MOSCOW (AP) — Speaking to more than 100,000 protesters who thronged a Moscow street last December, charismatic anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny said Russia's opposition had mustered "enough people to take the Kremlin."
A year on, the movement that shocked Vladimir Putin's regime and galvanized huge numbers of ordinary Russians is at an impasse. After a weekend rally to mark its first anniversary only attracted a few thousand protesters, opposition leaders met to figure out where they go from here.
"We are seeing a certain weariness. People had hoped for a quick result," prominent opposition figure Ilya Yashin said during Sunday's meeting. "But it's not a sprint, it's a marathon." Since Putin easily won a third presidential term in March, the opposition has struggled to maintain any momentum or direction. Attendance at rallies has consistently ebbed.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has gone on the offensive, pushing through repressive new laws aimed at severely restricting opposition activity. Opposition leaders and ordinary activists alike face criminal charges that could see them spend 10 years in prison.
The euphoria of last winter's irreverent and mostly middle-class protest movement has been replaced with a lingering sense of powerlessness and despair. Two thirds of Russians are "disenchanted" with Putin's government, according to an October study by the Center for Strategic Research, a Kremlin-connected think tank, suggesting discontent goes far beyond supporters of the opposition.
Ratings for hagiographical TV specials detailing Putin's daily life and public relations stunts have plummeted by two thirds, said Anton Krasovsky, a TV producer and political consultant. "People are tired of the same old agenda," he said. "The country needs new heroes."
The opposition, however, has struggled to convert that discontent into support. Refusing to try to challenge Putin directly in the presidential election or develop a political program, conscious decisions intended to widen the opposition's appeal, now looks like a tactical mistake.
A poll released by the independent Levada Center last week found that 58 percent of Russians thought the protest movement had failed to change the situation in the country for the better. None of its leaders had an approval rating higher than 3 percent.
"If you want to win support from the broadest sectors of society possible, you have to show that you're an acceptable alternative, that you can be trusted behind the wheel," Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister now in opposition, wrote in a column on the Russian news site Gazeta.ru. "But since you spent time on nonsense instead of taking the fight to him, that's why Putin's the president."
Putin has belittled the opposition, saying it lacks leaders and "always demands the impossible and then never does anything." As if in response to Putin's jibe, the opposition has begun rethinking its approach from the ground up. Its Coordination Council, which met Sunday, agreed to campaign for jailed activists and nominate candidates for local elections next year. The small-scale approach is partly one of necessity: The council spends the vast majority of its time arguing over arcane bureaucratic details and has struggled to agree over whether to call outright for Putin's resignation.
Kremlin officials, once visibly disturbed by the sudden emergence of the protest movement, now confidently point to the opposition's organizational struggles as proof of their strength. At 60, however, Putin looks more vulnerable than ever before. Once eager to show off his physical prowess in elaborate public relations stunts, Putin is now fending off rumors about his health. Since early September he has restricted his travels and often visibly struggled to walk, which his spokesman ascribed to an "old sports injury."
Putin also is under pressure to fulfill the pledges he made during the election campaign, lavish spending plans that his own Finance Ministry has warned may be unsustainable. Should the oil price fall significantly, Putin may be required to take measures that would hit his working-class base, such as raising the retirement age, now at 60 for men and 55 for women.
Some opposition figures have attempted to capitalize on tension within the political and business elite by making overtures to its more progressively minded figures. Navalny, the anti-corruption activist, and his allies pushed on Sunday for former Kremlin staffer Dmitry Nekrasov to chair the Coordination Council, even though he had not been elected to it and stops short of calling himself a member of the movement.
Nekrasov's employer, former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who remains close to Putin, released a statement through his think tank earlier this month calling on the Kremlin to end the crackdown on the opposition and involve them in a dialogue aimed at liberalizing the country.
For now, the opposition's task is to remain relevant when the time for change comes.