Steve Chapman

But for the first time, things are not going his way. United Russia is now popularly known as "the party of swindlers and thieves." A few weeks ago, appearing at a martial arts match, he was booed on national TV.

The protests in Moscow following the parliamentary election were the biggest of the post-Soviet era -- so big that the police had to refrain from arresting people, and "too large to be edited out of the evening news, which does not normally report on criticism of Putin," said The New York Times.

The outpouring was accompanied by similar rallies in cities across Russia. Putin has managed to prod the various small, diverse opposition factions, from liberals to Communists to right-wing nationalists, into uniting against him.

In the aftermath, billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov announced he would run for president. Such is the strange nature of Russian politics that some experts regard him as a fake opponent inserted to help Putin by siphoning support from real ones.

But the coming election could nonetheless serve to mobilize the opposition. Stephen Sestanovich, the U.S. ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet states in the 1990s, said on the Council on Foreign Relations website that the critics' anger is unlikely to subside because "they have something new to focus on. They are mad and they have a way to express it, which is to get involved and deny Putin a first-ballot victory."

If he were held to less than a majority of the votes, he would have to face a single opponent in a runoff -- in which case things might veer out of his control. Putin enjoyed considerable popularity before the parliamentary elections, but his coarse tactics have doubtless eroded it.

Russians have endured many trials over the past century, including the persistent denial of the right to govern themselves. It will come as news to the prime minister that they may not endure it forever.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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