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When a Protest Fizzles: Putin's Opposition Is Routed in Moscow

5 March 2012 

If the past couple of months were the winter of Russia's "snowy evolution" Ч when riot police stood yawning as the urban hipsters and intellectuals rallied en masse for reform Ч the advent of spring has changed the mood on both sides of the barricades. On Monday night, one day after Vladimir Putin won the presidential election in a landslide, the state used force for the first time since the season of protests began. Demonstrators who refused to disperse were thrown around like sacks of sand, hundreds were arrested. One petite young politician got her arm broken on Moscow's Pushkin Square. The show of force was hardly vicious, but it sent a potent signal: playtime is over.

As for the opposition, its momentum has clearly begun to fade. Hardly 20,000 people went out on Monday night to protest Putin's victory, even though the claims of voter fraud were rife as ever. By the standards of dissent in the Putin era, the rally was still impressive, but it was several times smaller than those held in Moscow since the winter of discontent began. "Where is everyone?" one of the organizers complained to TIME behind the stage on Pushkin Square. "We're screwed if this is all we got."

The movement's unofficial leader, the blogger Alexei Navalny, tried hard to ready the crowd for a fresh standoff in the coming days and weeks. "We are starting to prepare new actions," he promised from the stage. "We will go out onto the streets of Moscow, we will occupy the streets and squares, and we will not leave." But his boasts from December that the protests were big enough "to take the Kremlin now" had disappeared. And when several of the leaders, including Navalny, tried to test their chances of occupying the square, things got ugly fast.

For one thing, the crowd went home, leaving only a couple of hundred protesters. The biggest group was from the Left Front movement, which is to say, a group of rowdy Che Guevara wannabes. Their leader, Sergei Udaltsov, climbed into a fountain on Pushkin Square with a bullhorn and started chanting slogans. "Power to the millions," he shouted, "not the millionaires." Navalny at first did not seem sure if he wanted to get involved. "I don't know what the plan is," he told TIME in the fountain. "There isn't really a plan. I should go talk to Udaltsov." But that didn't seem to help. "O.K., I guess we're standing here for now," he said after consulting with his comrade. There was a brief attempt to pitch a tent, but it didn't get further than a tarp attached to a tree before it was abandoned.

The riot police, officially known as OMON but nicknamed RoboCops by the activists, meanwhile closed in on the square by the many hundreds, carrying batons and metal shields. As they formed a human chain around the fountain, which is about the size of a two-bedroom house, the government made one last attempt to play nice. Valery Bakunin, an assistant to the Kremlin ombudsman for human rights, elbowed through the crush until he reached one of the leaders of the liberal opposition, Ilya Yashin, who was standing beside Navalny. "Listen for a second," the official said into Yashin's ear. "If you don't provoke the OMON, you can stand here as long as you want. Nobody will touch you." But Yashin brushed him off, "What do you mean 'don't provoke them'? They're about to arrest us!" And with that, the negotiation ended, the apparatchik climbed out of the fountain, and the RoboCops climbed in.

Working in teams of four, they started peeling away the protesters packed around Navalny. Their methods were far from delicate, but they did not use batons or pepper spray. The OMON would simply yank people away from the crowd, lift them up, throw them out of the fountain like a lump of meat and shove them into the police trucks. Ilya Ponomaryov, a member of the Russian parliament who has been leading the protests, was meanwhile screaming into his bullhorn for the OMON to desist. "You are breaking the law! We are having a peaceful meeting!" It had no effect. His deputy, Alyona Popova, 29, was thrown face first into the snow and got her arm fractured. Navalny, Yashin and Udaltsov were arrested, along with 250 protesters, but nearly all of them were released by morning, usually with fines of less than $20.

In the coming weeks, it will become clear whether the rout at the fountain has knocked the wind completely out of the opposition. Things don't look good. When TIME asked Navalny on Tuesday night, in a text message, whether he still thought it would be possible to occupy a square in Moscow, he wrote back, "No, I don't think so." Certainly not during the next rally, which is scheduled for the March 10, but "in principle," he wrote, it would be possible in the future. Many of his comrades are meanwhile thinking of jumping ship. "Maybe it's time to go back to our regular jobs," said one activist who has been helping organize the rallies since they started in December. "It's depressing. But the opposition is going to have to learn to live with Putin. Hopefully he can learn to live with us."

What they were counting on this week was a surge of anger at Putin's re-election, but it has not happened. In December, the parliamentary vote was clearly rigged, and observers presented ample evidence that Putin's United Russia party would not have won a majority if the ballot had been fair. That galvanized an electorate that had been mute since Putin came to power 12 years ago. They went out by the hundreds of thousands around the country to protest. But this time the claims of fraud, although no less fierce and apparently well substantiated, have rung somewhat hollow. Even the opposition's own surveys show that Putin won, although they give him much less than the official tally of 63% of the vote.

Nevertheless, even with his fresh mandate to rule for six more years, he will have to rule a different Russia. "The political culture has changed, and that's irreversible," an official from his government, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday. "A lot of talented young faces have emerged from all of this, and you can't just push them back." In the coming months, the parliament is set to pass a law making it much easier to register opposition parties and take part in elections. The government's hope is that this will bring the movement out of the fountains of Moscow and into the scramble for seats in local and federal legislatures. And what if they try to stay on the streets? Well, the RoboCops are standing by.

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