Putin's victory sends anti-Kremlin movement into tailspin

Hopes of protesters seeking change in Russia dashed by Putin's election as president and overall popularity.

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MOSCOW // Tatiana Anisimova stood huddled in the cold as the throng of protesters at an opposition rally this month thinned out.

The tone of defeat in her voice matched the faces of the protesters as they scattered after a demonstration that featured less energy and even less hope that Russia would change any time soon.

"I think any positive changes to the system will take so long that I hope to God at least my grandchildren will get to see them," said Ms Anisomova, a 46-year-old economist.

The deflated hopes of the petite, bespectacled Ms Anisimova reflected the dramatic reversal of fortune for the anti-Kremlin movement that unexpectedly spilled onto the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities in December and seemed, at least briefly, to throw Vladimir Putin's ascent to the presidency into question.

But after Mr Putin's sweeping victory in the March 4 presidential election, a stark and unsettling awareness descended upon those tens of thousands of protesters who had filled the streets of the capital in recent months: the man who held the presidency for eight years and five months was going to hold the office for at least another six years.

Even more disheartening for Kremlin opponents was the realisation that Mr Putin remains by far Russia's most popular and visible politician. Even taking into account alleged widespread vote fraud, independent watchdogs estimate Mr Putin's "clean" vote tally exceeded 50 per cent, enough to secure the first-round victory.

The election reaffirmed Mr Putin's longstanding popularity among government employees and members of Russia's working class, especially in poorer, far-flung Russian regions. Experts say the enduring divide between Russia's hinterland and its more liberal cities prevailed.

"About a quarter of the population of Russia is in agreement with the slogans and the ideas of the protesters," said Alexei Levinson, a noted sociologist at the independent Levada Center. "A majority thinks that the protests have had no effect at all."

With the protests losing steam after Mr Putin's reelection, opposition leaders and activists have been urging followers to focus their energies on more localized, grassroots protests and on electoral politics.

A bill signed into law yesterday by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev significantly removes key obstacles to the registration of political parties that helped the Kremlin consolidate power behind Mr Putin and the ruling United Russia party.

Under the new law, a political party will need 500 members instead of 40,000 to gain legal recognition.

Critics have assailed the legislation as a veiled attempt to break up an already scattered opposition. Russian law already forbids the formation of party blocs that enable smaller parties to join together to compete for seats in parliament.

According to Alexander Morozov, a political blogger and editor of the Russian Journal, the Kremlin is attempting to keep any new, small parties on the sidelines.

"While this system exists, any meaningful political competition is impossible," he said. "This is a dummy model of political competition and everybody understands this."

Despite the law's purported weaknesses, experts say it is a tacit acknowledgement by the Kremlin that the opposition must be reckoned with.

"Now that there will be five or six years of relatively calm living, the authorities are trying to offer the carrot rather than the stick in hopes of keeping the opposition quiet," said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, a member of the president's advisory council on civil society and human rights.

The passage of the political parties law coincides with a series of meetings between Mr Medvedev and representatives of the informal opposition, which consists of a broad array of parties and movements that operate outside parliament and without the approval of the Kremlin.

Although the meetings are unprecedented, doubts about the Kremlin's sincerity persist. Several key informal opposition leaders boycotted yesterday's scheduled gathering, citing a lack of genuine dialogue.

Despite Mr Putin once again winning the presidency and the waning of street protests, there were some glimmers of hope for the opposition.

The March 4 vote saw the election of about 70 independent candidates to district councils across Moscow. Some of the council's now boast an opposition majority, which has been able to block councilors from the ruling United Russia party from selecting loyal chairmen.

Beyond Moscow, St Petersburg and other large Russian cities, independent candidates running on anti-corruption platforms have had some success against Kremlin-backed competitors in mayoral elections.

Experts said these small victories amount to the gradual erosion of Mr Putin's carefully orchestrated "power vertical" - the system by which he imposed federal control over Russian regions by installing loyalists.

"The local level was always the weakest link in this power vertical," said Vladimir Gelman of the European University at St Petersburg. "Certainly, it's a challenge because not all the Kremlin-loyal candidates are popular enough."

Mr Levinson, the Levada Center sociologist, notes that any significant missteps by the Kremlin may revive the legions of anti-Kremlin protesters who turned out into the streets during Russia's winter of discontent.

"The state of the state, you might say, is the most important factor for many Russians, because the state is the prevailing form of social organisation in Russia," he said. "What the state does, in the eyes of many Russians, is what makes people into either revolutionaries or loyal citizens."