As nationwide protests cause a rare tremor in Russian politics, it is a reminder to Putin that the electorate may not be as docile as many assumed.
Russians wake up to politics again
Nationwide protests across Russia yesterday were reminiscent of another political turning point for the country, when president-elect Boris Yeltsin faced down the August 1991 coup attempt by generals opposed to perestroika. Many would argue that despite that victory for democracy, the old Soviet apparatchik class regained power anyway in the form of Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, the dominant force in Russian politics for more than a decade.
The growing popular protests since parliamentary elections last Sunday are the greatest threat to date to Mr Putin's hegemony. Amid widespread allegations of fraud and a crackdown on election monitors, Mr Putin's party won less than 50 per cent of the vote, less than was expected.
Indeed, the ruling United Russia party has seen its brand plummet in recent weeks, now commonly known as "party of swindlers and thieves", a term coined by the blogger Aleksei Navalny. His cutting prose has been a rallying cry for protesters and landed him in jail last week.
Why has a meaningful opposition been so long dormant? Partly, ambivalence. In recent years, Russia has reaped the rewards of high oil prices. In contrast to the days of communism, store shelves are fully stocked, earning power is higher and the average citizen has the ability to travel and study like never before. Opposition figures such as the chess champion Garry Kasparov have often appeared to be high-minded irrelevancies.
For the first time in decades, critics including Mr Navalny have brought the opposition into the street. Economic concerns are mounting, corruption is almost palpable and Mr Putin's largely unopposed run to return to the presidency reeks of a personality cult.
Mr Navalny's prediction, told to the Russian edition of Esquire magazine, is that "revolution is inevitable". He may be right, but that would be a long, probably bloody road. The Kremlin fielded 50,000 security troops yesterday and, more frightening to many Russians, Mr Putin's Noshi youth group is known for its quasi-Nazi accoutrements and violent street attacks.
The staying power of these protesters remains to be seen. But as people from the Middle East to the United States have demonstrated in 2011, dormant political ideals can roar into life. Leaders who choose to ignore demands for legitimate reforms do so at their own peril.