Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's announcement on Sept. 24, 2011, of a choreographed plan in which he would displace Dmitry Medvedev and return to the Russian presidency -- for six, and possibly 12, more years - has evidently touched a raw nerve in Russian society.
In the five months since the Russian public was handed this fait accompli, Putin has been booed during an appearance at a mixed martial arts match, increasingly ridiculed on the Internet, and seen his party, United Russia, fail to win a majority in parliamentary elections last Dec. 4, despite extensive fraud in its favor. Large, peaceful protests across the country since those elections -- including one this past Sunday in which demonstrators circled Moscow's Ring Road -- represent a clear indicator of the desire for change.
With Russian society now expressing its preference for accountable governance with increasing boldness, voters will return to the polls on March 4 for the country's presidential election. But despite the obvious dissatisfaction with the status quo, Putin has decided to double down on the stagnant and corrosive model of rule created under his leadership.
The electoral framework put in place over the last decade leaves little to chance and allows no plausible alternative to the incumbent come voting day. As a consequence, Russia's political system has reached a dead end.
We've seen all this before. In a similarly choreographed process four years ago, Putin installed then Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in the presidency as a placeholder, while he took shelter temporarily in the prime minister's office to get around violating a constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms. Now, Putin is ready to reclaim his post and the Putin-Medvedev succession carousel is completing its long rotation.
While Putin's determination to retain power has not changed, Russian society has. An increasingly restive population has had its fill of Putinism and is now unwilling to be steamrolled by the Kremlin's plans. But will Russia's leadership pursue genuine reforms to meet the country's changing expectations?
Unfortunately, events since the December parliamentary elections suggest that the answer is no.
An early indicator was the Central Election Commission decision on Jan. 27 to disqualify prominent opposition figure Grigory Yavlinsky from running in the presidential race. This politically driven decision removed the strongest liberal-minded challenger from the race. It also means that observers from Yavlinsky's Yabloko Party will not be permitted to monitor the voting and detect possible fraud.