Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency is all but assured. His battle to hold on to power is just beginning.

This Sunday, March 4, Russians will go to the polls for their sixth presidential election since the country’s independence in 1991. Whether or not officials repeat the widespread fraud of December’s parliamentary vote, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Putin does not win. His chief opponents -- Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- are longtime Kremlin stooges who offer voters little more than an opportunity to register protest.

Victory, though, will not be sweet. Putin is set to regain the presidency for a six-year term at a time when his model of “managed democracy” is crumbling. Russians are increasingly fed up with a regime in which rules exist largely to be manipulated by an official elite, and in which people who resist the desires of corrupt bureaucrats all too often end up in jail, or worse. Street protests that attracted about a hundred thousand demonstrators in the dead of winter could get even larger come spring.

Meanwhile, the government spending required to mollify the rest of the populace and keep the military on Putin’s side is putting the state’s finances on a troubling trajectory. London-based consultants Capital Economics estimate that Putin’s campaign pledges alone will raise the oil price required to balance Russia’s budget, heavily dependent on revenue from the energy sector, to $130 a barrel, up from about $117 now and only $55 in 2008.

So where can Putin take Russia from here?

For one, he can opt for the evil-dictator approach. Plant some agents to turn the protests violent and crack down with the help of the police and military. As the experience of more than one authoritarian leader in the Arab world has shown, this may be the best way for Putin to galvanize the opposition and expedite his own downfall. It’s also not clear all the law-enforcement heavies would support him: An online poll of Moscow’s police found that more than 80 percent sympathized with the demonstrators.

Second, Putin can create the appearance of compromise. Appoint respected professionals -- such as former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin -- to his new government and promise reform. Or form an alliance of convenience with someone malleable who also enjoys some support from protesters; billionaire and longshot presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov comes to mind. Neither option will produce the genuine change required to build institutions such as an open electoral system, impartial courts and inviolable private property rights. The power of the Kremlin elite is too dependent on its ability to ignore laws or bend them to its liking. Eventually, protesters would be back in the streets.

Finally, Putin can do what the protesters are asking, starting with free and fair elections for parliament and the presidency. Oddly, what’s best for the country could also be Putin’s best bet for survival -- if not for the survival of the corrupt regime he personifies. The opposition, a varied group ranging from liberal intellectuals to hard-core nationalists, hasn’t coalesced around a single candidate. Putin, by contrast, still has a lot of support outside Moscow, among Russians wary of another revolution.

As a reputedly consummate practitioner of judo, Putin should be able to recognize a situation where yielding would be to his advantage. Unfortunately, nothing in his resume suggests he’s willing to take the risks needed to emerge as the legitimate leader of a democratic country.

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