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Analysis & Opinion
12.03.12 Mingling With The Middle Class
By Dan Peleschuk

Serious talk has arisen lately about the protest movement’s loss of momentum throughout the last week. Since President-elect Vladimir Putin’s comfortable victory in the March 4 presidential elections and a series of disappointing rallies, the wind seems to have escaped the opposition’s sails. Yet many ordinary activists and protest participants remain positive, saying they’re ready to stick around for the long haul.

Both international and domestic media have been filled with reports of the protest movement’s dwindling momentum. Last Saturday’s underwhelming protest on New Arbat Avenue marked the latest in what seems like a developing trend of ineffective and dispiriting demonstrations. Indeed, only up to about 20,000 people attended on March 10, with many opposition leaders openly admitting that it’s time for movement leaders to shift their focus from rallies to more concrete action. It followed on the heels of a tense March 5 protest that resulted in a police crackdown.

Gone are the days of Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue, the narrative goes, when massive protests of up to 100,000 people filled central Moscow with smiling faces and optimistic forecasts for the democratic future of their country. Yet the spirit of the participants at the New Arbat demonstration has not fully dissipated. Rather than outwardly discouraged, many appeared prepared – albeit guardedly – for the more nuanced and protracted battle ahead as Putin settles into his third term in May.

Twenty-two-year-old student Alexander Arnautov acknowledged the tangible change in atmosphere since earlier this winter, but he also said he expects rejuvenation come spring. “I think it’s possible that fewer people may show up at each coming rally, but I think it’s just a certain period of downtime,” he said. “I believe there will be a reawakening in the near future and many more people will come.”

For their part, some opposition leaders have not completely given up on the power of public protests. Environmentalist and key opposition figure Yevgenia Chirikova said the cycle is merely recharging itself. “The movement isn’t losing its energy, it’s just entering another phase,” she told Russia Profile. “The cycle of protests we have seen in the last three months will become more focused.”

Others took the stage on Saturday to call for more practical and localized civil society actions. Hailing 20-year-old Vera Kichanova, an independent candidate who won seats in her local council during the elections, as an example for the future of the opposition movement, some leaders openly cast doubt on the potential of mass protests. Journalist Serguei Parkhomenko pointed to the Moscow city elections as an opportunity for political mobilization and told the press shortly after Saturday’s rally that demonstrations may not be so frequent in the future.

It seems some participants have already heeded opposition leaders’ calls to participate in smaller, everyday actions to the further the cause. Anastasia Korolyova, a 40-year-old department manager, said she has committed herself to making rounds throughout her neighborhood handing out pamphlets, penned by opposition figures Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov, detailing Putin’s corrupt power vertical: “I think everyone who didn’t vote for these authorities should be doing the same thing,” she said.

Still others see a precedent in the past for a movement of people power that could indeed help topple Putin down the road. Seventy-year-old Alexander Tishler, an economist, told Russia Profile that he thinks opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov’s calls for a million-man march in the spring is realistic. “I think it’s possible because I’ve seen it before in my time – in the early 1990s,” he said. “I’m no politician, but I think if we keep up such protests, then the government will have nowhere to hide. They’ll have to recognize us.”

In many cases, demonstrators have nonetheless tempered their demands and expectations to conform to a more classic narrative that has gripped post-Soviet Russia: change, if it indeed comes, will come slowly. Tatiana Anisimova, a 46-year-old economist, said that despite the widespread apathy she feels is still largely present in Russia today, she has attended every rally – and plans to do so in the future. “I think that any positive changes will take so long that I hope to God my grandchildren will get to see them,” she said. “But this is a beginning, and that makes me happy.”
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