Vladimir Putin embarks on a six-year term as Russian president needing to face down the challenge of an emboldened protest movement and also prevent the country slipping into stagnation, analysts said.
Putin appears to have every reason to celebrate after presidential elections that gave him first round victory with almost 64 percent of the vote and he could now in theory stay in power until 2024 if he wins another term in 2018.
But analysts warn that such a long reign harbors risks in itself and if Putin stayed in power to 2024 he would be the longest serving Kremlin chief since Joseph Stalin, after first rising to power in 1999.
But such a stay raises the specter of the stagnation that prevailed in the Soviet Union under the almost two-decade rule from 1964-1982 of Leonid Brezhnev, when a lack of reform weakened the whole USSR that then collapsed in 1991.
“It’s not a step towards stability that we are taking but towards stagnation,” said Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.
During his tenure, Brezhnev built up the Soviet Union’s military influence but failed to undertake vital structural reforms and the state was left dependent on oil exports to buy the imports needed to feed the population.
Konovalov said that as before, post-Soviet Russia remains chronically dependent on its energy exports and if oil remains at less than $130 a barrel it will be impossible for Putin to “realise his promises and balance the budget.”
“We cannot exclude political turbulence and unrest” under that scenario, said Konovalov.
Mark Urnov of the Higher School of Economics said there were neither the resources nor the political will to implement the changes that Russia needed.
“The system needs profound reform, politically and economically, but there are neither the financial resources or the political resources to do this,” he said.
He said while Putin has to a point agreed with opposition warnings that corruption is one of the greatest scourges with modern Russia, it was not likely he would be able to wage a convincing campaign against graft.
“Putin cannot fight against corruption -- this would oblige him to deliver blows against his own entourage. And while his popularity is falling he is never going to make war on his own camp,” he said.
Watching Putin’s every move in the future will be the protest movement which has staged mass rallies in Moscow and has called for radical reforms to create a modern and dynamic Russian economy.
Konovalov said that popular discontent would rise after the presidential elections and the protest movement would intensify, risking a possible radicalization of the situation.
“There is reason to be fearful not so much of a radicalization of the opposition but of the part of the elite around Putin which is nervous,” added Urnov.
Analysts remain unsure whether Putin’s victory will be followed by a cautious opening towards his opponents or a hardening towards greater repression.
“The authorities are going to try very different strategies,” said Moscow-based political analyst Yury Korgonyuk.
“First they will try to put pressure on the opposition. And when they say that this gives no result they will try to open up. But this liberalization will not be to their advantage.”
The opposition -- which has so far held peaceful protests whose location was agreed in advance with the authorities -- has also made clear their stance could change if the government took a harder line.
“If the regime wants to move towards a violent confrontation the opposition will without doubt modify its methods and objectives,” said detective novelist Boris Akunin who is one of the most prominent protest movement figures.
“And then, most likely, new and more radical leaders will emerge,” he added.