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For Vladimir Putin, winning Russia's presidency may be the easy part

The Russian election has been engineered for a Vladimir Putin victory. His true challenge will come afterward, when he has to rule a country increasingly dissatisfied with his rule.

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Grigory Yavlinsky, one of Russia's most respected independent politicians, was struck from the ballot in January on a technicality – submitting computer scans of nomination petitions – that officials later admitted was probably not against the rules. He's out nevertheless, and many experts suggest he was banned because he might have attracted enough protest votes to deny Putin a first-round victory. 

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"The authorities are totally fixated on getting that first-round win for Putin, and they are pulling out all the stops," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "It's critical to maintaining bureaucratic confidence in the system; if Putin should not win decisively, it will lead to the erosion of the regime." 

'A special life' for Putin

Even the carefully vetted challengers complain they are blocked at every turn from campaigning fairly. "Over 70 percent of all TV time goes to Putin, and it's all about how he's fulfilling his duties as prime minister," says Sergei Obukhov, a Communist Party Duma deputy. He complains that Putin has refused to participate in TV debates, instead churning out a series of high-profile newspaper articles promising to fix all of Russia's problems, from population decline to military weakness. (For coverage of more of his articles, read here and here.) 

"We're all trying to run in an election, but Putin seems to live his own special life while the media creates the impression that the country will collapse if he ever leaves," Mr. Obukhov says. 

Even billionaire Prokhorov's people say officials around the country just won't let their candidate campaign. "Our efforts are systematically sabotaged; advertising companies cannot explain why Prokhorov's billboards keep disappearing," says Alexei Urazov, a spokesman. 

Putin's troubles may be just beginning, even if he wins handily in the first round. 

"The political system is unbalanced and the threat of colored revolution is very real," Olga Kryshtanovskaya, one of Russia's top political sociologists, told the daily Kommersant last week. "Whoever is elected president will face the necessity to restore order in the country. Putin will have to choose his style. It can be either hard or soft.… The worse the destabilization is, the more likely we will see the hard line." 

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