The elections that have put Vladimir Putin on course for six more years are easy to criticize from a Western standpoint.
As the monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe pointed out, the vote was marred by "serious problems from the very start." The Kremlin – which means Vladimir Putin – chose who was and wasn't allowed to run for the presidency against Mr. Putin, an obvious advantage. It also controls the main television and newspapers across the country, ensuring that Mr. Putin was portrayed as the country's sole guarantor of stability, though a convincing argument could certainly have been made to the contrary.
Despite those advantages, the authorities resorted to simpler tricks to make sure their man's win was a convincing one, so that Mr. Putin would be spared the bother of winning less than 50 per cent of the vote (which would have meant a humbling run-off against the second-place candidate).
At one polling station I visited in southeast Moscow, monitors told me that 500 of the 1,200 voters who had cast their ballots up to that point had done so using absentee ballots that allowed them to vote outside their home electoral district. While I was there, another group of absentee voters arrived and left en masse, lending support to opposition claims of "carousel" voting, with pro-Putin voters being bussed from polling station to polling station to cast multiple absentee ballots.
There are videos of even cruder tactics being used. A government-installed webcam caught three men stuffing dozens of ballots into a box in the southern republic of Dagestan, at one point jamming the machine in their haste to augment Putin's vote total. (Putin won over 93 per cent of the vote in Dagestan, a region rocked by crime and political violence. He won an even more improbable 99 per cent in neighbouring Chechnya.)
"The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain. This was not the case in Russia. There was no real competition and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt," was how the OECD put it.
Fair comment, for sure. But as a former Moscow correspondent, I also saw plenty of reasons for optimism – finally – about the direction the country is heading in.
The last time I covered a Russian presidential election was the 2004 race, coincidentally the last time Mr. Putin stood as a candidate.
Back then, no one dared oppose Mr. Putin, the KGB "man from nowhere" who had mercilessly privatized Russia's political system in his first four in office. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who had almost defeated Boris Yeltsin in 1996, stood aside so that an unknown deputy could run as the Communist candidate. Nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who like Mr. Zyuganov runs and loses as often as the Kremlin asks him to, entered his bodyguard as the candidate for his ill-named Liberal Democratic Party.
No one with any support base was allowed onto the ballot, lest they keep Mr. Putin from achieving his targeted 72 per cent of the vote. The only person in Russia who seemed interested in challenging Mr. Putin's grip on power, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was dispatched before the vote to a Siberian prison, where he remains today.
The difference between then and now is in how many Russian people – in particular the urban middle class – have reacted to the 2012 vote.
In 2004, I watched the results roll in at a trendy Moscow restaurant filled with what seemed to be the last liberals left in Russia. They drank, reminisced about the exciting early days of Russian democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union, and exchanged dark predictions about how much of the Soviet system would be restored during four more years of President Putin.
The depressed mood was fuelled by the knowledge that Mr. Putin's throwback authoritarianism was actually what most Russians wanted after the chaos and flirtations with Third World status of the Yeltsin years. There was no question that he was the country's most popular politician. I went to an anti-Putin demonstration on Moscow's Pushkin Square shortly after the election. There were 21 people there.
Today is different, even if the official results barely show it. It's fashionable in 2012 to stand up to Mr. Putin. The crowd on Pushkin Square on Monday night was 20,000 strong. They stood and chanted "Russia without Putin!" for two hours before the riot police finally moved in. A larger number will likely come into the streets again for the next planned protest on Saturday, as they have for a series of irregular weekend demonstrations since December.
Rather than jailing Mikhail Prokhorov, the Kremlin nudged the tycoon to run against Mr. Putin, hoping his presence on the ballot would be an outlet for the building middle-class anger. Mr. Zyuganov and Mr. Zhirinovsky also ran, and all three loudly complained later about the way the election was run, complaints that were broadcast (although minimized as irrelevant to the result) in state media. It was yet another acknowledgement by the authorities that the old methods of just stamping out all dissent no longer work.
Following the vote, the outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev (a Putin creation who is now bowing aside to allow his boss to return to the top job) called for an examination of whether the banned People's Freedom Party – a liberal opposition movement – should be allowed to legally register. Even more surprisingly, Mr. Medvedev also ordered a review of Mr. Khodorkovsky's sentence.
The Kremlin knows Mr. Putin is going to have to change his tactics, or he will face even greater opposition in the future. Politics is back in Russia. The street protests have already accomplished that much.