest, and this movement is growing.”

Yashin said the opposition would hold a march Feb. 4 along central Moscow’s Garden Ring Road. Opposition leaders are ready for a round-table discussion with the Kremlin about political reforms, he said.

The Kremlin initially appeared to be surprised by the size of the protest movement, and has faced calls for reform from some unexpected quarters.

In his message on Christmas, celebrated Jan. 7 here, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill broke an unspoken pledge to keep out of politics.

“If the authorities remain insensitive to expressions of protest, it is a very bad sign, an indication of the authorities’ inability to self-correct,” he said in a television interview. He cited the example of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war that followed, without which he claimed Russia could today rival the United States in both economic power and population.

Russia is also keeping a wary eye on Washington, which has been sharply critical of the parliamentary elections. The daily Kommersant called the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, a specialist in the kind of popular movement that overturned a presidential election in neighboring Ukraine in 2004.

But the Kremlin also seems to be encouraged by discord in the opposition ranks. It appears to be in no hurry to hold talks or make good on promises to make it easier for political parties or presidential candidates to register.

“We don’t rule out any dialogue but, frankly speaking, first of all we would like to have some understanding who to hold this dialogue with,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Opposition figures “need to form themselves first and articulate their demands, as what they are demanding now, the cancellation of the election results, is against the law.”

If the opposition wants to annul the election results, Peskov said, it should appeal to the courts.

Yashin said opposition demands already were clear enough, and that it was in Putin’s best interest to talk to his foes.

“The best way out for Putin now would be to give up his power in exchange for guarantees of immunity from legal prosecution,” Yashin said. “If he persists, he will end up all alone against the entire people and could repeat the fate of [toppled Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, and face serious charges of usurping power, corruption and falsification of elections.”

Despite his falling popularity, Putin is likely to win in March, even without widespread falsification of the sort that allegedly occurred during the vote for parliament.

Some liberal analysts are skeptical of the opposition, but say Putin’s troubles are far from over.

“These people think that they can really manage to lead this group of city dwellers who took to the streets out of boredom, who are aesthetically sick and tired of Putin,” said Leonid Radzikhovsky, an independent and influential political observer. “But they don’t have an organization, they don’t have reasonable demands, and they don’t have real leaders, and very soon they will be at each other’s throats, as they are only capable of hysterical screaming and totally incapable of serious work.”

Even so, he predicted, the real turbulence is still ahead.

“What is more important is the fact that Putin’s charisma suddenly died, not only for this middle-class group but for much of the rest of the country too,” Radzikhovsky said.

“When ordinary Russians, Russian nationalists, soccer fans and such wake up from their suspended animation, the Kremlin will face quite a different level of demands, and quite a different level of aggression.”