- - Wednesday, April 18, 2012

MOSCOW — The activists who led some of the biggest protests in Russia’s post-Soviet history now realize that the euphoria surrounding the so-called “winter of discontent” was the only thing that held them together.

Four months after the Moscow public dealt the Kremlin a chilling wake-up call by pouring onto the streets in outrage at suspected violations in December’s parliamentary elections, Russia’s opposition remains as fractured and disjointed as ever.

“We were only united when we were organizing protests together,” left-leaning opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov told The Washington Times.

“Outside of the protests, we aren’t able to do anything because everyone has different opinions.”

The cold, hard reality of Vladimir Putin’s victory in March’s presidential election brought the protest movement to a grinding halt.

United only in their dislike for Mr. Putin, opposition leaders quickly resorted to their wildly different roles — liberals, nationalists, communists, corruption fighters, bloggers.

The opposition should have had a lot going for it. Rarely has discontent with the Putin regime been so high. It is likely to only increase after the realization kicks in that Mr. Putin may not be able to meet the slew of spending commitments he promised during the presidential campaign.

Some are trying to keep up the enthusiasm of the protest movement with the announcement of a rather optimistically named “March of a Million,” planned the day before Mr. Putin’s inauguration on May 7.

“It is important for the protest leaders to show that they still have the support of the voters and that the game is not over because of Putin’s election,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, a Russia analyst at IHS Global Insight.

“However, even if they succeed, this may well be the last such massive protest, as there is no particular agenda for ordinary voters to continue demonstrating in the same fashion as they did before the presidential elections.”

Many protest leaders are focusing their energies on change on a smaller scale than the revolutionary ideals thrown around during the protests. The target of discontent with the political order has been shifted to a local level, where Russians feel they can achieve change more easily.

The most prominent opposition activists have flocked in recent weeks to the aid of independent candidates fighting to retrieve victories they claim were stolen from them in regional mayoral elections last month.

Some, like Yevgeny Urlashov, an independent candidate fighting for control of the small west Russian city of Yaroslavl, secured a rerun of the local election and won, thanks largely to an army of election monitors who traveled from Moscow to ensure there was no foul play.

Perhaps sensing the dangers posed by the grass-roots movement in regional cities, the authorities have taken a tougher line with a mayoral election dispute in Astrakhan in southern Russia.

The city’s election commission is refusing to hold a rerun despite a throng of media attention surrounding losing opposition candidate Oleg Shein, who has led a nearly monthlong hunger strike to protest what he says was a rigged vote.

Analysts say that grass-roots politics is one of the few options left open to the opposition.

Mismanaged democracy in the past two decades has instilled in Russians a deep-set feeling of mistrust in anyone involved in party politics.

“Many of the opposition leaders are well-known politicians who ruled Russia in the 1990s,” said Alexander Rahr, Russia program director at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“People connect them with economic disaster, and so they have little chance of gaining power. A new leadership of young liberals needs to emerge, but that will take years.”

A political reform bill signed earlier this month in response to the demands of protesters for greater political plurality likely will only make matters worse.

The law liberalizes the requirements for setting up a political party. But that could encourage a united opposition to break up into hundreds of small parties with little chance of generating any real power.

The law also allows political parties to register with similar names, which could create further confusion at the polls.

“The reforms will simply create an imitation of a multiparty system,” said opposition lawmaker Mr. Ponomaryov. “There will be 200 political parties, and no one will be able to tell the difference between them.”

He said there is a strong need for the system to go “down to the people.”

“Parties need to first take part in local elections, then in regional elections, then in federal, and not the other way around,” Mr. Ponomaryov said.

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