Putin's grip on power will hold, but not for long
Vladimir Putin is going to win the presidential election in Russia on Sunday. In theory, that gives him six more years in power, and the right to run for a further six-year term after that. But it's very unlikely that Putin will be ruling Russia 12 years from now.
The latest opinion poll predicts that Putin will win 66per cent of the votes, but he's lucky that the presidential election isn't happening a year from now, because his support is eroding fast. People are losing their fear of his regime, and the corruption issue is biting deeper and deeper.
The recent street demonstrations in Russia's big cities are important, but the occasional outbreaks of open mockery of Putin in the media are an even better indication of which way the wind is blowing. A case in point is socialite and television host Ksenia Sobchak, whose talk show, Where is Putin Taking Us?, was cancelled after the first episode because she invited protest leader Alexei Navalny on the show. She struck back with a video mocking celebrities who have recorded messages endorsing Putin's election campaign.
Mockery is an effective weapon because it undercuts people's fear of speaking out, but it's the corruption that is really damaging Putin's standing. The corruption is not personal: Putin made his pile in the first few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union; he has no need to steal any more. However, turning a blind eye to corruption has become the main way that Putin's regime gains and keeps collaborators.
Putin lives in fear of another 'colour' revolution like the one that swept away the former Ukrainian regime, but, when the time comes in Russia, it won't take a revolution to change things. The country is already a democracy in form, and to a certain extent in substance, too. Putin actually has to get elected, and he can only go so far in trying to bend electoral outcomes to his will.
His tough-guy image still appeals to some Russian voters, but it is getting old. The economy, for global reasons largely beyond Putin's control, is no longer producing dramatic growth. As a result, United Russia, Putin's own party, saw its vote share fall below 50per cent for the first time since its foundation in last December's parliamentary election. It might have fallen even further if not for large-scale fraud in the counting of the votes.
Putin is demagogic, cunning and ruthless, but he is not actually a dictator and his regime is more fragile than it looks. If it loses popular support, the question is not whether it will also lose power, but only when. Will Russians be willing to wait six years until the next scheduled presidential election, or will they find a (hopefully legal) way to push him out a good deal sooner?
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist