Russia's anti-Putin movement has proven resilient, but the unpopular presidential candidate is also mobilizing his own supporters. February will likely shape up to be a month of heated sentiments in Russia.
Anti-Putin protesters have no need to worry right now: public resentment over the illegitimate parliamentary elections and Putin's anticipated return to power is still strong enough to produce an impressive protest rally in Moscow. Even the icy temperatures did not stop tens of thousands of Muscovites from marching down the streets and voicing their views on Bolotnaya Square - the same place where Russia's new civil society first showed its face on December 10, 2011, with the biggest protests since the fall of communism.
No to Putin's presidency
But closer inspection of the protest movement reveals that the protesters only agree on one thing: the need for free elections and preventing Vladimir Putin from becoming president again. Other political issues leave them divided.
A commonly supported presidential candidate is not the only thing that the anti-Putin movement lacks. Its members lack unity in their political views, ranging from liberal social-democrats in the western sense to xenophobic Russian nationalists and radical communists. At this stage it is hard to envision how these different groups could agree on a new political leader and political reform if they were successful in keeping Putin away from the presidency. But even though these questions are highly important in the long term and invite much speculation, they play no role at the moment.
Hope for a second round of elections
The aim of the protests is in fact far more modest - and completely realistic. It focuses on preventing Putin's victory in the first round of Russian presidential elections on March 4 and forcing him into a run-off against one of the other candidates. That would count as a great success in the protesters' eyes because it would destroy Putin's much-nurtured aura as the undisputed national leader, and it would weaken his position among the bureaucrats who support him.
Putin himself has confirmed his fears about the recent developments. Last week he warned that the second round of the presidential elections would lead to political destabilization in Russia. That statement only added to the already widespread fear of instability and chaos among the country's citizens.
No-one would wish this turn of events upon Russia. A bloody revolution is the last thing the country needs right now. But the assumption that a constitutionally compliant run-off election would have a destabilizing effect says a lot about Putin's way of thinking and the current political system.
The anti-Putin protest march and the rally in Moscow have clearly shown that the widespread anti-Putin sentiment has neither eased nor have its proponents been deterred by the reigning subzero temperatures.
But the Kremlin is reacting. On February 4 it organized a pro-Putin rally in Moscow's south, warning Putin's opponents that their "Orange Revolution" would plunge the country into chaos. Russian's political climate is about to heat up.
Ingo Mannteufel is the head of Deutsche Welle's Russia Service.
Author: Ingo Mannteufel / ew
Editor: Greg Wiser