After a spate of protest rallies rocked Russian cities over the long weekend, experts and sociologists expect more to come. And a key trend in the streets is that once-marginalised groups are uniting with the established opposition, under a combination of both social and political demands.
The axis of the protests, however, has switched from Moscow and St. Petersburg to outlying areas of the country. After an unprecedented 10,000-strong protest in Kaliningrad last month over a hike in transport tariffs, up to 2,000 people rallied in the far northern city of Arkhangelsk on Saturday, protesting an 18 per cent utilities hike. Over 500 protested in Samara against a similar hike, and smaller rallies were held in Siberia's Kemerovo region.
Unresolved social and economic issues are driving these rallies and spilling over into political protest, with some activists openly calling for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's dismissal.Labour-related conflicts grew nearly threefold from 2008 to 2009, according to the Centre for Social and Labor Rights, with 272 disputes and strikes in 2009 - up from 93 in 2008.
"General protests are increasing, and this is logical," said Pyotr Bizyukov, an expert at the centre. "When labour disputes are not resolved, protests involving a wider range of civic issues increase. Labour problems can turn into civil problems, and you get [situations] like those we have seen in Kaliningrad and Arkhangelsk."
While tariff hikes alone provoke protests every year and are not necessarily an indicator, this year they became the last straw after other problems had accumulated during the economic crisis, said Carine Clement of the Institute for Collective Action, an organisation that brings together various left-leaning groups.
"There is a trend towards more involvement in protest organisation since the monetisation protests in 2005," Clement said, referring to massive rallies against state reforms of the benefit and welfare system.
The protests in 2009, taken as a whole, outnumber the protests from 2005, said Mikhail Delyagin, an economist at the Institute for Globalization Studies. "A total of 5 million people were involved in protests in 2009, while in 2005 there were about 3 million."
Social protests are increasing, he said, and they could have an impact on the 2012 elections. "A systemic [political] crisis in the country can't be ruled out."
Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika think tank, dismissed such talk. "Obviously, when a protest against something is organized, the authorities are blamed," he said of the linkage between social and political demands in Kaliningrad and elsewhere.
The real political battles are being waged over the regional Duma elections that will take place on March 14, Delyagin said. There, tensions are comparable to a "civil war", as various political figures struggle to maintain their standing and their business interests, he said.