Anti-Putin opposition groups still finding their way

Despite the Russian opposition's ability to rally tens of thousands of protesters, it remains an eclectic mix of parties both left and right. Will opposing Putin be enough to keep them united?

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
People shouted slogans during a 'March of Millions' anti-Putin rally in Moscow on Sept. 15. Another is planned for December.

Russia's angry anti-Kremlin street opposition, which erupted onto the scene following allegedly fraud-tainted Duma elections last December, is facing a deep identity crisis as it approaches its first anniversary and is racked with internal debate over the way forward.

Though it still has the ability to draw tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets of Moscow, as it did last month, the movement's initial focus on fair elections has clearly failed to force authorities to replay the flawed Duma polls. And that focus may no longer be enough to hold it together after Vladimir Putin won a decisive – and somewhat less disputed – victory in presidential elections last March that has brought him back to the Kremlin for another six years.

Preserving a coalition that embraces forces from the far left to the nationalist right is a lot like trying to herd cats, but leaders say the popular antipathy to Mr. Putin and his increasingly authoritarian style of rule is only growing, and crowds will continue to take to the streets at regular intervals, as they have for the past nine months. The next scheduled demonstration is in December.

"We are united, despite the diversity of our political views," says Sergei Udaltsov, leader of Left Front, a neocommunist organization that's been a key participant in the movement from the beginning.

"Everyone understands that it's useless to act alone; even when we're all together the authorities find it possible to ignore our demands. We need to stay united and resist all attempts to split us up and weaken us," he says.

One idea to broaden the movement and give it more staying power is to create an elected "coordinating council" of about 50 members, who will meet regularly to map out future actions and draw up a mature list of demands. Over 30,000 people have already registered online to take part in electing the council of what many hope will become the core of a permanent opposition movement.

Most of the leaders say they're ready to move beyond the strictly political grievances that marked the early protests and embrace more complex social and economic demands that could appeal to people beyond Russia's small emerging middle class, which makes up no more than 15 percent of the total population.

"Putin is hardening his regime and prefers to pay for police rather than teachers and doctors. So, social needs should become part of our program," says Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister and co-leader of the liberal Solidarnost coalition.

"Left ideas are very popular in this country, and they can't be ignored. But our main goal is to return this country to the path of free elections and constitutional rule. Only then can we fully discuss our future economic course," he says.

Another idea is to broaden forms of activity beyond street protests. One key opposition leader, environmentalist Yevgenia Chirikova, is running for mayor of the Moscow suburban city of Khimki, where she has led an often bitter campaign to oppose the chopping down of an old-growth forest in order to build a toll road.

"Opposition leaders have been coming out to support my candidacy here, and it really gives me a feeling of hope," Ms. Chirikova says. "We simply have to keep pushing where we can, however we can, until we find the ways to bring the changes so many people say they want to see. It's a work in progress."

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