THE BLOG
13/03/2012 10:11 GMT | Updated 13/05/2012 06:12 BST

Russia's Protest Movement Faces a Leadership Crisis

The stuttering of Russia's protest movement should be seen as a failure of leadership, not a reflection of Vladimir Putin's success.

The stuttering of Russia's protest movement should be seen as a failure of leadership, not a reflection of Vladimir Putin's success.

After the relatively modest turnout at the protest on Moscow's Novy Arbat street last weekend it is tempting to see the events of the past few months as a historical anomaly that is now correcting to trend. However, such an analysis ignores the fact that the crowd of between 10,000 and 25,000, depending on which estimate you take, would have been unthinkable only six months ago.

Nevertheless it was certainly a disappointment for the self-proclaimed leaders of the movement - but their pessimism betrays a frustration in their own strategic mistakes.

The day after the presidential election figures such as Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front movement, and the prominent anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny attempted to inject new impetus into the protests by squaring off against Moscow riot police on Pushkin Square. Unlike in December it failed to have the intended effect.

Part of this can be explained by the ill-advised shift in emphasis from 'fair elections' to a campaign against the man who has sat atop the Russian political scene for over a decade.

Putin's margin of victory demonstrated that the opposition lacked both the widespread support and a candidate necessary to challenge the administration. Even the upper estimates of vote fraud would still have given the frontrunner an overall majority sufficient to avoid a second-round runoff.

This is in sharp contrast to December's Duma elections. There the ruling United Russia (UR) party secured the narrowest of victories amid allegations of widespread electoral irregularities. Indeed the questionable results during the elections would have comfortably stripped UR of their parliamentary majority.

Under these circumstances it is clear why the call for fair elections resonated so strongly. That Moscow became the centre of the unrest is equally unsurprising considering the official result gave UR 46.6% of the city's vote despite electronic voting machines putting the figure at around 30%.

After the results of the presidential election became known Navalny tweeted:

"We overestimated ourselves. We thought the rest of the country knew what we know."

Certainly the degree to which the protests are understood outside of urban centres such as Moscow and St. Petersburg is an open question. No doubt Putin's claims that they were agents of western powers held far greater sway among Russians who rely on more traditional media for news.

Yet this alone cannot explain the falling turnout in Moscow. For that the responsibility must also lie with those who have taken to the stage announcing "I see enough people here to take the Kremlin" while the crowd below them cried "No revolution!". It was the failure to see the heterogeneous nature of the protests as their great strength, and not a weakness.

It is not too late to draw these various groups back together. Fair elections may not have been a sufficient condition to challenge Putin this time around, but they will undoubtedly be a necessary condition in future.