Just weeks ago, Russia’s March 2012 presidential election seemed a foregone conclusion, with Vladimir Putin’s “victory”—by whatever means—virtually guaranteed. So much so that most opposition leaders, with the exception of liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, decided to skip the contest altogether, mindful of the experience of 2008, when pro-democracy candidates Vladimir Bukovsky and Mikhail Kasyanov were denied access to the ballot. The 2012 field (again, with the exception of Yavlinsky) narrowed to a handful of Putin’s handpicked “shadow boxers”: Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, former Upper House Speaker Sergei Mironov, and ostensibly “center-right” billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Another contender, Kremlin-appointed Irkutsk Governor Dmitri Mezentsev—Putin’s old colleague from St. Petersburg—was chosen as a purely “technical” candidate, for the unlikely event that all the others stood down, thus annulling the election.
Then, just as the deadline for nominating candidates was passing, the “Moscow Spring”—100,000-strong anti-Putin protests, the biggest rallies the Russian capital has seen in two decades—radically changed both the political context and the public atmosphere. Putin’s regime offered hasty concessions by returning gubernatorial elections and lowering hurdles for registering political parties and presidential candidates. The already scheduled vote on March 4th, however, would not be affected: the deadline for nominations would not be extended; new presidential candidates would not be registered. This gave Russia’s empowered pro-democracy movement a paradoxical task: defeat the dictator on his own turf. As columnist Andrei Piontkovsky noted, Putin “has himself chosen the battlefield, the time of battle, the weapon, the rules, the competitors, the commentators, and the judges. Nevertheless we, the citizens of Russia, must accept this dishonest challenge and, despite everything, we must win.”
The latest poll numbers suggest that this task—until recently unthinkable—may just be possible to achieve. The Levada Center polling agency has Putin’s support in the presidential election at 36 percent; nowhere near the 50-percent-plus-one vote needed for a first-round victory. The poll numbers of other candidates—between 2 and 7 percent—are essentially within the margin of error from each other, meaning that any one of them could face Putin in the presidential runoff on March 18th, when, given the current climate, the majority of Russian voters would likely back any candidate, as long as his name is not Vladimir Putin—with the understanding that the new president would be a transitional figure who will release political prisoners, remove restrictions on political participation, and call early elections. (According to the polls, a plurality of the December protesters is planning to vote for Yavlinsky).
With seven weeks until polling day, Putin’s regime faces a dilemma. It can either risk a runoff—and a likely defeat. Or it can attempt fraud on the scale of the recent Duma election to achieve “victory” in the first round—and face even larger protests on the streets of Moscow. Either way, the Kremlin does not seem to have much room for maneuver. The next opposition rally, planned for February 4th—the anniversary of the “one million march” in 1990, which forced the Soviet authorities to officially end one-party rule—will give the regime another gentle reminder.