MOSCOW Vladimir Putins return to the presidency Monday technically will give him greater powers than he wielded as prime minister. The irony is that his position will be arguably weaker than at any time since he first came to power more than 12 years ago.
In part because of the heavy-handed way in which he reclaimed the presidency, Putin finds himself the leader of a changed country, where a growing portion of society is no longer willing to silently tolerate a government that denies its citizens a political voice.
How Putin responds to the calls for free elections and accountable government will help define his next six years in office and to a great extent determine the future of Russia itself.
The pressure on Putin began to build in the months ahead of the March presidential election as a series of protests drew tens of thousands onto the streets of Moscow. Although the number of protesters has dwindled since the vote and expectations were low for an opposition rally today, the protest movement has led to real change in Russia.
In response to the demonstrations, the Kremlin has agreed to allow more political competition in future elections. National television channels have slightly opened up, expanding beyond their role as a Kremlin propaganda arm.
Even some members of the Kremlin-controlled parliament have become more willing to challenge Kremlin legislation.
Equally significant, the protests have roused a new generation of Russians out of their political apathy and brought forth a civic awakening that already has led to greater involvement in local politics.
During the last four years, the presence of the younger and seemingly more liberal President Dmitry Medvedev allowed people to hope that change was possible, even though everyone understood that Putin was still in charge as prime minister.
Medvedev promised to fight corruption, make the courts more independent and modernize the economy, but in the end nothing really improved. His empty words only made the problems more obvious and fed social dissatisfaction.
For Putin, the challenge now is to allow just enough gradual change to keep social discontent in check while still maintaining control. It may prove to be a difficult balance. Any real reform of the top-down system he built could bring it all crashing down.
On the surface, not much has changed in Russia. Putin is still in charge, and he still largely controls the oil and gas wealth that props up Russias economy. Many expect Putin, who turns 60 this year, to seek a fourth term to extend his presidency through 2024.
But Russias society has changed, and the countrys future looks far more uncertain than it did just a few months ago.