You might think Russian president Vladimir Putin can rest easy now. Russia’s new State Duma has been seated despite a wave of popular protests calling for a recount of the December 4 election that gave the ruling United Russia party a renewed majority of 238 out of 450 seats. But it is a much slimmer margin of victory than Putin and party leaders had expected, and it is further tainted by allegations of widespread election fraud. The latest fall guy for this poor performance is Boris Gryzlov, former Duma speaker and leader of the United Russia faction, who resigned from the Duma and will be replaced by another longtime Putin ally, former Kremlin administration boss Sergei Naryshkin.

Of course, the Duma speaker is not and never was a real power broker—that role remains the exclusive purview of Vladimir Putin himself. Yet the Putin system—a “vertical of power” sitting atop a carefully “managed democracy”—is after ten years finally facing significant, perhaps even existential, challenges. Regardless of whether Putin himself defines the terms of change or whether change is thrust upon him by circumstances, it is clear that now for the first time in over a decade, the man and his system will have to open up. Those at the top will have to share their wealth and power with a wider circle of Russians. Yet, even this may prove insufficient to stem the tide of public anger.

Putin’s chances of overcoming the current crisis and hanging onto power are still very good. For more than a decade he has dominated and shaped the Russian political landscape so that few voters recognize or respect any other leading figures much less any genuine opposition. The population is so divided and the opposition so underdeveloped that a Putin victory in March’s presidential election is likely, especially if he is willing to invest real energy in conducting a campaign based on his record of accomplishments.

To avoid further alienating those who are sympathetic to the current protest movement, Putin will also have to accept a more open and competitive process, in which he might fail to win an outright majority of the first-round vote and would face a single challenger in a second round. Whether greater pluralism in the Russian system is genuine or merely for show, Putin will only retain his position if he can succeed in restoring a sense of legitimacy to the process.

Russia’s Swing Voters

Despite public protests in the month following the Duma elections that have rivaled the scale of those that brought down the Soviet system, a revolution is unlikely in Russia today. To understand why that is, just consider where key segments of the Russian population stand vis-à-vis Putin and his system.

To begin with, about a third of the population is behind Putin and is prepared to support him indefinitely for the simple fact that he has brought stability and, in relative terms, assured prosperity. Fair or unfair, Putin is associated with the period of growth and recovery over the past decade as rising energy and commodity prices helped fuel Russia’s resurgence on the world stage and recovery to nearly first-world-economy status. As important, Putin’s iron-fisted rule is credited for shutting down the chaos brought by rampant criminality, separatism, and terrorist attacks in the 1990s. Putin himself is unashamed to claim credit for all of these accomplishments, and his claims are persuasive for a great many Russians, especially those outside major metropolitan areas with little access to unofficial or international media.

Another third of the population, though, will never support Putin. It is not a homogeneous group. Rather, this anti-Putin third is a mosaic of ideologically and pragmatically opposed factions, brought together only by their dislike of what Russia has become under Putin, if not of the man himself. This set includes dyed-in-the-wool liberals—people who trace their political activism to the late 1980s and the fall of the Soviet Union, many of whom believed and participated in Boris Yeltsin’s rise and were convinced their mission was to create a democratic Russian state out of the ruins of the Soviet Union. They are today an angry and disaffected but increasingly marginalized bunch seen as having allowed gangsters and callous foreigners to run roughshod over ordinary Russians. The reflexive anti-Putin crowd also includes core supporters of the Communists and so-called Liberal Democrats (actually a virulently xenophobic nationalist party). They have likewise been on the political scene since 1991 but have never actually been able to capture more than 10 or 20 percent of the vote.

The final third of voters could be considered Russia’s version of “swing voters.” These are people who by and large have done well over the past decade, but who read and listen to independent media when they can and think incessantly about the future for themselves and their children. They have benefited from some of the prosperity of the Putin era—many live in renovated Moscow or St. Petersburg apartments, drive newish foreign cars, and hold decent-paying white collar jobs that enable them to eat in restaurants and take frequent foreign trips.

But by the same token, this “swing” constituency sees real limitations on their lives. They are turning out for the first time for the public demonstrations that have occurred over the last month, albeit in modest numbers and often mostly as spectators rather than to protest themselves. They are also people who for the first time are willing to have a conversation about politics, and who inevitably complain about the corruption and abuse they see around them.

Yet, the conversation still does not end with a call for fundamental political change or revolution. So for all the pageantry of the street protests, despite the fury of online message boards, and notwithstanding the catchy slogans maligning Putin and the United Russia party, the core of this third is still open one way or another to keeping the system as it is—prioritizing stability and modest growth over possibly disjunctive change. With their support, Putin could secure the 50-percent-plus-one he needs to hold onto the presidency in the March 4 elections.

