Russians set for presidential ballotMonday 05 March 2012 10.14
Russian voters go to the polls this weekend in a presidential election in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hopes to be re-elected to the presidency for a third term.
Opponents have already been on the streets to protest at what they say is his monopoly on power.
The 59-year-old ex-KGB spy's victory in tomorrow’s ballot now seems beyond doubt.
State forecasts show him storming to a first-round victory with 60% of the vote and his Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov taking second with 15%.
Tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov and the flamboyant but ultimately pro-Kremlin populist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are expected to battle for third place, while former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov looks set to finish last.
But the landslide victory may only mask a new era of political uncertainty that has descended on Russia and contrasts sharply with the current prime minister's stable first two terms as president between 2000 and 2008.
The emotional street protests that erupted in response to a fraud-tainted December parliamentary ballot have since swelled into a broader opposition movement whose reliance on social media echoes the Arab Spring revolts.
The largest demonstrations have thus far been confined to Russia's main cities and the authorities point to polls showing the anti-Putin cause backed by only a marginal fraction of the nation.
Mr Putin has put a brave face on the show of public displeasure by telling Western media executives he was "very happy about this situation."
"I think this is a very good experience for Russia," Mr Putin said in an interview this week. "It means that the authorities... have to actively react to what is happening in the country."
But Mr Putin has never before ruled from anything less than an impregnable position of power and few dare to predict how he might respond now.
"The system needs comprehensive political and economic reform. But (Putin) has neither the financial nor the political capital to accomplish this," said Mark Urnov of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
The London-based Chatham House policy institute called Mr Putin's return "the latest stage in a continuing process of deterioration, not the start of a renewal, as some in the West might hope."
The entire campaign has been driven by an undercurrent of anti-Western rhetoric whose indignant tone now threatens to set back the "reset" in relations that President Barack Obama tried to strike in 2009.
"The days when Russia could be lectured or preached to are over," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned this week.
The campaign also saw Mr Putin's almost imperial refusal to debate his opponents - a feature of past elections that aims to paint him as a man of action who is too busy to engage in disputes with rivals.
The four rank outsiders have all admitted to only having the ambition of finishing second and possibly joining a run-off should Mr Putin fail to pick up 50% of the vote.
"I really want to make it into the second round," Mr Prokhorov, metals magnate, remarked before attending a campaign concert last night that featured a special performance by the Russia pop empress Alla Pugacheva.
Mr Putin, for his part, looked relaxed as he leaned back against the table and addressed the nation one last time before the vote.
"We must consolidate all facets of society to the greatest degree possible," Mr Putin said in a brief address.
"We must work smoothly and constructively, without shocks or revolutions," he added.
The marathon election stretches over nine time zones and begins with the opening of polls in the Far East at 8pm tonight Irish time.
It culminates with their close in the western exclave of Kaliningrad 21 hours later at 5pm Irish time tomorrow.