MOSCOW — Russia's fragmented opposition have succeeded in rattling Vladimir Putin with huge protests but need to consolidate their ranks and craft a clear strategy to challenge his grip on power, analysts say.
Putin is planning to win back his old Kremlin job in March presidential polls and the emboldened but nascent movement against his rule has just two months to come up with a clear action plan.
"The opposition have demonstrated their professionalism, ability and readiness to organise protest rallies," Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told AFP.
"But if we are talking about their strategy, their ability to consolidate and put forward realistic demands then they are not keeping up with the times. The fate of the future protest wave will depend on that."
In the space of two weeks, opposition leaders mustered two major rallies bringing tens of thousands onto the streets in Moscow in the largest show of anger since the post-Soviet chaos of the early 1990s.
But their leaders come from hugely diverse political backgrounds, ranging from an anti-corruption crusader and a prominent detective story writer to a liberal ex-finance minister.
Alexei Navalny, the 35-year-old anti-corruption blogger who has emerged as one of the top leaders of the opposition, has promised that a million people will attend the next rally.
The timing of the next protest has yet to be agreed upon, however, with some leaders insisting on a rally before the March polls and others only after.
The charismatic chisel-faced lawyer, who has indicated his willingness to challenge Putin in presidential polls, said the main goal of the protests was to seek free and fair elections.
"Through peaceful protest, through organising people, through coordination, through uniting everyone and everything," he said, adding he would not mind if Putin served again as president but only if he won in fair polls.
In a sign of split leadership, just 22 percent of respondents at Saturday's election protest said they would vote for Navalny as president, according to a poll by the independent Levada Centre.
Veteran Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky closely trailed him with 21 percent while Alexei Kudrin, a former liberal finance minister who Putin calls a member of his team, received backing from 13 percent.
Analysts said the opposition movement has already made the most important first step in uniting against Putin and working out a clear strategy would be the next natural move.
"They are already united. Putin united them," said Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the Indem think tank. "Tension will escalate until Putin goes," he added.
Sergei Belanovsky, a sociologist at the Centre For Strategic Research, a think tank that helped put together Putin's economic strategy in 2000, said that by deriding the opposition he had provoked them.
"He is stirring up a hornet's nest," Belanovsky told AFP. "If I were him, I would not provoke them. Chaos will be rising. It will be virtually impossible to stop it."
Observers say that even if protests near the Kremlin walls in Moscow eventually do die down, discontent with the current authorities could escalate into wider social unrest across the country.
"What happens in Moscow, will be across Russia in two years," said independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. "Protests will escalate but it will take other forms."
This danger is not lost on the Kremlin. State-controlled television covered the anti-Kremlin protests, easing a long-held taboo against direct criticism of Putin in a gesture seen as opening a social safety valve.
Sergei Shoigu, the country's long-serving emergencies ministry and a senior ruling party functionary, warned that protests could end in street fighting like happened during a stand-off between Boris Yeltsin and parliament in 1993.
"There's nothing scarier than chaos," he said.