MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin has had nothing but mockery for the protesters who have taken to the streets against him in unprecedented numbers. Russia's opposition, he said, is no more than a gaggle of Internet dwellers with "no unified program, no clear and comprehensible way of achieving their unclear goals, and nobody who can actually do something."
The opposition has set out to prove him wrong by formally choosing its leaders through an online election that ended Monday night. Nearly 82,000 voted in the election, which was intended to help the opposition present a more united front against the Kremlin and find a way to broaden its appeal as enthusiasm for streets protests fades.
Alexei Navalny, a charismatic corruption fighter who is a rock star among the protest leaders, won the most votes, confirming his leadership role among the diverse collection of liberals, leftists and nationalists who make up the anti-Putin opposition.
The elections will clarify "which people, which methods and which ideology have the most support," Navalny said in an interview.
Navalny and his supporters dominated a three-week series of debates among the candidates, a process some of his rivals derided as his "coronation."
Navalny won nearly 44,000 votes in the election, while a sharp-tongued, larger-than-life poet, novelist and columnist Dmitry Bykov came second followed by Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion turned opposition leader. Ksenia Sobchak, a glamorous TV host who became a face of Moscow protests, also made a strong performance, finishing fourth with more than 32,000 votes.
Throughout the weekend, thousands of Russians, many of them middle-aged or older, stood in long lines on a central Moscow square to register to vote. Those with better Internet skills registered online. They had to prove their identity either by transferring a token amount, under the equivalent of 50 cents, from their bank account or sending a photograph of themselves holding their passport.
Despite a heavy police presence and occasional visits from pro-Kremlin activists, the event was peaceful and festive, with classic Russian rock songs playing over speakers. The voting was supposed to end Sunday night, but was extended for a day after a barrage of hacker attacks took down the servers for most of Saturday.
Pressure on the opposition has increased since Putin began his third term as president in May. Protest leaders have come under criminal investigation, been called in for questioning and had their homes and offices searched.
This weekend, a leftist activist accused Russian security officers of kidnapping him in Ukraine and bringing him back to Russia, where he said he was tortured into confessing to organizing riots. Investigators said Monday that the activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, had turned himself in. He is associated with leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov, who is under investigation in the same case.
Also Monday, two members of the Pussy Riot punk band were transferred from a Moscow jail to remote prison colonies, their lawyer said. Earlier this month, an appeals court upheld the two-year prison sentences handed to Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova for an irreverent anti-Putin protest in Moscow's main cathedral in February. The court released a third member of the group by suspending her sentence.
Moscow has been the epicenter of the protest movement, which brought tens of thousands onto the streets for a series of rallies during the winter and spring, and nearly all of the favorites in the opposition election live in the capital. Nevertheless, the election indicates that the protest movement has wide support nationwide, with more than half of the registered voters living outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.
More than 200 people ran for seats on the 45-member Coordinating Council. Voters were able to choose up to 30 candidates from a general list and up to five from each of three separate lists of liberals, leftists and nationalists.
Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the opposition has done well simply to get this far. "They started very positive and serious discussions about what protesters should do," he said. "If they can have fair elections a week after unfair federal elections, that's an achievement in itself."
The challenge for the Coordinating Council will be to tap into anti-Putin sentiment across the country. Many Russians express discontent with Putin's rule but say they see no viable alternative.
Leonid Volkov, an activist who organized the election, said the opposition could use the know-how to vote on other issues in the future. "We have got a mechanism for honest and transparent election on the Internet, and we will maintain it," he said.
With few exceptions, opposition figures skipped the elections this month for governors, mayors and regional legislatures across the country, allowing the Kremlin party to sweep the board. Some within the opposition derided the decision to focus instead on electing the Coordinating Council, saying it distracted attention from what should have been real electoral work.