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Is Putin Doomed Anyway? The Quiet Momentum Of Russia's Protest Movement

Analysis: With his victory on Sunday, Vladimir Putin returns to the Kremlin with a renewed mandate and promises of major reforms. But a growing mass of disaffected Russians may be bound to push the incoming president out of office no matter what he does.

Keep an eye on what comes next (Andrey)
Keep an eye on what comes next (Andrey)
Victor Khamraev and Natalia Gorodetskaya

MOSCOW – Incoming President Vladimir Putin may have plans for sweeping reforms once he returns to the Kremlin. Still, even radical reforms may not be enough to satisfy the civil society movement that swelled in the run-up to Sunday's vote, and Putin's opponents have the capacity to exert a quiet pressure on his authority that could potentially spark early elections.

Both supporters and opponents of Putin agree that the main item on the new president's to-do list is implementing political, economic and social reforms. If this doesn't happen, the so-called "president of all Russians' runs the risk of quickly colliding head-on with civil society.

But even if there are reforms, the pressure on Putin and the government will likely "become stronger and take on a more organized character," predicts Ella Pamfilova, the former head of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights.

Pamfilova carried out a study as protests grew across the country. "The fraud during the Duma elections was not the reason, but rather the pretext, for a demonstration of long-held public discontent," she said referring to the controvertial results of the December parliamentary elections.

With each unpopular government action, resentment grew: from the creation of the All-Russian People's Front, to the uncontested election of the Speaker of the Federation Council to the widely derided "job swap" between President Dimitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin.

"For the disaffected, across all strands of society, the common denominator is the systemic political deadlock," says Pamfilova.

A "New Putin"?

She predicts that this discontent "is irreversible," and says this coming summer could be the moment when protests explode. Still, she notes that Russian society has matured enough to avoid events so radical that neither the government nor the protesters would want to see them come to pass.

Putin would need to turn to civil society to carry out all necessary reforms, says Pamfilova, who foresees the possibility of another presidential election as soon as the Winter Olympics in Sochi are over in 2014.

Despite her skepticism, Pamfilova concedes that the man elected on Sunday was "a new Putin." When he won the 2000 elections in the first round with 52% of the vote, he saw it as giving him carte blanche to implement policies without regard to the interests of political groups. This allowed Putin to take on the oligarchs, and then, without fear of the business elite, carry out reforms that left opposition parties looking like they were part of a "rusty" political system. NGOs became a kind of "fifth column," which required a more careful treatment from the state.

Iosif Diskin, the co-chairman of the council of national strategy, says last weekend's election saw the president-elect conquer a "new majority…that believes the promises made by Putin in the election campaign."

But to satisfy heightened public expectations, Putin will need to push through drastic strategic reforms that would require annual growth of up to 5.2%, a serious challenge in the current economic climate.

The head of the Institute of Contemporary Cevelopment Igor Jurgens said it would be best for Putin to "start the process of modernization" that Medvedev initiated. To do this, Putin should not only appoint Medvedev as prime minister, but allow him to form a "modernization team," says Jurgens.

Given the choice between reform and stagnation, Putin will choose reform, adds Elena Shestopal, a professor for political psychology at Moscow State University. "A political and economic transformation is inevitable," she said. "The only question is what path that transformation will take: left, right, or will it be a mosaic."

Shestopal said that amid stronger liberal demands, it is hard to predict whether Putin can quell public discontent and prevent early elections. But a key to his success will be whether the government can begin "purging their own ranks to encourage an influx of young, up-and-coming candidates."

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