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Russia's Protest Movement Faces Key Test Saturday

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny - released from jail December 21, 2011, after being detained at the first of several large opposition rallies, will be participating in the next mass protest planned for December 24 - speaks during an interview in

It is winter in Moscow. Snow fell heavily this week. And now opponents of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are preparing for what they hope will be a massive rally on Saturday.

Russia’s democracy movement faces a big test Saturday. It must draw a massive turnout before Russians unwind for two weeks of holidays that stretch through Orthodox Christmas on January 7, 2012.

Opponents of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have raised $100,000 for a high-powered sound system. Celebrity actors and singers have posted endorsements on the Internet. And, for timid, first-time protesters, organizers are promising tea, cookies and balloons.

Mild weather forecast

And this time, the harsh Russian winter, which defeated Hitler and Napoleon, is not on the Kremlin’s side.

Nikolay Petrov, a Carnegie Moscow analyst, forecasts a large turnout.

“The problem is that the weather is still mild, meaning that a big crowd can gather tomorrow. The Kremlin is waiting for a break,” said Petrov.

The protests started after fraud charges clouded the December 4 parliamentary elections. Normally, the Kremlin could afford to ignore the protests. But presidential elections are March 4, and Putin, the front-runner, is sinking in the polls.

Government uses carrot, stick

In response to the protests, the Kremlin first sent riot police to arrest the protesters. Then the prime minister insulted them, saying they were acting on the orders of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He joked on national TV that at first, he thought the protesters’ white ribbons were condoms.

On Thursday, President Dmitry Medvedev unveiled a package of democratic reforms. On Friday, some of this legislation was sent to parliament.

Many analysts say, though, that it's too little, too late.

Ilya Yashin, a protest organizer, said that after four years of empty promises, Medvedev has little credibility among democrats in Russia.

He said the Kremlin responds only to civic pressure - like Saturday’s rally. So far, more than 50,000 people have signed up on social network sites to attend the four-hour meeting.

Each side readies for polls

As the numbers climbed, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief strategist, warned in a newspaper interview that some protesters want to create in Russia the kind of “color revolutions” that toppled authoritarian governments elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
Carnegie’s Petrov said of the Kremlin leadership that Medvedev is “politically dead,” and Putin is not going to change.

"After staying in power for 12 years and reaching 60 years, it is hard, pretty hard, for any person to change radically, and Putin is unwilling to do this - so there is huge inertia," said Petrov.

So far, protesters have been heavily middle-class professionals in their 20s and 30s. They are connected and informed through the Internet - a largely free space in Russia.

Putin’s base of support is largely the elderly.

At stake on March 4 is a vote that could give Putin another six years in power. To block this, his opponents are organizing a massive, nationwide poll-watching program to catch fraud. The first test of their organizing abilities will come Saturday at the rally, on Sakharov Avenue.

This wide boulevard is named after Andrei Sakharov, the 1980s dissident credited with bringing down the Soviet Union - an event that took place 20 years ago this weekend.