So, what is it that those swing voters actually want? This is relatively easy to understand. Just browse through the thousands of comments that have appeared on President Dmitry Medvedev’s Facebook page, read the still relatively free Russian print and online press, or talk to some of those who stood on the periphery of this month’s demonstrations.

First and foremost, Russia’s swing constituency demands an end to what they see as petty corruption at all levels of the system, from the traffic cop who takes a bribe, to local bureaucrats who saddle small businesses with endless red tape in hopes of a kickback, to the mayors, governors, and police chiefs who simply seize the assets they want from private citizens and hand them over to relatives and cronies to plunder.

Individuals are also looking for a sense not only of security and stability but of real possibility for a better life for themselves and their children. For now, even many members of Russia’s relatively successful middle class feel confined to looking for exit strategies abroad when they think about the long term. They usually squirrel away cash in foreign hard currency accounts or buy property in places like Austria, Bulgaria, or the Czech Republic.

Finally, this is a group of people who, if they are asked to participate in political life, want to feel that they have a real choice. They are getting tired of an imitation of democracy that demands only an imitation of citizenship from them. They want to be real citizens of a real Russian state and society—perhaps not a perfect democracy, which they are not sure can exist anywhere let alone in this place, but they want more of a tangible say in the direction of their country than they have today.

Preserving the System

So for the regime, what is to be done? How can Putin preserve the system and maintain the support of both the third of Russians who are his core supporters and the third who now feel ever more frustrated and more empowered to participate in public protest?

Putin must distance himself from the United Russia party—now widely known among Internet-savvy Russians as “the party of swindlers and thieves”—after its poor performance and the allegations of fraud associated with its claimed victory. Gryzlov’s resignation from the Duma may be a first step in this direction, not only distancing Putin from the United Russia party but in fact reducing the role and the significance of the party in the Putin system of government as a whole. Still, the choice of Naryshkin to succeed Gryzlov underscores Putin’s dependence on a tight circle of close associates who have been with him since his early days in the St. Petersburg city government. It may also disappoint ordinary Russians hoping to see new faces in power, even if they remain Putin’s loyal servants.

Bringing new faces, new ideas, and new energy into Russian politics is high on the wish list of many Russians, but it does not necessarily mean throwing out the system altogether. Russians tend to be fearful of disjunctive and sudden change, recalling their collective suffering after 1917 and 1991. Rather, many in government and outside of it have talked about the need to bring younger and more dynamic individuals into the system at higher levels, and to give them real responsibilities. Some fear that as in Soviet times, the longer one small group holds onto power, the more stagnation and indifference will trickle down throughout the system and lead to gradual dry rot or a total collapse and the very chaos voters want to avoid.

Indeed, this is why many ordinary Russians who have come onto the streets in the past month are calling for more transparency and real competition. While some chant “Russia without Putin” and seek to bring down the system entirely, comments on Russian social networking sites suggest that the majority of protesters’ goals are more modest: free and fair elections, a chance for their voices to be heard, and an end to the endemic corruption that infects every stratum of Russian life and constrains the potential of its most dynamic citizens.

The present moment of political crisis for Putin's system may therefore conceal a window of opportunity for Putin. If those who have been prepared in recent weeks to pour out their frustrations on the streets and online can be offered a real choice—an election without fraud or manipulation, and in which independent opposition candidates compete freely—many may nonetheless choose continuity of a reformed system over what is offered by the opposition. In that way, Putin could actually return to the Kremlin on a wave of greater legitimacy than Russia has seen since the early post-Soviet period.

And Putin can surely win a lot of swing voters by reminding them of his record, namely the reductions in crime and separatist violence, and the high economic growth rates for which he takes credit. With or without the so-called “administrative resource” tipping the scales in Putin’s favor, millions of Russians are likely to recognize in the privacy of the voting booth that they would rather have another six years like the last twelve than take a chance on any of the untested—and in some cases, downright dangerous—oppositionists who will stand against Putin. Putin’s promise of stability is not without costs, particularly in terms of widespread corruption, continued plundering by the ruling elites, and missed opportunities for the country as a whole. However, when evaluating the range of likely opposition candidates, Russians will see plenty to worry about as well.

