His return to the presidency is tainted by charges that the election was skewed, and his country's growing reform movement views Vladimir Putin as a relic who desires only power. Dan Peleschuk, Foreign Correspondent, describes a strongman on whom the laurels of victory weigh heavy
MOSCOW // Vladimir Putin may have won the presidency, but a far more daunting task lies ahead: dealing with an unprecedented protest movement that demands an end to the system that has kept him in power for 12 years.
Although he swept Sunday's election with nearly 64 per cent of the vote, all signs point to a largely disconnected Mr Putin, who throughout the campaign stuck to his well-honed game of accusing the West of inciting domestic unrest and deriding the homegrown opposition.
"We have proven that no one can force us into anything," said the teary-eyed prime minister at a rally in central Moscow on Sunday evening. "We have proven that our people are capable of distinguishing themselves amid political provocations that seek only one thing: to destroy Russian statehood and usurp power."
Election monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election was clearly skewed in favour of Mr Putin
"There were serious problems from the very start of this election. The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain. This was not the case in Russia. There was no real competition and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt," said Tonino Picula, the special coordinator who led the short-term OSCE observer mission.
As the protests have grown since last December's apparently rigged parliamentary elections, Mr Putin has proven largely unwilling to engage the demonstrators and their causes. In recent months, he has likened the protesters to obedient monkeys and their symbol - a white ribbon, now a mainstay at anti-government demonstrations - to an unwrapped condom.
Instead, Mr Putin has left any attempts at dialogue to his protégé, the outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, who offered a package of modest reforms, including a more lax system of party registration and a reintroduction of gubernatorial elections. Registering political parties has become increasingly stringent under Mr Putin, rendering it virtually impossible for parties without Kremlin approval to compete politically. Mr Putin also canceled gubernatorial elections in 2004, ostensibly to shore up national security after a deadly siege on a school by Chechen terrorists, a move critics claim was a key part of his rollback on democracy.
On Monday, Mr Medvedev, who could take Mr Putin's place as prime minister, also ordered the prosecutor general to probe the legality of former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky's imprisonment, widely seen as a political prosecution, in an attempt to defuse public anger.
Despite Mr Putin's promise that he would seek dialogue with the opposition some experts doubt whether he can follow up on Mr Medvedev's proposals to offer genuine reform.
Rather, they say, Mr. Putin will remain focused on retaining power amidst an increasingly fractious inner elite.
"He's not the kind of politician who can undertake any serious initiatives," said Boris Kagarlitsky, head of the Moscow-based Institute for Globalization and Social Movements. "Putin is actually a weak figure who has always depended on the elite consensus."
Signs of a rejuvenated civil society emerged not only in the anti-Kremlin demonstrations, but also in the more than 350,000 observers who signed up to monitor the elections.
The unprecedented level of participation shows that many urban, middle-class Russians, who earlier seemed to accept Mr Putin's unwritten contract of stable economic growth in exchange for political rights, were no longer apathetic.
Eighteen-year-old university student Edward Duriev, an election observer at a polling station in central Moscow, said he decided to join his friends in volunteering because they felt insulted by the authorities' alleged attempts at falsification.
"I've attended two major demonstrations already and decided that if I'm ready to protest, then I'm ready to spend my day here," he said.
He added that he believes the movement for free elections has staying power and will continue to keep the Kremlin in check.
Despite Mr. Putin's victory, opposition leaders and independent observers cried foul over allegations of vote fraud.
Meanwhile, Mr Putin's campaign manager, Stanislav Govorukhin, told Russian media on Sunday the elections "were the cleanest in Russian history".
Analysts say that despite perceptions that the protest movement sprang up spontaneously, the feelings have been long in the making and fuelled by the Kremlin's doublespeak.
"From my point of view, this is a much more deep-seated process that brings together the sense that people do have a stake in politics and the sense that politics is not working in Russia for a large number of people," said political analyst Sam Greene, a professor at Moscow's New Economic School.
He also noted that the political awakening has created uncertainties for both Mr Putin and the protest movement: "I don't think anyone knows what he's really up against," Mr Greene said.
Although the movement for free elections has empowered many young Russians, others remain pessimistic about prospects for a freer Russia during Mr Putin's third term.
Watching Putin claim victory in front of the Kremlin late Sunday night, Pavel Marov, 22, expressed little hope that anything will change.
"I dream of the day when I can emigrate to the West," he said. "It's obvious that what's going on is just a continuation of what we have seen in the last decade. We have no independence, and Putin's reelection will only make things worse."