As growing public demands for change run up against the system's fundamental rigidity, the stakes are very high. Russia's entire authoritarian infrastructure is under enormous pressure to hand Putin a first-round victory on March 4. But the usual bag of tricks may not be sufficient to cobble together more than 50 percent of the vote. Some independent polls are placing Putin below that level, and many of his critics are unifying behind an "anyone but Putin" movement.
Even if the system delivers the required results, clear evidence of rigging may lead voters to reject the election as unfair and illegitimate. Moreover, the authorities' stifling of the Russian public's voice runs the risk of creating an even more combustible environment in the period after March 4. The balloting, whatever its outcome, is therefore unlikely to extinguish the rising desire for real change. Unless and until that change is permitted, Putin's continued pursuit of simulated democracy will fail to achieve even a simulation of stability.