Politics in Russia are no longer wholly predictable

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The Independent Online

Ever since 24 September last year, we have known the name of the winner of today's Russian presidential vote. That was the day when Vladimir Putin ended long-running speculation and instead of allowing his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, a second term in the Kremlin, announced to Russia and the world that he would return himself.

There seemed no chance that any other politician would be able to stop him, and since then, nothing has changed. But at the same time, everything has. Suddenly, "opposition protests" involve not a few dozen hardcore activists getting arrested, but tens of thousands of people flocking to the streets. In December and January, they came out to central Moscow squares to protest in their droves about the victory of Mr Putin's United Russia party in parliamentary elections. Last weekend, when there was a sense that the protest mood was perhaps on the wane, as the iPad-toting hipsters and media types who were driving it got bored and resorted to their earlier political apathy, instead the mood in Moscow was more resolute than ever. Tens of thousands of people wore white ribbons, waved white flags, and included a more overtly anti-Putin message to their general wishes for fair and clean elections, and for "the authorities to stop treating us like idiots", as one demonstrator put it.

Tomorrow evening, what could be the biggest protest yet will be held on Pushkin Square, in the heart of Moscow. Officials have complained that the protest has been organised before the voting has even taken place, a clear sign in the thinking of Mr Putin that the protests are organised from abroad and aimed at destabilising Russia. For many who will protest, they do not necessarily support the opposition leaders, either the old "democrats" who have been opposing Mr Putin for a decade, or the new activists such as the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. They will go to the protests not specifically to back them, but simply to voice irritation that they feel they have no voice.

What about those standing against Mr Putin on the ballot? Here, he has little to fear. There is Gennady Zyuganov, the moribund Communist leader who still draws support among the provincial elderly poor, many of whom are nostalgic for the Soviet era. Then there is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a clownish nationalist who does a lot of shouting and berating but for two decades has been happy to play the role assigned to him by the Kremlin whereby he mops up the angry right-wing vote to avoid it going to more radical groups.

The new face among the usual suspects of the "systemic opposition" is the playboy billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Though he claims he took the decision to run for the presidency himself, it is clear that his bid has at least tacit Kremlin backing. Running on a pro-business, centre-right programme, the idea is that Mr Prokhorov will attract support among the up-and-coming middle class, who have formed the backbone of the recent street protests.

Mr Putin will win, probably with more than 50 percent of the vote, which will avoid the need for a second round. The bigger question is how many people will come out to protest tomorrow evening, and whether the protest turns violent. The protests have minimal support in provincial Russia, where the majority of voters are based and where most people still receive their news from state controlled television and are concerned, above all, with Mr Putin's mantra of "stability" and avoiding a return to the chaotic 1990s.

But there are two things that give the protest movement hope. The first is that much of Mr Putin's support is largely passive. While the pro-Kremlin youth movements such as Nashi give the impression of millions of Russians purring over the leader's latest topless photoshoot with adulation, in reality much of Mr Putin's support is based on a fear that the other options are worse. The other is that for all that the movement is based on democratic aims, its leaders are well aware that the vocal minority is often the driver of political change. The majority of the media, cultural and intellectual establishment has become disillusioned with Mr Putin and his government now. It is distinctly unfashionable to be pro-Putin in Moscow, and even apolitical socialites have been joining in the protest movement. The blogger Mr Navalny has spoken of the "politically active one percent, living in the capital", who will be at the vanguard of any change. The outcome of tomorrow's election is already clear, but the longer term political direction of Russia will depend both on how much Mr Putin is willing to compromise (recent speeches taken together suggest not much), and on how forceful the street protest movement becomes. One thing is clear: politics in Russia are no longer wholly predictable.