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Putin’s Choice

BRUSSELS – Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin as Russia’s president was always a foregone conclusion. But, when he is sworn in on May 7, he will retake formal charge of a country whose politics – even Putin’s own political future – has turned unpredictable.

Putin’s return to the presidency, following a period of de facto control as prime minister, was supposed to signify a reassuring continuation of “business as usual” – a strong, orderly state devoid of the potentially destabilizing effects of multiparty democracy and bickering politicians.

Instead, the Russian people have now challenged the status quo. Their reaction to Putin’s plan – from the announcement last September that President Dmitri Medvedev would stand aside for his mentor, to the deeply flawed parliamentary and presidential elections – and their accumulated resentment of Kremlin cronies’ massive enrichment, has placed pressure on Putin and the top-down system of government that he created.

How Putin, an astute politician, responds to that pressure will determine his political legacy. And the West’s response to Putin’s return to the presidency could have a marked effect on whether he presses for liberalizing reforms and survives, or follows his KGB-honed authoritarian instincts and stokes further protest.