President Putin has two choices
Vladimir Putin is basking in the glory of another election win, but his leadership of Russia this time cannot be the same as during his previous two terms. The protests that sprang up after rigged parliamentary polls three months ago have returned and speak volumes about the state of the nation and the aspirations of a fast-growing middle class. They want an end to abuse of political power and a stamping out of corruption, the building of a genuine civil society and the creation of a modern economy. Voters overwhelmingly opted for the stability of a strong president rather than the uncertainty of any of his weak opponents, although it is wide-ranging reform, not more of the same, that Russians need.
In keeping with that sentiment, Putin would be wise to make this his last term. Already he has been Russia's leader for 12 years, first as president and then as prime minister with ultimate control, attained by swapping with Dmitry Medvedev to get around laws that forbid two consecutive terms. Putin has promised the loyal Medvedev his old job back. But while Russians have seen in Putin certainty and prosperity, a welcome respite from the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, those times have gone and change is necessary. A well-educated and wealthier middle class has taken root. It is fed up with corruption, understands that Russia is poorly governed and has had enough of Putin's promises of reform that never materialise. His persistent claims that Russia's problems are the fault of the West are no longer believed. Spending is getting out of control and the country's oil and gas resources, which account for two-thirds of exports, cannot be seen as economic security - a big fall in growth amply proves that.
Putin has two choices. He can continue his autocratic ways, stopping protests and silencing critics, or he can take the path of reform and put in place a healthy political system for his successor. The former will harden discontent and worsen the lives of Russians. By opting for the latter, he will create a legacy he can be proud of.