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Vladimir Putin 2.0: A harder, eastward-looking presidency

Vladimir Putin, once again in the Kremlin's top post, faces a far more divided Russia than he did during his first stint, and he's taking a more authoritarian line to match.

By Correspondent / October 10, 2012

A vendor opens a traditional Russian nesting doll with the faces of Vladimir Putin (underneath) and Dmitry Medvedev at a souvenir market in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters

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Moscow

It's been just over a year since Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev took the stage at a conference of the ruling United Russia party and announced that they had decided "years ago" to trade places after Mr. Medvedev's first presidential term and send Mr. Putin back to the Kremlin for six more years as Russia's supreme ruler.

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The 10,000 party delegates leapt to their feet and gave this stunning piece of news a thundering ovation. At that moment, Putin appeared at the height of his powers. After eight highly successful years in the Kremlin in the past decade, he had easily engineered his own replacement by Medvedev in 2008, in order to evade a constitutional ban on more than two consecutive presidential terms, and seems to have believed there would be no difficulty about performing another such switch.

But around the country reactions were more muted, and few seemed to be celebrating. Supporters of Medvedev's modest liberal rhetoric expressed open disappointment. Russia's new social media, such as Facebook, LiveJournal, and the Russian-language VKontakte, erupted in confusion, derision, even outrage.

In retrospect, that moment may have been a critical watershed in Russia, where the country's traditionalists and new creative class began to part ways. Russia under Putin's second coming has since taken a sharp turn rightward, driving the creation of a permanent opposition that's trapped outside the system and drifting in dangerously radical directions.

"It was a very painful signal to the public that said politics is just a game played by a couple guys at the top, the impression of choice is only an illusion, and they've decided that we're going to have Putin forever," says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is now a leader of the anti-Kremlin liberal opposition.

"Even some very loyal people were appalled by the cynicism of this maneuver. There is no doubt that it changed public perceptions, by creating this hopeless picture of Putin in power forever, and it was a trigger for the protest movement that was to come," he says.

Putin leadership no longer unchallenged

A year on, Putin – who turned 60 on Oct. 7 – has achieved his goal of returning to supreme power, but it is hardly the triumphant Kremlin lap he may have been expecting.

His domain is racked with unexpected political turmoil, and his leadership, though still strong, no longer looks unchallenged. Enormous street protests that broke out last December, propelled by evidence of massive electoral fraud on behalf of United Russia in Duma polls, have continued, and may now be mutating into a permanent and intransigent opposition movement.

The new Duma, established by that deeply flawed and disputed election, has passed a wave of draconian new legislation that appears as much aimed at exacting revenge against the protesters as it is at sharply raising the future penalties for any kind of dissent.

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