The Perennial Opposition

Consider first the traditional liberal camp, represented by the Yabloko party, the Solidarity movement, and a handful of other parties which were denied the right to register for the Duma elections. They have played a substantial role in postelection public protests but do not have very deep or wide public support. At most, figures such as former Yeltsin-era officials Grigory Yavlinsky (Yabloko) and Boris Nemtsov (Solidarity) can muster 10 of 15 percent in Moscow and St. Petersburg—drawing on those cities’ liberal and highly educated populations—but only single-digit support nationwide. This is because they are seen as having had a chance to implement their vision for the country in the 1990s, and having failed miserably.

The Communists, led at the federal level by Gennady Zyuganov, are similar to the 1990s liberals in that they are seen as representing something from the past—a poor fit for a modern Russian society which is now fully part of the globalized world. Still, with strong support among traditional labor constituencies and pensioners to whom they promise Soviet-style social welfare, they can muster some 15 to 20 percent of the vote nationwide. They are also the de facto alternative to United Russia in many remote parts of the country where other opposition groups are not represented—thus in some cases, Communist candidates have actually been elected to local government positions when they have promised to implement reforms and tackle corruption.

Nationalists come in many stripes, and it would not be wrong to characterize United Russia and Putin himself as one variety. What many Russians think of when they hear the term “nationalist” in politics, though, is the aggressively xenophobic, race-baiting party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, ironically named the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). This is by definition a fringe movement that cannot muster more than 10 percent of the vote nationwide. It draws most of its strength from the anger and frustration of ordinary Russians about the fecklessness and corruption of their government, and their own apparent powerlessness to do anything about it. At the same time, the LDPR can be accurately described as a tool of the Kremlin, and Zhirinovsky himself is often deployed to give inflammatory speeches and mount outrageous public rallies—a conscious effort to frighten moderate Russians by showing them just how bad an alternative to the current system could be.

Last in the panoply of likely alternatives to United Russia comes what might be considered the most mainstream crowd of European-style social democrats. This group is largely represented today by the Kremlin-loyal A Just Russia party, headed by former Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov. The party’s credibility as a true opposition movement is of course hampered by its close ties to the Kremlin and its leadership’s unvarnished statements of support for President Dmitry Medvedev. Yet at the same time, it taps into a desire among ordinary Russians to see reform and reorientation of the society occur gradually, without dramatic confrontation between forces loyal to the regime and revolutionaries who could bring chaos and disaster.

In addition to A Just Russia, a handful of other parties compete for the attention and support of those Russians who want change, but are not so cynical that they reject the system as a whole. Some movements, such as that led by lawyer-turned-blogger and anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny, are primarily Internet based. While Navalny’s supporters seem increasingly prepared to engage in political life, they have not spawned a genuinely new and independent opposition party. Rather, they find themselves, sometimes uncomfortably, sharing the stage with existing opposition groups.

Familiar Faces, New Roles

Given the current rising tide of political engagement from all corners of the opposition spectrum, Putin can anticipate that quite a few candidates will come forward to contest the presidency in March—that is if he allows them to participate. Two prospective political competitors to Putin deserve particular attention. Both are widely respected though not especially popular, but more importantly both maintain close ties to Putin despite their recent and very public breaks with the regime.

The first is Mikhail Prokhorov, the larger-than-life billionaire who has declared his intention to run for president in March. Prokhorov made his initial fortune in the 1990s, but continued to profit handsomely under Putin and has remained largely out of politics until the past year. Yet Prokhorov’s entry into the race could represent the most significant shake-up of the Putin political elite and the so-called power vertical that we have seen to date. Whether Prokhorov has thrown in his hat on Putin's invitation or on his own initiative, his presence will appeal to a part of the swing constituency that has not previously felt that they had a viable choice in the elections, most of all to businessmen who are frustrated and tired of dealing with petty corruption in the system, with endless red tape, and with promises of reform that are never fulfilled.

Even if Prokhorov plays the role of Putin’s fig leaf in the presidential race, his return to politics after being first invited to take the leadership of a pro-Kremlin opposition party, Just Cause and then being booted from that position in September, underscores Putin’s need to widen the circle of leadership and break his own cardinal rule that oligarchs should stay out of politics. Rather than a Putin-Medvedev “tandem,” we may now see a tricycle. Either way, Prokhorov is genuinely powerful, charismatic, independently wealthy, and comfortable with risk precisely because he has done this dance with Putin before.

