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What's next for Russian protests?

                                         

MOSCOW -- Saturday's protest was doubly impressive in that so many could have made excuses not to show. It was snowing, it was bone-chillingly cold, and it was the beginning of the Russian holiday season. Anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 people, by my guess, filled up Avenue Prof. (Andrei) Sakharov (the USSR's once infamous dissident) in Moscow and it must have signaled to the Kremlin "observers," hiding behind tinted glass in four-wheel drive vehicles beyond the police barriers, that the unprecedented protest two weeks earlier had been no fluke.

But where does it go from here? Will this protest movement -- marked so far by restraint, humor and non-violence -- turn a Russian winter into a "Russian Spring"?


There are already ominous signs.

Alexander Aleshkin / Getty Images

Demonstrators take part in a mass anti-Putin rally on Saturday in Moscow.

Alexei Navalny, a passionate orator who until recently was known only to social networkers as an anti-corruption blogger, is quickly emerging as the new face of the anti-Vladimir Putin opposition. He roused the crowd on Saturday, declaring that if the movement weren't peaceful it could easily have taken over the Kremlin with the Russian crowd at hand. But, he warned, that could change if Putin connived to steal the NEXT presidential election, in March. "If these crooks and thieves go on cheating us, if they continue telling lies and stealing from us, we will take what belongs to us with our own hands.''

This wasn't just crowd-pleasing rhetoric coming from an aspiring leader. Many protesters, like 30-year-old Vasily Gnuchev, a normally quiet, self-employed architect, see red when faced with the possibility, even likelihood, that Prime Minster Vladimir Putin will not only win the presidency but rule for yet another two six-year terms.

"It's absolutely unacceptable that the man who's in power [already] for 12 years will be here for 12 years more!," Vasily spurted out in a rented apartment in dire need of repairs, literally red with anger. "We don't want another revolution, or bloodshed, but if Putin is going to win then there may be a "Russian Spring -- not an Arab Spring but a Russian one."

Putin, after the initial shock of barely scraping by in the parliamentary elections of Dec. 4, said nothing about the protests for a week,  then treated them with contempt. He finally realized he had to engage, and (through the usual conduit of Russian President cum Putin spokesman Dmitri Medvedev) announced on Thursday a set of positive political reforms, none of which would take effect until the next cycle, in six years.

Which makes Vasily see red ... again. ''We don't have six years to wait. And we know what will come of it in six years. It will be blah- blah-blah and nothing else!'

Some of my Russian analyst friends in Moscow are quick to point out that Russia is not the Middle East. That the Arab Spring happened to dictatorships based on violence and repression. And that Russia -- with all of its abuses -- is still an open society with a market economy and that the "Freedom Genie" can never be put back into the bottle.

Fyodor Lukyanov is one of President Medvedev's advisers on human rights who took the courageous step this week of calling for the annulment and repeat of the Dec. 4  parliamentary elections. He believes the only way Putin can win back his popularity is by running a squeaky clean and transparent campaign for president.

"Putin may go to a second round -- that's OK,  he can still beat any of the contenders in the second round,'' says Lukyanov. ''And he will have his legitimacy back -- maybe not in the amount he had 10 years ago, but a big part of the population believes that Putin is much better than anybody else.''

For many protesters, the animosity goes way beyond Putin the candidate. Vasily's father, Fyodor, now 50, says he watched in shock as the Soviet Union fell 20 years ago, then in horror as Russia passed, rudderless, through a decade of economic collapse and war. And then came Putin. Stability. Prosperity. "All over the country there was a scream of joy when we got rid of this alcoholic, Yeltsin. We finally saw a man who was sane, who was physically fit, and he wasn't reading from his notes," recalled the older Gnuchev.

His son Vasily says he was too young to remember the bad old days of democratic Russia. But he prospered under Putin, and always felt free. And that's the real problem. The Putin regime's reportedly widespread electoral fraud pulled the rug from under a whole generation who believed in their leader, who believed in Putinism. "Now we see that everything is a lie," Vasily explained. "The Kremlin just stole our votes  -- it's just incompatible with the picture of the world we grew up in."

It's that humiliation -- indeed, violation -- mixed with anger that seems to drive many Russian, middle-class protesters into the streets -- even when the elements are conspiring against them -- and will keep the pressure on Putin, with promises of more protests to come. But what if this "people power" movement really blossoms, only to be thwarted yet again, not in a free and fair election come March, but by another brazen, Putin-led ploy to retain power?

Lukyanov admits he's "cautiously pessimistic." "Unfortunately," he told me, "Russian and Soviet and pre-Soviet history shows us that those in power are capable of making almost any mistakes and stupidities."

On the one hand,  "Russian people" determined to take back the country they feel they've lost, and on the other,  "Russian power" equally determined to hold onto it. What's next? "It's absolutely impossible to predict the course of events in 2012," offered Lukyanov.

Whatever happens, those two driving forces of 2012 look to be on a collision course.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London who has covered the Soviet Union and Russia since the 1980s.

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