Leading article: Mr Putin must face the new reality

 

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Yesterday's announcement by the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, that he will seek the presidency again will have surprised no one.

That he intended to stand has been clear since 24 September, when he accepted the nomination of the governing party, United Russia. It was a move that at once sidelined the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev and seemed to confirm the theory that Mr Putin's four years as Prime Minister were little more than a technical interlude, allowing him to comply with the letter of the country's Constitution.

What has also been clear since last September, however, is that Mr Putin's journey back to the presidency will not be as smooth or as simple as he, and most of the outside world, probably expected. Rather than the public acclaim he had been used to, Mr Putin has faced booing from a disgruntled public and a barrage of criticism from sections of the Russian media, especially from its vibrant blogosphere. United Russia suffered swingeing losses in parliamentary elections in December, which were followed by street protests complaining about rigging and demanding his resignation.

The Russia of 2012 is not the Russia of 2004, when Mr Putin swept to re-election, nor is it the Russia of 2008, when Mr Medvedev was assured of victory, as Mr Putin's protégé. Most Russians are richer than they were. The professional middle class has grown. Fewer voters remember the harsh reality of life under communism; even the economic chaos of the 1990s has faded, for many, into the past.

It is a paradox that, while Mr Putin can claim credit for many of these developments – and did so in some detail when he made his announcement yesterday – they have come back to bite him in the form of a less compliant, more sophisticated and more demanding electorate. What that electorate lacks, however, is a credible opposition candidate, or candidates – which is another, much more negative, reflection on Mr Putin's 12 years at the top. This is why, even if the 4 March election produces the expected result – a third-term – President Putin will need to recognise Russia's new reality or risk the very stability on which his remaining popularity rests.

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