Mr Nasty or Mr Nice: Putin faces historic choice
Vladimir Putin has a choice between either embracing reform or tightening state control to preserve his dominance after losing support in Russia's elections and facing protests, analysts say.
Putin, currently Russian prime minister, plans to extend his 11-year rule of Russia by winning back his old Kremlin job in March presidential polls that now seem a far more challenging prospect than only a week ago.
After his ruling United Russia's shock loss of 77 seats and roughly 13 million votes in Sunday's legislative polls, Putin's reputation for enjoying invincible popularity has been dented.
He now stands at a crossroads between tightening the screws or opening up his tightly controlled political system.
"Frustrations are clearly evident and, to a large extent, this weekend's election result may well turn out to be a game changer," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Troika Dialog investment bank in Moscow.
"People have made their views very clear and, as is the case everywhere, governments ignore such strong statements at their peril."
United Russia won less than half the vote, a sharp drop from over 64 percent in 2007, with many middle-class and young voters voting Communist out of protest at the party's monopolisation of power.
The opposition insisted the results would have been even more dramatic in clean elections, while Western monitors said the vote was skewed in favour of the ruling party.
Putin himself has yet to comment explicitly on the protests although his spokesman Dmitry Peskov appeared to acknowledge some change was required.
"Certainly, people expect the Putin 2.0 version," he told the BBC Russian Service. "Obviously, the party would also have to undergo a period of renewal," he said.
However some analysts said it is impossible to expect that Putin, an ex-KGB agent who many blame for eroding civil liberties for the last decade, will suddenly transform into a champion of reform.
"Putin is coming back to the Kremlin to preserve the status quo," Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, told AFP. "He is not planning to introduce any changes.
"Allowing opposition would mean the end of his rule.
"The Putin epoch has started the countdown towards its end. The conflict in society is unavoidable. The question is, when will it start?"
Economists said that rather than introducing radical reform, Putin could shore-up his popularity in the medium term by increasing government spending, at least as long as oil prices remain high.
"Social spending will be ramped up," Julia Tsepliaeva, chief economist for Russia at BNP Paribas in Moscow, said.
"If he wants to stay he will have to ensure better living conditions for Russians at all costs. He'll find the money, for the next several years it won't be a problem."
Citing strong economic indicators, Weafer said Russia was a long way from the Arab world where revolts ousted unpopular leaders.
"In Russia, changes are expected to come slowly rather than dramatically," he said.
The election however was just the latest in a succession of signs that Putin's popularity is on the wane after his ratings hit almost 80 percent in 2007.
In the run-up to voting, Putin was booed during an appearance at a martial arts fight, the first such public humiliation in his career.
According to a poll by the independent Levada Center released in November, just 31 percent of respondents would vote for Putin.
Analysts say many Russians have been offended by Putin's unilateral decision to seek a third term and the disputed legislative polls are expected to deal a further blow to his ratings.
"In any case, you can feel sorry for Putin," said opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
"He who has known the depths of popular love, is finding it hard to listen to whistles and jeers which he will probably hear time and again during his presidential campaign."
© 2011 AFP