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Calm for now, Russia seems certain to boil over

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

Opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov speaks during a protest demanding fair elections in central Moscow on March 5, 2012.

MOSCOW – Vladimir Ryzhkov’s body language said it all. 

The veteran Russian opposition leader was up on stage during the first mass  protest after Vladimir Putin’s big presidential election win. And he looked like a man on auto-pilot as he introduced one speaker after another, half-heartedly peppering his remarks with calls for “taking power back” and “Russia without Putin.”

A month earlier, Ryzhkov had seemed as energized as Jumpin’ Jack Flash as he barked down his microphone in minus-10 degree Fahrenheit weather and looked out on a sea of humanity chanting for a “New Russia.” But on this much warmer night in the modest Pushkin Square in central Moscow, Ryzhkov’s spirit seemed to freeze over as he gazed on a crowd a fraction of the size of the earlier one. Surrounded by phalanxes of riot police, the protest seemed much smaller than the police estimate of 14,000.

“I’m optimistic and pessimistic,” he told me as the two-hour rally drew to a close.

“If Putin blocks our protests, we will come back in the hundreds of thousands [to commit acts of] civil disobedience.”

Did he think there would be violence? “Yes – I’m afraid there’s no other way,” he said, looking dejected.

Level playing field
This week has been a moment of truth for the mostly middle-class activists who say they want nothing more than what most of us in the West take for granted: a civil society and a level political playing field. The re-election of Putin came with many claims of election fraud from both domestic and foreign observers.

Dmitry Astakhov / AFP - Getty Images

Russia's outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, right, and President-elect Vladimir Putin, left, attend a training session as they visit the luging sport center at the alpine ski resort in Krasnaya Polyana, some 30 miles from Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, on Friday.

Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs writer for the popular Kommersant daily newspaper, seemed to put it best. “The big question for the Russian opposition is whether there is life after March 4.”

As we sipped coffees in the up-market Moscow bistro where many say the protest movement was born, I asked Strokan what the protesters could possibly do next. After all, according to the final tally, Putin won almost 64 percent of the vote. Even factoring in all of the alleged cheating, he still would have garnered a majority of ballots.

“Before they do anything truly effective,” Strokan replied, “they must first admit one simple fact: That Vladimir Putin still enjoys the support of the vast majority of Russians.”   

Yevgeny Tinchenko, a 25-year-old, unemployed Russian from Siberia, summed up the reasons behind that support. I met him in Zagorsk, about 50 miles outside of Moscow, where he was looking for a job in a traditionally pro-Putin religious center.

“Putin inspires trust as a person,” Tinchenko told me. “I simply like him. When I see him on TV I think things will improve if he is running the country.” But Tinchenko went on to say that he only saw Putin on state-run TV, and knew next to nothing about the other candidates.

There no doubt Putin used all of the ideological and propaganda weapons at his disposal to exploit those feelings  and win big, in the first round of the vote. Now he needs to fulfill the almost $170 billion in campaign promises he made over the past month – from pay raises for school teachers to more housing for war veterans. 

With Vladimir Putin officially back in the driver's seat, what's next for the Kremlin, the protesters, and Russia's divided society? NBC's Jim Maceda reports from Moscow.

Putin power plays
Meanwhile, from his renewed position of strength, Putin is doing everything he can to diminish the opposition’s authority, in part by proffering a whole tree of olive branches.

For instance, the Kremlin called on Russia’s chief prosecutor to review the charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil oligarch and Putin arch-enemy, imprisoned since 2003 because he dared challenge Putin’s authority. This is seen as a sign they may be softened or dropped. 

It’s an example of how, firmly back in the driver’s seat, Putin can maneuver in a chess game he arguably plays better than anyone (except, perhaps, former world champion – and opposition leader – Gary Kasparov).

In another deft Putin move, he reached out to a rival candidate, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, after the latter said the election results were “unfair.” Putin called Prokhorov and asked him if he’d accept a cabinet post in the new government. (It’s unlikely, though, that Prokhorov, who came in a strong third in the election, will accept the offer.)

The moves underscore Putin’s clever attempt to peel away the center of the protest movement.

‘Two Russias’
But, unfortunately for Putin, this opposition goes much deeper than a clutch of hard-core extremists. It’s a whole emerging Russian middle-class – millions of people with money and property – but no voice. 

Mikhail Metzel / AP

Russian police officers block a street near the site of a protest in downtown Moscow, Russia on Monday.

“We are on the verge of losing stability for the single reason that society has already split,” said Strokan. “The crack is growing wider and wider, and what we see now is not one Russia, but two Russias. And neither listens to the other.”

Kremlin watchers like Strokan worry about a collision course that Putin and the protesters seem to be headed on. The president-elect can crack down on what he sees as a minority of U.S. stooges, but he doesn’t have any ideas about how to reconcile the two sides.

The protesters, meanwhile, know what they don’t want – and that’s another six years of Putin. But they, too, lack any effective strategy to pressure Putin to either reform the system, or step down.

It’s all shaping up into a perfect storm of long-term trouble for Russia. And that’s terrible news for America and the world.

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