“This term will be very hard for him,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist and member of the dominant United Russia party. “I don’t think he’ll have a second term. I believe it will be a huge achievement if he stays in control until 2018 and gives power to a successor.”
By some measures Putin’s unwavering grasp of the past 12 years is as firm as ever: He has used his nearly limitless power to marginalize the opposition — serious contenders cannot emerge, and Putin decides who gets on the ballot, or even on state television.
The second-largest vote-getter Sunday is expected to be the Communist leader of two decades, Gennady Zyuganov, an unthreatening contestant who appeals mostly to those nostalgic for the sureties of the Soviet past. Voters are ambivalent about billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, suspecting that the Kremlin planted him to divide the field. Though he has campaigned hard, that skepticism has undermined him. Attractive liberals have been prevented from running by compliant election officials.
That leaves the tens of thousands of disgruntled protesters, shaken out of their lethargy by accounts of widespread vote-rigging in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, with no one on the ballot who represents their interests.
The leaders of the street protests accept that this election is lost to them, but they say they have achieved an important first step by beginning to change the perception of Putin as invulnerable.
The image of Putin sternly instructing bureaucrats and accomplishing manly feats thoroughly dominates television screens, shaping public opinion among a wide swath of the population who spend more time there than on the Internet, where antagonism to Putin has flourished.
Despite the unprecedented public antipathy toward him that has arisen since Dec. 4, he is almost certain to be named the winner with more than 50 percent of Sunday’s votes, enabling him to avoid a second round of balloting later this month. The question is how much more.
The widespread belief that underlings will make sure Putin gets whatever number of votes he wants creates his greatest vulnerability: No one will really know how much support — or legitimacy — he has.
That perceived weakness could nurture a compensatory ferocity in foreign affairs — Putin has repeatedly blamed Americans in recent weeks for various problems at home, and Russia has blocked attempts by the United Nations to end the violence in Syria. For the United States, transportation routes through Russia to Afghanistan are at stake.