The second potential candidate worth watching is former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, who has not declared himself a candidate for the presidency but says he will seek to form an opposition political party to represent the interests of middle class Russians. Kudrin is known for his careful stewardship of the Russian economy over the past decade-plus, including protecting the state from default during the 2008–09 global financial crisis through a “stability fund” built from windfall oil and gas revenues. Kudrin was dismissed in September for remarks critical of Medvedev after the announcement that the president and Putin would swap jobs in 2012, and Kudrin also criticized Putin for taking too dismissive an attitude toward the protesters. Still, Putin has described Kudrin as a long-standing comrade, ally, and close friend, whom he expects to see in government again.

Whether these new players are genuine challengers or mere straw men, Putin has clearly been forced to accept the intervention of other actors at the highest levels. He may for the first time be in a real fight to preserve the system he has shaped and dominated for more than a decade—and this could quickly descend into a fight for his own political survival.

Even if he denies the more radical opposition candidates the right to register, with the quasi–social democratic Prokhorov and Mironov in the race, plus the Communist Zyuganov and the nationalist Zhirinovsky, and depending on turnout, the vote could be split widely enough that Putin is forced into a second round in March. If that happens, it will shatter Putin’s image of invincibility, and may be a blow to his ego, but it would ultimately be to Putin’s own advantage, showing that democracy can work and that the system can become more transparent and pluralistic. These arguments could mollify swing voters who have joined the protest movement simply because they feel they lack a voice in politics. And if Putin can win in the second round after a basically clean election, he will enjoy much greater legitimacy in the eyes of middle class Russians.

Permitting a free and fair presidential contest actually makes sense for the regime. After the outcry provoked by the ham-fisted manipulation of December’s Duma vote, Putin should now understand that a plurality in the first round followed by a second round victory would be far preferable to permitting the kind of obvious fraud that would send potentially hundreds of thousands of Russians into the streets. And in the end, Putin is more likely than anyone to prevail in a second-round vote. He still enjoys high popularity ratings (above 40 percent, higher than any other political figure, according to a poll taken by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center on December 10–11), even if the numbers have fallen below the functionally unanimous support he enjoyed in polls last year.

More important, Putin is not personally tarred with as bad an image as that of the oligarchs and bureaucrats who surround him; he enjoys a unique “father of the nation” status, and may be permitted to stand somewhat above the fray of the December vote-rigging scandal. He is still by far the most widely recognized politician in Russia, and name recognition always counts. If Putin can actually campaign successfully on his record of accomplishments and win a true majority of the popular vote—however slim—he may find himself in a stronger position and enjoying far greater legitimacy at home and in the world than he has ever known.

What Does Putin Want?

Unfortunately, it is hard to say whether Putin sees the future possibilities for himself and his country in these terms. His motives are undoubtedly complex. It is likely that as Putin’s power has grown, so too has the scale of his ambition. Yet now, in the face of the first real challenge to his absolute authority in over a decade, he may be forced to concentrate on much narrower priorities of personal welfare and thus to think rather differently than he has for the past several years.

It is natural to assume that when Putin rose to prominence, first in St. Petersburg city politics, and then on the national scene as Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, he was initially interested in the same things that every powerful Russian has sought: security for himself and his family, with high living standards and personal privileges, and, if possible, a fortune that could be transported out of Russia.

While direct evidence of Putin’s assets and living conditions is slim, judging by those of his inner circle and the businessmen who have succeeded during his tenure, Putin long ago achieved all his goals related to personal welfare and wealth. His dogged persecution of oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky is in part because he sees them as parasitic products of the corrupt 1990s, but even more because he considers them threats to his personal power and control. (Contrast that with his more recent outreach to Prokhorov, every bit the oligarch, to bolster the system’s appeal to moderates.)

On a second, perhaps higher, level, are Putin’s aspirations for his country—and let there be no doubt that he considers himself a Russian patriot. These objectives began to feature prominently in Putin’s policies in the mid-2000s as Russia recovered from the previous decade’s economic collapse, and began to wield greater global influence once again. What began as a reaction to the dominance and apparent expansionism of the traditional West—especially in the form of NATO and the European Union—has evolved into a wholly distinct vision for the future of the post-Soviet and related space. While grandiose visions of a new “Eurasian Union” and trade and energy flows from Europe to Asia dominated by Russia may always be the stuff of fantasy, Putin seems genuinely to believe in his country’s destiny as a great power determining the contours of the future world order.

Now, as Putin concentrates on dissipating the latest wave of unrest and orchestrating his return to the Kremlin in March, he must once again narrow his ambitions. Whatever one thinks of him as a statesman or strategist, he is certainly an effective tactician, as his meteoric rise in the late 1990s attests. Today, with all the resources of the Russian state at his disposal, it is hard to imagine that he will have trouble blunting the force of opposition activity and offering average Russians at least a taste of the reform for which they are clamoring.

