Thousands of Muscovites demonstrated against Vladimir Putin's disputed election victory on a downtown square Saturday, indicating that the protest movement born after allegedly fraudulent Duma elections three months ago is far from finished.
But crowds were much smaller than in the past, reflecting demoralization with Putin's huge win and growing divisions within the opposition over the way forward now that Mr. Putin seems definitely headed for another six-year term as Russia's president.
Police put the size of the crowd on Moscow's central Novy Arbat, a broad avenue lined with 1960s-era skyscrapers, at about 10,000. Organizers claimed twice that many, but it clearly could not match the 100,000-plus who turned out in February to demand fair elections, a more democratic political system and for Putin to rethink his plans to return for a third time.
It was also hard to ignore that recent pro-Putin crowds in Moscow, mobilized by a worried Kremlin to create a counterbalance to the protesters, have been much larger as well.
Protest leaders had different takes on the situation Saturday. Some, such as radical leftist Sergei Udaltsov after the rally ended; he and about 60 others were quickly surrounded and arrested by phalanxes of armored riot police.
Others cautioned that the movement needs time to adjust to the new circumstances, write a real political program and forge some unity among its disparate and fractious leaders.
"Now what the two sides, authorities and opposition, have to do it to calm down and control themselves," says Nikolai Svanidze, a famous Russian TV news show host who's become one of the leaders of the protest movement. "It's understandable that after the elections, the authorities feel euphoric and the opposition feels disillusioned. We need to look for new forms of protest, positive and fresh ideas, and new ways to express them. The trouble is, the opposition has no recognized leader, no organizational structure. Our unity here on the square is real enough, but so are the differences between the various opposition forces. There is time, and these problems need to be confronted."
Ilya Yashin, a leader of the Solidarnost anti-Kremlin coalition, says that Russian society has changed, and there is now a growing middle class that's dissatisfied with the neo-Soviet political system and the corruption that it breeds in officialdom. That segment of society, concentrated in key cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, are not going to remain silent for long, he says.
"Imagine that you are running a marathon. At some times you will run faster and in other periods you will run more slowly. This is our protest movement," Mr. Yashin says. "Our president has lost the confidence of a considerable part of the society. It means that he is not legitimate in the eyes of this part of the society, and presidents who lack legitimacy do not stay long in power. Putin will either have to become a dictator or work with us to transform Russia's political system into a democratic regime. What kind of process it will be depends on us, and we should strive to keep it civilized and peaceful."
But some say the protest movement has run out of steam, at least for now, and it's time to accept the facts and move on.
"As a reasonable person, what should I do?" says Ksenia Sobchak, a leading Russian TV personality, whose MTV talk show was canceled last month after she invited opposition personalities to appear on the air. "I want to work, to help young people raise their social level, to do something real. One can't go to meetings of protest for ever. Should we protest against the falsification of elections for the next 6 years in the hope that authorities will cancel the results? What's the use?"
Ms. Sobchak's exhaustion was mirrored by many others, who argued that the opposition needs to develop a new strategy for the long haul, recognizing that Putin was elected -- regardless of all the flaws of the political system -- by a majority of voters and seeking to use the new atmosphere introduced by the protest movement to force open greater discussion in parliament, the media and the public square.
"Rallies like this can't solve all problems, people need to change themselves inside," says Alexander Gavrikov, a Moscow schoolteacher. "The authorities and society are two sides of the same coin. We have leaders, and we're used to following them. At least oil prices (Russia's main export) are still high, so the economy will be OK for the foreseeable future. How bad can it get?"