A wave of coordinated antigovernment protests around Russia this weekend will likely be heard in the Kremlin as distant thunder, and not an immediate challenge to the still-popular Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, say analysts.
But Mr. Putin might be wise to take note of the Tea Party-like "Day of Wrath" rallies that struck 20 Russian cities on Saturday – from the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad to the Pacific port of Vladivostok – because they illustrate a growing willingness among crisis-hit Russians to take their grievances into the streets as well as an extraordinary, Internet-driven ability to coordinate their actions across the country's expanse of 11 time zones.
"These rallies brought together very diverse – even opposing – political forces, who mainly directed their anger at local authorities and not against the Kremlin," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a longtime political activist and head of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow.
"But the organization was brilliant. They managed to have 20 events involving a dozen different groups – liberals, environmentalists, Stalinists, human rights activists – and bring them together at the same time and place," to express a shared, if inchoate, rage against the government, he says.
The biggest rallies, of between 1,000 and 2,000 protesters each, were in Kaliningrad, Vladivostok, and St. Petersburg, where automobile owners angry at new taxes and traffic police corruption joined with liberals expressing outrage over alleged fraud in recent regional elections, and human rights workers who complain the window for dissent in Russia is slamming shut.
Website mysteriously shut down
Authorities in most cities did not overtly ban the rallies, as has often happened in the past, but the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station reported Friday that a website dedicated to coordinating the meetings (www.20marta.ru) was mysteriously shut down, and remains inaccessible.
A planned meeting in Moscow, which was prohibited by the city's conservative mayor, Yury Luzhkov, drew around 200 people, who were greatly outnumbered by massive ranks of riot police surrounding the central Pushkin Square. Moscow police said that 70 people were arrested, most of whom were quickly released.
Though the protests appear to pose no coherent or immediate challenge to the Kremlin, analysts say they are a sign of mounting economic pain and political frustration around the country, and a growing readiness among young people to take their grievances into the streets.
A poll conducted earlier this month by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 27 percent of Russians favor the idea of antigovernment protests; and the largest numbers of them were 18-to-24-year-olds living in big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
"There is an accumulation of negative feeling due to the fact that the economic crisis goes on much longer than expected, and many local problems are mounting," he says. "Local authorities are often very clumsy in the way they manage these protests and, should they worsen, they may prove incapable of containing them."
Internet petition against Putin
Putin might also want to take note of another Internet-driven protest that's gaining ground. An online petition calling Putin's Russia "an historical dead end" and demanding the powerful prime minister resign has now attracted almost 15,000 signatures – in a country where many people remain fearful of the potential consequences for publicly associating their names with any anti-overnment cause.
"It's really significant that several thousand people are willing to put their full names on this petition, to openly state their position as citizens and declare they are not afraid of persecution," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, a spokesman of For Human Rights, a grass-roots, Moscow-based group.
"This is a courageous gesture that's well understood in this society," he says. "If it were anonymous, it would be worthless."
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who often seems to play "good cop" to Putin's more hard-line approach, has made several attempts to utilize the Internet as a means of getting the Kremlin's message out to younger, educated Russians.
Biggest threat from within?
Despite the apparently growing mood of social protest, the biggest threat to the Putin-Medvedev government might be within the Kremlin.
Although rumors of a falling out between Mr. Medvedev and Putin remain unsubstantiated, many experts believe that the official facade of unbreakable unity may be far from reality.
"Russia has a very rigid, top-down state structure that seems to be fairly invulnerable to challenges from without," says Mr. Kagarlitsky. "But it's not really able to generate long-term stability, and it's only a matter of time before there's a split at the top. The biggest threat to the system comes from within."