Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the cause of the 2006 death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. He died of polonium poisoning, not plutonium poisoning. This version has been corrected.

The opposition movement that began to emerge here after December’s parliamentary elections is dashing toward its next confrontation with the authorities this week, trying to rally supporters, develop strategy and groom leaders as it goes along.

Mostly young, middle class and without political affiliation, the protesters are organizing in pursuit of fair elections and honest government. The authorities are preparing to head them off.

The next test is Saturday’s march, which the opposition wants to make bigger and more impressive than a December rally in which about 100,000 demonstrators gathered in peaceful determination on a broad Moscow avenue.

City officials initially refused to grant a permit for the upcoming march, saying they would consider a different day and place, but granted permission last week for 50,000 marchers. If more turn up, they risk being hauled away to jail by the riot police. If fewer appear, the demonstration looks less than successful.

The scarcity of experienced opposition leaders is one testament to Prime Minister Vladi­mir Putin’s success. His United Russia party dominates the political landscape, even though it dipped from 63 percent of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections to just under 50 percent in December.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gestures as he meets with local students in the city of Tomsk, January 25, 2012. (RIA Novosti/REUTERS)

He made it impossible for any but approved parties to acquire legal status and field candidates. No serious, organized political opposition has been allowed to emerge. Even the most appealing new faces, such as blogger Alexei Navalny, with his large following among the young middle class, have little leadership experience.

Inexperience, supporters of the opposition argue, is a virtue. In January, 16 writers, musicians, television personalities and journalists much admired by the protest crowds formed a League of Voters. They are helping to organize the rally, but their larger purpose is to recruit and train election observers and educate voters in an effort to improve government. Their membership is open to everyone except politicians, which excludes Navalny.

Yuri Shevchuk, a famous rock musician from St. Petersburg who joined the league, celebrated their inexperience.

“There is a saying that the Titanic was built by professionals and Noah’s Ark by amateurs,” he said. “We are amateurs here. Let’s see what we can do.”

‘Many more dirty tricks’

While the opposition is getting its bearings and hoping to turn out enough protesters to get the Kremlin’s attention — their clout lies in their numbers — Putin appears to be waiting to see whether the movement will gather steam or lose it.

He has an entrenched bureaucracy behind him and supporters who have not been reluctant in the past to play dirty tricks and worse. Already, attempts have been made to discredit several of the opposition leaders. Two different sets of tapes recording opposition members in unflattering conversations have floated out. One of those who was taped, a parliament memberwho formerly served in the KGB, estimated that the operation to trap him on tape cost $300,000.

Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008 and stepped down because of term limits, is seeking a return to the country’s highest office in a March election. Last week, the landlord renting office space to Golos, the only independent election monitor, informed the organization that the electricity would be turned off for repairs from Jan. 25 to March 6, two days after the vote.

Mark Galeotti, a New York University expert on organized crime, security and modern Russia, said the authorities are most likely to resort to covert means to tame the opposition. “If the next rounds of protest show greater numbers,” he said, “I would see many more dirty tricks, the FSB unleashed. We won’t see apartment blocks blown up again.”

In 1999, four apartment buildings in Moscow and two other cities were blown up, killing nearly 300 people. The attacks were blamed on Chechens and used to garner support for a second war with that region.

Eventually a former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, accused the KGB, now the FSB, of carrying out the bombings. He died of polonium poisoning in London in 2006, a death widely regarded as connected to the security services seeking revenge.

Putin’s dilemma

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist and member of Putin’s
United Russia party, said his inner circle has opposing views on what to do.

“If he’s too tough, there might be an explosion,” she said. “It could increase the risk of revolution. If he’s not tough enough, he risks losing the support of the elite. No matter what move he makes, it’s a bad one.”

Galeotti calculates that the government has nearly 100,000 men with guns, including police, riot police, soldiers, special forces and others, in and near Moscow. Force is very much available.

But any extreme use of it, he says, would be domestically and internationally disastrous, costing Putin a huge amount of support: The drift toward democracy may be slow, but it is inevitable and too hard to put down.

“I think Putin’s going to win the election,” Galeotti said, “but lose the war.”