Russia’s opposition struggles for unity

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MOSCOW Russia’s opposition, riding high after the largest anti-Kremlin protests in 20 years, has a big problem to overcome: It’s a fragile patchwork of groups whose leaders inspire little trust among voters.

That is sowing doubts that opposition leaders will be able to move beyond popular disgruntlement and form a political force that can put on a credible show against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in presidential elections next March.

Some of these leaders are seen as has-beens eager to resurrect their political careers, many are inexperienced, and others tilt to the radical or racist side.

Tens of thousands of Russians gathered Saturday just across the river from the Kremlin where they chanted slogans and accused authorities of ballot-stuffing and other violations in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election that saw Mr. Putin’s United Russia party lose about 20 percent of its seats and barely retain the majority.

Dozens of speakers took their turns at an improvised podium to address the protesters. They represented a diverse crowd of often competing political groups united only by their dissatisfaction with the government.

With such a glaring lack of unity and charisma, many are wondering whether last weekend’s protests, which took place in more than 60 cities countrywide, might fizzle out as the frigid Russian winter drags on and Kremlin strategists work overtime at dividing the opposition even further.

The one Kremlin critic who seems to have a shot at consolidating the disparate opposition voices is Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading corruption whistleblower.

His one-man crusade against Russia’s state-owned companies made him immensely popular. Tens of thousands follow Mr. Navalny’s blog and website tracking suspicious government business.

“The only opposition leader who stands any chance is Navalny. Period,” said author and analyst Yulia Latynina.

Authorities seem to understand Mr. Navalny’s potential, which could explain why he missed Saturday’s rally because of a 15-day jail sentence for attending an earlier rally to protest election results.

Mr. Navalny, co-founder of a moderately nationalist party, coined the popular epithet for United Russia - “the party of crooks and thieves” - that has become a common sight on protest T-shirts and banners.

However, his image was tarnished in early November when he participated in a “Russian March,” a rally that united several thousand ultranationalists and racists.

Other opposition leaders include Mikhail Kasyanov, who was prime minister during Mr. Putin’s first presidential term, and Boris Nemtsov, who briefly served as a deputy premier during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

Mr. Kasyanov, who was fired in 2004, is a leader of Other Russia, a loose alliance of opposition groups that have been denied official registration for years and thus a chance to field its candidates in elections.

He has become a fierce Kremlin critic but enjoys little public support, in part because of allegations of his involvement in government corruption.

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