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Analysis: Vladimir Putin's crackdown guts Russia's opposition movement

Andrey Smirnov / AFP - Getty Images

Protesters holds posters depicting Alexei Navalny as they attend a rally at the Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow on Monday to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin one year into his new Kremlin term. The posters read: "Navalny is not guilty!" Organizers said tens of thousands attended the rally, which marks one year since a chaotic anti-Kremlin protest that descended into violence, and Putin's return to the presidency a day later. However, police estimated that 7,000 protesters attended on Monday.

News analysis

What a difference a year makes.

On May 6, 2012, the eve of Vladimir Putin’s third inauguration as Russia’s president, tens of thousands of middle-class Russians turned out on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square to chant "Russia without Putin" and "Anyone but Putin."

Their energy was electric. Their anger, palpable.  

But just 12 months later, a smaller crowd gathered at Bolotnaya Square on Monday, just hours before Secretary of State John Kerry arrived for meetings with Putin. The slogans were the same but the chanting was listless. Anger had turned to apathy.

What changed? First and foremost, the opposition movement has been damaged by a crackdown.

Riot police clash with thousands of opposition activists in Moscow as Vladimir Putin returns to power as Russia's president. Msnbc.com's Dara Brown reports.

May 6, 2012 was the day Putin chose to fall back on old Soviet habits. Riot police and protesters each blame the other for starting the clashes, but by the end of that evening, dozens – on both sides – had been injured.

For the first time since the anti-Putin rallies congealed around blatantly fraudulent parliamentary elections held earlier in December 2011, hundreds of protesters were arrested. Many were released.

But the Russian government went after the protest organizers. More than two dozen were charged with violating social order. A year later, two are serving two- to four-year jail terms; the others are either under house arrest or pre-trial detention.

Russian lawmakers fast-tracked bills that made most protests illegal and all illegal protests very expensive – up to $10,000 in fines.

Then Putin took on the two "leaders" of an opposition which had never really coalesced around a single platform or person.

Alexei Navalny is a 36-year-old anti-corruption blogger who found, with each expanding rally, that his voice could inspire tens of thousands of dissatisfied Russians to hope about the future. 

But shortly after he declared his intention to run in the next presidential election, he was charged with embezzling $500,000 from a timber company he worked for in 2009. He says the charge is trumped up and brazenly political. But he faces 10 years in jail if convicted, and even if acquitted, would be disqualified from running for high office.

The same holds true for Sergei Udaltsov, a left-wing activist who’s currently under house arrest for organizing "mass disorder" one year ago. The Kremlin’s legal team is putting the finishing touches on a case against Udaltsov that could lead to a treason conviction. It centers around a state TV documentary which apparently shows him and two other activists in conversation with an official from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. 

Mikhail Metzel / AP file

A wounded opposition protester winces in pain during a rally in Moscow on May 6, 2012.

Udaltsov is allegedly heard on tape asking for funds to finance the overthrow of the Russian government. Udaltsov says the footage is a "sham." But now he, too, faces up to 10 years in prison.

“Russia has increasingly evolved as a police state,” said Maria Lipman, current head of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “Detention and prosecution should be seen as the government’s warning:  Beware – if you want to take part in street activism you may have to pay with your freedom.”

The result could be seen in Monday’s lifeless protest on Bolotnaya Square. On the one hand, many protesters – the ones who bothered to come out – seemed intimidated by the riot police who surrounded them.

Most were quiet and looked apprehensive. Others appeared to burn with rage. Putin, on the other hand, secure in his ownership of all the levers of power, completely ignored the demonstration.

“Putin has full control of all the resources,” Lipman added. “From economic to political to the police, to the courts, to the intelligence services. [It’s why] there hasn’t been a single time when anybody ‘elite,’ from big business or high office, has switched sides and joined the protesters.”

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Supporters of Vladimir Putin wave flags during a rally in central Moscow on May 6, 2012.

Some who took the stage on the square held banners calling for the release of their comrades from prison. A year ago, there was heady talk of the “beginning of the end” of Putin and Putinism – which, in one phrase, translates, “stay out of my way and I’ll make it worthwhile.”

Educated, urban Russians were crying out for dignity, respect and civil society back then, which they believed they had earned with their relative prosperity.  But, one year into his third term, Putin’s ratings are still in the soaring 60s. And his rural, blue-collar supporters know full well who’s the boss.

Meawhile, some analysts – and some protesters themselves – say their biggest mistake was thinking that their moment of opposition was a movement.  

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

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