By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian opposition leaders on Sunday called for a clear agenda and a grassroots focus on local elections to re-energize a protest movement running out of steam after Vladimir Putin convincingly won a six-year presidential term.
After the crowd at a rally in central Moscow on Saturday fell well short of expectations, activists who have mounted the biggest protests of Putin's 12-year rule said supporters should dig in for a long fight for political change.
"Remember, friends: We are running a marathon," one opposition leader, Ilya Yashin, said in his blog. "Sometimes it's necessary to increase the pace and sometimes to slow down so that you have enough breath to last to the finish."
Demonstrators on Saturday chanted "Russia without Putin!" beneath the bulk of Soviet-era office towers on one of Moscow's main avenues. Organizers put the crowd size at 25,000, police said it was 10,000.
By either account, that was far fewer than turned out three months ago to express their outrage over suspicions of fraud in a December 4 parliamentary election and dismay at Putin's intention to rule for years to come.
The December 10 rallies in Moscow and other cities were followed by bigger demonstrations on December 24 and February 4, the largest opposition protests since Putin, president from 2000 to 2008 and prime minister since then, came to power.
But Putin's victory in the March 4 presidential vote has taken the wind out of protesters' calls for a "Russia without Putin" and their demands for a rerun of both elections, which Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have rejected.
While protest leaders dismiss Putin's portrayal of the opposition as a divided and amorphous group of critics with few constructive ideas, activists suggested it was now critical for the protest movement to mix firm demands on Putin's government with a clear agenda of its own.
'FIVE MINUTES OF HATE'
"The next demonstration must not be 'against' but 'for'," Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition lawmaker, said in a blog on Sunday. "We need to move away from the format of 'five minutes of hate' and announce a plan of action, answer the question 'What next?' and demand the authorities conduct reforms."
Opponents hoped Putin would win less than half the vote on March 4 - forcing a runoff, eroding his aura of invincibility and setting the stage for a new series of protests.
But Putin won the presidency outright with nearly 64 percent by the official count, enough to let him claim majority support despite allegations of fraud and criticism by international observers who said he had an unfair advantage.
With no national election due until 2016, some opposition leaders said activists must work to make sure local and regional elections are run fairly as part of a strategy of seeking change from the ground up in a country with a history of top-down rule.
In a move to placate protesters, Putin and outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev have promised to restore popular elections of the governors of Russia's 83 regions. But Kremlin critics fear legislation now in parliament may give the president a say in who gets to run.
Opposition leaders hope Kremlin plans to enlarge the city of Moscow will lead to a new election for its legislature. Leonid Parfyonov, a prominent journalist and protest organizer, said such a vote would be "the next step in political life" and that change could originate in Moscow, where Putin's support is weak.
"We need to prepare for various elections - local votes, mayoral elections in Moscow and governor's elections - primarily to make sure they take place," opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov told Interfax news agency in remarks posted on his website on Sunday.
Nemtsov and Gudkov said the opposition should not try to hold frequent protests.
"So as not to tire people out with frequent demonstrations, we have decided to take a pause - to wait until May and hold a mass action at which we will make new demands," Gudkov said.
In contrast to previous rallies, opposition leaders set no date on Saturday for the next big protest. But a consensus seems to be emerging that it should be held shortly before Putin's inauguration on May 7 - and that it must be big.
One prominent activist, Sergei Udaltsov, called on Saturday for a 1 million-strong protest in Moscow on May 1.
MILLION IN MOSCOW?
At about 10 times the size of the biggest protest this winter, that goal is a huge stretch. But Nemtsov agreed that "to demonstrate jointly and clearly ahead of the presidential inauguration would be very good".
After a hiatus of nearly two months, such a plan would be major test of what Russians call the "protest mood".
The winter protests evoked the heady days when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to decades of oppressive Communist rule, but much of that euphoria has faded.
"I'm afraid the protest movement will ebb but we have no other tools to influence those in power - only protests," Yegor Sukhanov, 37, said at Saturday's protest, holding a cardboard sign that read: "Putin, leave!"
No clear figure has emerged to lead the disparate opposition groups and activists behind the protests. In a country with a history of authoritarian one-man rule, the sense of collective leadership is a draw for some, particularly in a movement trying to counter propaganda that portrays Putin as indispensable.
But for Darya Ponomaryova, a 17-year-old student at Saturday's protest, the need for a unifying leader is urgent.
"The opposition must keep unnerving the authorities for now, but there is no doubt that after a few months things must change" she said.
"A clear program is needed, new candidates are needed who represent the street. We need one clear leader for our support to continue."
(Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly and Andrey Ostroukh; Editing by Kevin Liffey)