But Putin has been known to be petty and shortsighted as well, and years at the top, insulated from any real sense of what’s going on at the street level, may have dulled his senses. His latest quip, claiming the protesters’ white ribbons looked like condoms, suggests he is out of touch with the mood in the country. Ironically for a leader with origins and close ties in the intelligence community, Putin may not actually realize the scale of what is going on in Russian society, or what he should do in response.

Putin’s Choice

If current trends continue, the wave of frustration unleashed by the Duma election results may once again constrain the circumstances in which Putin and his system are able to operate. Putin may not only be forced to fight for his political survival against external political challengers, but also to combat rumblings of dissension, leaks, and other manifestations of disloyalty from within the ranks of his own political elite.

One cost of satisfying the broader public’s call for new faces in politics could be the alienation of those long-standing allies and servants whom he will have to remove from positions of power and privilege. Recall the fate of Mr. Gryzlov, who must feel that he was unfairly punished for the December 4 fiasco when he was just one of many figures dutifully carrying out Putin’s own wishes.

Similarly, to keep public demonstrations from spiraling into a mass protest movement with a life and momentum of its own, Putin will have to make firm but judicious use of the apparatus of state power, including the dreaded special police units that have already arrested hundreds of protesters. He will have to walk a fine line between appearing to have lost his absolute grip on power and using brute force so extensively that it offends the sensibilities of swing voters who are already morally outraged.

Ironically, it is perhaps Putin’s ultimate personal interest and his grandest ambition that could enable him to snatch victory from the jaws of apparent defeat. Having secured so much wealth and power for himself and those close to him, while at the same time presiding over a period of growth, recovery, and resurgent self-confidence for his country, Putin now also looks to history as well as toward the future. He knows that he will be remembered as the leader who saved post-Soviet Russia from chaos and collapse, and he hopes also to be thought of as a great architect of the new Russia, something like the pre-Revolutionary prime minister Pyotr Stolypin to whom he often overtly compares himself.

Putin must now recognize that his country has come to a historic turning point. If he is to remain relevant and if he hopes to secure a lasting positive legacy in Russian history, he can now only do so on the basis of the legitimacy conferred by essentially free and fair elections. It should not be forgotten that for all the pent-up frustration being released on the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities, Putin remains a relatively popular figure, and as important, a known quantity to the voting public. His core of popular support, matched against any one of the likely opposition contenders, is almost certainly sufficient to prevail in a second round without resorting to fraud and manipulation.

Moreover, while he will be held responsible for mistakes and abuses by the government over the past decade, in the short term his mastery of the administrative resource means he still has adequate assets to buy the loyalty of many opinion leaders and interest groups. Those that cannot be bought can be outmaneuvered, embarrassed, or outright intimidated. While such use of dirty tricks and state power will erode the integrity of the presidential election process, Putin will likely conclude—and rightly so—that he can accommodate the public’s main objection to December’s Duma elections, and thus deflate the protest movement, by making sure the vote itself is transparent and not manipulated, even if it takes place against the backdrop of a political culture that is anything but free and fair.

In effect, Putin has a choice of just how much pluralism and competition to allow going into the presidential contest. On the one hand, he could permit every plausible opposition candidate to register and compete, which would certainly complicate the system, but might so overwhelm and concern Russian voters that they stick with the certainty that Putin represents rather than take big risks on untested oppositionists. In that way, by giving Russians just a small taste of how messy real democracy can be, Putin might remind them why they have tolerated his “managed” version of it over the past decade.

On the other hand—and this now seems more likely—he may invite a handful of credible but Kremlin-friendly opposition candidates to run mildly critical campaigns in a carefully stage-managed competition leading up to March 4. Allies like Prokhorov, Mironov, and Kudrin could all attract a few percentage points from the business-minded middle class and liberal-leaning moderates, while giving voters frustrated by the December 4 outcome a sense that their demands have been at least partially accommodated. Whether Putin narrowly wins in the first round, or is forced into a run-off against one of these competitors, he is for now the only figure likely to win the presidency, and he can still do it in a way that will restore at least some of the system’s legitimacy.

There is one other, much more disturbing and potentially more dangerous path. That is if Putin refuses any kind of change and decides to fight the protests and the political opposition with force instead of blunting them with (superficial) kindness. In effect, he will be declaring war on his own people, following in the footsteps of more than a few autocrats in recent memory. If Putin chooses confrontation, it can only begin what will be a steep decline for Russia, a collapse of the Putin system itself, and the dismantlement of a personal legacy of strength and stability he has fought for twenty years to build.