MOSCOW — Unprecedented protests that rattled Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s decade-long rule for the first time a year ago have died down but the movement still presents a challenge for the Kremlin.After the euphoria that marked the first opposition protests of Putin’s rule that erupted in December 2011, the opposition is now beset by internal divisions and battling a tough Kremlin crackdown on activists.“The protest movement has not choked and cannot choke.
It is just moving from the explosive phase to the chronic,” said renowned detective novelist Boris Akunin, a leading figure in the protest movement when the demonstrations erupted.“Now everything is going to be slow, long and predictable.
But I am certain that authoritarianism is doomed in Russia,” he told AFP in emailed answers.Anger over fraudulent December 4 parliamentary elections brought several thousand people into central Moscow the next day, in a surprise development for a country that lost its taste for street politics after the turbulent 90s.
Emboldened by the success of the December 5 rally, opposition leaders over the next months organized through social networks a series of rallies that at their peak brought up to 120,000 people near the Kremlin walls despite freezing temperatures.
Since then the movement has lost momentum, with the protests becoming less regular and divisions between the motley coalition of nationalists, leftists and liberals clearly exposed.Despite the protests Putin, who draws the bulk of his support from blue-collar workers in the country’s industrial rust belt, returned to the Kremlin for a third term following March 4 presidential elections.Weeks after the inauguration, he imposed a clampdown on civil society, signing off on a raft of laws in what critics saw as a bid to quash dissent.
The new legislation decriminalized slander and libel, raised fines for misdemeanors at opposition protests and forced non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding to carry a “foreign agent” tag in a move seen as a throwback to Soviet times.Scores of activists now face jail time for taking part in May 6 protests on the eve of Putin’s inauguration and for alleged plans to overthrow the Russian strongman with the help of foreign sponsors.Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin’s late mentor Anatoly Sobchak and a prominent opposition figure, bleakly said that the crackdown was the sum of the opposition’s achievements so far.“Our achievement over the past year is that many of our colleagues have ended up in prison.
”“We’ve achieved the toughening up of repressions. That’s what our achievements are,” she said in a recent interview to gazeta.ru online portal.Start of a political transformation?While skeptics charge that the Kremlin has managed to suppress dissent, many observers say the rallies triggered tectonic shifts in Russia’s incestuous political system.Putin, 60, faces tricky challenges in a term that is due to last until 2018 at a time of rapid social change in Russia.
“The authorities realized that they’ve got a serious adversary and they got scared. They have felt that there are limits, that a purely authoritarian system no longer works,” said pro-opposition political analyst and activist Dmitry Oreshkin.Analysts say Putin has taken notice of corruption complaints that fueled the winter protests. — AFP