The mood in Moscow has changed profoundly in the last two months as a critical mass of Russians has come to believe that Vladimir Putin's regime is approaching its end. People are not tense and angry, but humorous and excited.
Paradoxically, the opposition thinks it has won and lives in a free country, while the government believes its rule persists. These two contradictory perceptions of reality are soon bound to clash, however, and Russia's system of government will be changed beyond recognition in the process.
The general assumption remains that Putin will win the presidential election on March 4. But Russians' expectations about the aftermath vary greatly. Five alternative scenarios are floating around Moscow these days.
The dominant liberal view is that Russia's economy and society have outgrown the country's obsolete political system and will experience a peaceful and gradual democratic breakthrough -- evolution rather than revolution. Although Prime Minister Putin will return as president, his power will dwindle away, and a full democratic transition will occur within two to three years. As the modernization theory laid out by the late political scientists Seymour Martin Lipset and Samuel Huntington holds, Russia is simply too wealthy, too well educated, and too open to be so authoritarian and corrupt.
An alternative liberal view, expressed by political scientist Lilia Shevtsova, argues that Putin will tighten the screws after the election and that his new presidency will be more repressive than his current rule. "The Putin era is ending, but the authorities are doing everything possible to make it a dramatic finale," she writes.
A third view, mostly limited to pro-Putin Western businessmen, is that Putin has understood his precarious position and will now return to the reform program he adopted in 2000, which emphasized market deregulation and judicial reform. As the skillful politician he is, this line of thinking goes, Putin will take the air out of the protests by carrying out the necessary liberal economic and legal reforms while maintaining authoritarian power.
Some liberals also fear that an alliance between the far-left and far-right opposition in the Duma will come to the fore if the officially market-friendly regime falters. This red-brown alliance would be made up of Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, and Sergey Mironov's A Just Russia. It would favor mass confiscation of private enterprises, much higher public expenditures, higher taxes, and price controls. Putin's regime has often stoked fears of this scenario to advance an "après nous le déluge" argument -- which has yet to prove true.
The fifth view, which is the dominant view among regime loyalists, is that nothing has really happened -- the pampered elites have just let off some steam. After all, Russia's economy grew 7 percent a year from 1999 to 2008. As British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said in 1957: "Let us be frank about it: Most of our people have never had it so good." These officials and businessmen claim that political stability is paramount, and they call for 12 more years of Putin without much change to the status quo.
Although it is hard to predict how change will come to Russia, the accelerating pace of events has made a political transformation in Moscow all but inevitable. Now-despised President Dmitry Medvedev preached a sensible program for Russia's modernization for the last four years, and though he never did much to implement it, his program has achieved a broad public consensus. The middle class may have abandoned Medvedev after he nominated Putin as a presidential candidate on Sept. 24, but it is still searching for other means to implement his agenda.
At the same time, the blend of authority and coercion that Putin has successfully wielded for 12 years has seemingly lost its magic. The watershed moment came on Nov. 20, when the audience at a wrestling event booed him on state television. A dictator has to be feared -- otherwise, he just becomes ridiculous.
Putin's position declined further when his United Russia party stole the State Duma elections on Dec. 4. The fabrication of the vote was so crude that the independent election monitoring organization Golos assessed that 15 to 20 percent of the United Russia votes were stolen. Even so, United Russia could only claim 49.5 percent of the votes, a decline of 15 percentage points from 2007. Putin's dictatorship has never looked so weak.
The opposition may be multifaceted and poorly organized, but it has proved its ability to bring people to the streets and has united around a surprisingly cohesive agenda. The three mass demonstrations held on Dec. 10, Dec. 24, and Feb. 4 were the largest Russia has seen since 1991, and they broke the barrier of fear. The demonstrations were orderly, offering no excuse for violence by the police, who no longer seem capable of suppressing the opposition. As liberal opposition activist Andrei Piontkovsky writes, "Any resort to brute force to suppress demonstrations would finalize the regime's loss of legitimacy." In line with Russia's post-Soviet history, the police would likely refuse to shoot unarmed demonstrators. So even if Putin aspires to be a stricter dictator, that option is probably closed.