04/25/2012 07:59 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Russia's Opposition Needs Some Grassroots Realism

High on election euphoria, Russia's opposition have been casting around for new causes to boost their support. They will only succeed, however, if they learn to recognize their own successes.

The protests in Moscow that repeatedly drew over 100,000 people to the streets calling for fair elections over recent months may already seem a distant memory for many. After Vladimir Putin's victory in the presidential election on March 4, numbers at opposition protests fell considerably, and any ideas of a popular upheaval of the status quo faded.

In part, this reflected a sense of defeat having been unable to achieve a re-run of the disputed Duma elections last December that formed the catalyst for the protests. Yet it also indicated a growing divide between the rhetoric of the self-appointed leaders of the movement and the base.

However, the disaffection many felt with the ruling United Russia party was very much real. And it is this that has provided the "New Decembrists" with their first taste of political success.

In recent weeks much media attention has been directed at the hunger strike staged by opposition politician Oleg Shein, which ended this week after 40 days. The case has become something of a cause célèbre among opposition activists with anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny among those who descended on the small city of 500,000 residents following a disputed mayoral election in which Shein lost to a United Russia candidate.

Rather than viewing Shein as another martyr to the cause, the significance of Astrakhan should be put in the context of a recent string of opposition gains at a local level. Last month opposition candidate Sergei Andreyev was elected mayor of Togliatti, a city on the Volga River that boasts the country's largest carmaker, while Yevgeny Uralshov, an independent candidate, won the Yaroslavl mayoral election in a landslide.

Both came after United Russia representatives had lost their mayoral seats to the Communists in the regional capitals of Oryol and Naryan-Mar.

Small scale victories such as these might seem relatively insignificant when compared with the scale of the task facing the opposition. The ruling party won 49.32 percent in the Duma elections with their nearest rivals, the Communists, taking only 19.19 percent. But if any party is to challenge United Russia in future it will have to break the party's iron-grip on local governments and start demonstrating its ability to provide a real alternative to the electorate.

As I have written about previously, the opposition appears to have opted for a foothold approach picking battles in areas where frustration with corruption and nepotism have weakened the appeal of the incumbent. Most significantly the movement has attempted to back independent local candidates with administrative resources rather than trying to impose an outsider.

All of this has provided tangible rewards, albeit not the media-friendly variety that the opposition had become used to. Indeed it may well not be until the next parliamentary elections in 2015 that the benefits of a grassroots focus become apparent.

Unfortunately this gradualism may frustrate many and the fact that the arrest of the punk rock group Pussy Riot seems to have taken precedence over the opposition's mayoral victories in the media may suggest as much. Nevertheless, if they are going to escape its electoral bubble of urban liberal elites they will have to demonstrate administrative effectiveness as well as grandstanding rhetoric.

After their defeat in Yaroslavl, Sergei Neverov, deputy Duma speaker and secretary of United Russia's general council, was reported as saying:

"We had a similar situation in Samara, where our candidate lost to his opponent. Soon the people who vote on election understand what it is to vote for an unprepared candidate."

As much threat as prophecy, if they are to mount a meaningful challenge the opposition must now expend their energies in proving him wrong.