Vladimir Putin has been the virtual master of Russia for 12 years. He had an opportunity to not merely change his country but to transform it in a fundamental manner. This weekend's protests, with an estimated 80,000 or more people marching in Moscow alone to protest suspect legislative election results, indicates that this window may be closing. Opinion polls show that Mr Putin's approval rating has nearly halved. More telling is that barely a third of Russians say they will vote for him when he stands, once again, for presidential elections next March. Most believe the recent elections to the Duma, Russia's parliament, were marred by widespread rigging. Mr Putin has refrained from cracking down on the protests, preferring to disparage the marchers while distancing himself from any electoral irregularities, in the hope they will dissipate over time. This weekend's events were a sign that this strategy is not working.
There is no doubt that Mr Putin did change Russia. When he took over from Boris Yeltsin, Russia was a ramshackle polity ruled by plutocrats and mafias. Mr Putin centralised authority in the Kremlin again, bringing order to a fragmented governmental system. He also turned around Russia's economy, helped admittedly by soaring oil and gas prices, and as his circle liked to say "raise the country from its knees." Russians like strong rulers. They were and remain unenthusiastic about liberal democracy. But Mr Putin had the opportunity over the past several years to at least introduce the rule of law and the idea that those in power should be responsible to their public — both the exception rather than the rule in Russian history. He didn't seize the chance and now is unlikely to ever do so.
Mr Putin's popularity arose from the comparison to what Russia had been before him and his successful sharing of the country's petrochemical wealth. Both of these sources of legitmacy are under threat. The protestors are overwhelmingly urban and middle-class, a group of people created by the Putin economic story. They clearly want more than just wealth, including an end to Mr Putin's open tendency to see authority as a matter of his personal whim. All forecasts show the Russian economy is heading for a bad patch as oil and gas prices fail to keep pace with government expenditures. To win the presidency next year, Mr Putin seems set to wear a traditional Russian iron glove. The budget through 2014 has slashed social expenditure while dramatically increasing outlays for the 'siloviki', the political class drawn from the military and police that constitutes Mr Putin's governing circle. Russia, sadly, seems set to walk on the dark side of its history again.