Exactly how many protesters flooded central Moscow last Saturday to demand a "Russia without Putin" is difficult to pin down. The police put the total at 10,000; protest leaders claim 25,000. I can say that in my particular square meter not far from the stage there were at least six people and one dog, and the chants echoing up the broad avenue suggested a very large crowd indeed. The turnout may have been low compared to the 100,000-strong demonstrations last December. But given that during the first 12 years of Vladimir Putin's rule, Russia never saw a single protest with more than a few dozen people, this was still a hefty display of displeasure about the March 4 election that installed Vladimir Putin as president once again, this time with 63 percent of the vote.

Walking toward the protest venue an hour before the event kicked off, I caught a whiff of revolution in the freezing air. The street was lined with buses full of riot police, demonstrators were converging from all corners, and coordinators were testing the PA system with Bob Dylan songs. But by the time I left -- after the coordinators declared the rally over, an hour ahead of schedule -- the mood was deflated. The protesters' hopes that a wave of mass discontent might push Putin from power had fizzled. Organizers discussed, in vague terms, plans of another protest in May.

The crowd receded, and the riot police passed around cigarettes, many of them looking relieved that they would not appear on the evening news whacking civilians with their truncheons. Opposition leaders all spoke of the "long, hard road ahead," of months or years of painstaking work building their movement and fighting on. But after three months of unprecedented agitation, they faced the frigid reality that Putin would soon embark on his third term as president, and there was nothing any person on the central Moscow streets could do about it.  

The protest leaders had decided that ordinary election observers should take the limelight on Saturday, rather than "big names" such as Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and co-leader of the unregistered opposition movement the People's Freedom Party (or PARNAS); Mikhail Kasyanov, the former prime minister and fellow leader of PARNAS; or Alexei Navalny, the anticorruption blogger. It was meant to be a tribute to the efforts of the thousands who devoted themselves to the cause of minimizing fraud. But it may have been a miscalculation. Most of the observers struggled to inspire the crowd. Sometimes the protesters got tired listening to them and started up their own chants of "Putin out" and "Russia without Putin."

It took Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster, to rouse the crowd properly with an uplifting speech. "The worst thing will be if we get demoralized and think we have no chance now," he told them. Alluding to the fact that Putin won just 47 percent of the vote in the Russian capital (his worst result), Kasparov said, "We know that Putin lost in Moscow. That's just a start. I am sure that we will win. Together, we are a force that, starting from the center, will make Russia free and democratic."

I could not help but recall the great stirrings of democracy in Russia that I witnessed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when, without the help of the Internet or Twitter, hundreds of thousands of Russians spilled into the streets to hear Boris Yeltsin, the future president, and Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist and human rights activist, condemn the communist system and the excesses of its rulers. In those days, the crowd waited with mounting excitement for the appearance of the boldfaced speakers, who commanded almost universal respect. Today's opposition lacks the top talent that could perform Yeltsin and Sakharov's unifying and rallying role.

Indeed, some of the movement's leaders did not even turn up on Saturday. Nemtsov was at home with a cold. Kasyanov said he was happy to leave the proceedings to the election observers to tell their stories, and Navalny -- perhaps the most promising of the younger generation of opposition heavyweights -- was milling in the crowd but did not appear on the stage.

Besides their lack of inspiration, the speeches on Saturday were perhaps chasing the wrong message. Of course, they were right to highlight the alleged impropriety at the polls. There were credible reports of "carousel" voting, in which loyal voters were bussed from polling station to polling station to vote for Putin, and evidence of ballot stuffing and miscounting. But the fraud was much less significant than during the December elections to the State Duma.

More important, the ballot tampering was far less damaging than the monumental lopsidedness of the media coverage that preceded the election. The central television stations not only devoted far more time to Putin than to the other candidates (the channels chose to designate coverage of his activities as news about the prime minister rather than as electioneering), but they also aired whole documentaries portraying Putin as a hero who saved Russia from the chaos of the Yeltsin years and from the allegedly meddling hands of the West. Putin's allegations that Western governments were "paying" the protesters and plotting an Orange Revolution like Ukraine's in 2004 went without challenge. Securing access to state television should now be the immediate concern of the opposition. It is the total control of the country's most powerful media -- not vote-rigging -- that makes Putin all but invincible.

Nemtsov has claimed that just one hour of live televised debate with Putin would ensure that the latter would never win another election. That may be wishful thinking, but if the main channels were allowed to debate and investigate freely, it would certainly dramatically alter the political scene here.

There is another reason, too, why Russia's winter of protests did not develop into an Orange Revolution. In Ukraine in 2004, a rigged election actually changed the result: It handed victory to the loser, the pro-Russian, "official" candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, and robbed the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko of his rightful victory. Hundreds of thousands protested, forcing the authorities to rerun the election, which Yushchenko won.

Not so in Russia. In the March 4 election, no other candidate was robbed of victory. Opposition leaders concede that Putin would have won even if there had been no fraud. True, the election might have gone to a runoff between Putin and his nearest rival. But few imagine that any of the other contenders could have matched Putin's popularity.

That is a problem that has dogged Russian politics since the collapse of communism. For more than 20 years, democratically minded politicians have vied against one another rather than work out a common platform. So many new, separate parties have formed and then crumbled that Russia has almost run out of original names for them.

Today, a good dozen of Russia's top democrats are scattered across several different parties, whose differences are much less than the similarities that should unite them against Putin. Even when they try to come together -- as Kasyanov, Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and others have in PARNAS -- they cannot agree which of them should be the figurehead. Until they are able to do so, Putin will continue to reign as a giant among squabbling political rivals.

Still, it would have been hard to find a single protester on Saturday who felt that the battle was over -- even if it must now change form. An opinion poll conducted by the Ekho Moskvy radio station found that 80 percent of respondents believed the protests were worthwhile. In an interview with the same station, Kasyanov said that the most pressing task was to ensure that some small reforms promised by President Dmitry Medvedev in response to the December protests become a reality. He said that protesters must continue to insist that a new law easing the registration of political parties, for example, should be passed before Putin is inaugurated in May. The next step, he said, would be to achieve a rerun of the flawed parliamentary election that provoked the protests in the first place.

It is implausible, though, that Putin, now comfortable in his belief that he has taken the steam out of the opposition, will make such a huge concession. The fact is that Putin's Kremlin has everything under control, and the opposition -- without effective leadership and no access to national television -- faces a long and uphill struggle.

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