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Putin returns to presidency in a changed Russia

Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency on Monday will technically 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 on Sunday, 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 past 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.

When Medvedev announced in September that he was stepping aside to allow Putin to take back the presidency, many Russians were offended by the implication that their votes were considered just a formality.

Two months later, Putin was greeted with catcalls at a Moscow sports arena, an unprecedented rebuke that an opposition leader described as "the end of an era."

The anger burst out onto the streets after a December parliamentary election that was won by Putin's party with the help of what observers said was widespread fraud.

Putin seemed stunned by the sudden outburst of discontent, but he quickly fought back. He portrayed the protest leaders as in the pay of the Americans and intent on bringing about a revolution that would take Russia back to the instability and humiliations of the 1990s. With Kremlin-controlled television still the main source of information for most Russians, many believed him.

Even some who have soured on Putin say he is the only one capable of leading the country. They see no viable alternative and believe that Russia needs a strong hand.

After coming to power in 2000, Putin steadily neutered all other political institutions and sidelined those who challenged his centralized control, either by barring them from running in elections, driving them into exile or sending them to languish in prison.

Putin thus prevented the emergence of any strong figure who could unite those who oppose his rule.

To establish control across the vast country, he abolished gubernatorial elections and made the governors dependent on the Kremlin.

As a result of the protests, Putin agreed to restore direct elections for governors, although provisions in the new law have raised fears that he will still be able to determine who is allowed to run.

Putin also agreed to make it easier for opposition political parties to take part in elections. This presents an opportunity and a challenge for the opposition, which has until the next parliamentary election in 2016 to form a few viable parties from among the wide array of leftist and liberal groups.

In the meantime, the opposition has turned its attention to municipal elections and already can claim some success. The first competitive elections for governors are still ahead.

For Putin, the challenge 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 Russia's economy. Many expect Putin, who turns 60 this year, to seek a fourth term to extend his presidency through 2024.

But Russia's society has changed and the country's future looks far more uncertain than it did just a few months ago.