As expected, the opposition has failed to change the top of the power vertical. Vladimir Putin, barring unforeseen circumstances, will be embedded in the Kremlin at least until 2018.
So the next battleground, it appears, will be the vertical's weaker local underbelly.
"We need to prepare for various elections -- local votes, mayoral elections in Moscow, and gubernatorial elections - primarily to make sure they take place," opposition figure Boris Nemtsov told Interfax
on March 11.
Opposition candidates of various stripes managed to win
one-third of the seats in municipal elections to district councils in Moscow, which were held in tandem with the presidential vote on March 4. These included candidates from the Communist Party, A Just Russia, and Yabloko, as well as a handful of independents.
The most well-publicized of these was Vera Kichanova
, a 20-year-old journalism student who was one of 200 candidates supported by an opposition initiative called Our City.
In Astrakhan, meanwhile, supporters of Oleg Shein, a candidate for mayor from A Just Russia, are threatening a hunger strike
over alleged vote fraud that they say cost him the election. Municipal elections in Togliatti and Yaroslavl, meanwhile, are headed to a second round.
Opposition leaders also hope that plans to enlarge Moscow, incorporating some of the surrounding region, will lead to new legislative elections. Leonid Parfyonov, a prominent journalist and protest organizer, told Reuters
that such a development would be "the next step in political life," noting that Putin's support in the capital is very weak.
In many ways, the emergence of local politics as a key front for the opposition brings the struggle between the power vertical and the power horizontal full circle. From mass protests in Vladivostok
in December 2008 over increased auto import tariffs to the dustup over falsification
in the October 2009 local elections
to the protests in Kaliningrad
in early 2010 that led to the sacking of Governor Georgy Boos, it was at the local level that cracks first appeared
in Putin's monolith.
These episodes, and others like them, galvanized the opposition and spooked the Kremlin long before anybody outside of Moscow had ever heard of Bolotnaya Square. Likewise, it was in the Soviet local elections in the summer of 1987 -- the first semicompetitive elections in the country's history -- that provided the first hint that big changes might be on the way.
In addition to contesting mayoral and district council elections, the opposition also sees an opportunity in gubernatorial elections -- provided the legislation restoring them ever passes the State Duma.
The terms of 11 governors will expire in 2012. Gazeta.ru reports
, citing Kremlin sources, that the earliest possible date for any (still theoretical) gubernatorial elections would be in the autumn of this year -- most likely in Bryansk, Smolensk, and Yaroslavl.
Of course, the details of how governors will be elected is still to be determined and the Kremlin has indicated that it intends to keep a tight lid on the process.
And, of course, perennial questions remain about whether Russia's fractious opposition can muster the discipline and focus to competently contest local and regional elections -- a much more difficult task than putting tens of thousands of people on the streets.
-- Brian Whitmore