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Supporters of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are seen through a fisheye lense before a rally in central Moscow on March 5, 2012.

Pawel Kopczynsky/Reuters

As sure as the winter snow in Moscow, Vladimir Putin is back as president. But in the wake of mass protests after the widely discredited December parliamentary election instead of the coronation march expected in September of 2011 when he and his hand-picked President, Dmitry Medvedev, reached a private deal to swap positions, Mr. Putin is returning to the Kremlin. The seminal question is: What will he do now?

In just a few months, Russia has become a very different place, where a clash of cultures and contrasting visions for the future have created seemingly irreconcilable divisions. The hundreds of thousands of people – a true grassroots movement – who have poured into the streets, in the coldest weather, demanding democracy and dignity, gainsay the cynical cliché that, in Russia, past is prologue. Consequently, as inevitable as Mr. Putin's victory may have seemed, it is equally deeply flawed.

This presidential election may turn out to be the last of its kind, for either Russia will become more authoritarian or Putinism will have to give way to democratic modernization. In a sense, this election was not only corrupt but anomalous. It's not merely a matter that the independent Golos election monitor and others have reported thousands of violations and that they witnessed large-scale carousel voting – where people cast multiple ballots at different polling stations – to ensure that Mr. Putin got past the 50-per-cent mark. (In 2004, he received 71 per cent of the vote, compared with Sunday's 64 per cent.)

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Crucially, the election was deeply undermined many months before the casting of ballots when Mr. Putin and his cohorts prevented capable democrats such as Boris Nemtsov and Grigory Yavlinsky from registering and ensured that only the hapless and the hopeless could contest as opposition presidential candidates. With the regime's control over television and campaign funding adding to this profound electoral distortion, the Kremlin still felt the need for widespread ballot cheating, showing both contempt for, and fear of, the grassroots democratic movement.

There are now two Russias and an enormous opportunity for this long suffering country to make a leap into the future. On one hand, there is inertia and nostalgia for a past that can't be restored, and for an authoritarian superpower future that can't be attained. On the other, we see the rise of an energetic class that thinks global, is self-confident and demands government responsiveness, an end to rampant corruption and an entry into the modern world of democracy, combining with an even larger number of people who are just fed up with the way things work and reject Mr. Putin's ritualized ersatz democracy.

Mr. Putin needs to choose. The fundamental issues confronting Russia are ever more accentuated. He may continue to blame external enemies for Russia's problems, but this is not a substitute for policy. He now has a historic window. He can address the corrosive corruption, foster a genuine system of rule of law, diversify a uni-dimensional economy and encourage a realistic foreign policy more congruent with Russia's reduced circumstances and more in tune with mutually beneficial relations with neighbours and the major democracies.

For this, he will need to change both policies and personnel. He will shuffle the ministries, of course, but, unless he abandons the weak and discredited Mr. Medvedev and brings in a capable reformer such as Alexei Kudrin as prime minister, his policies will lack credibility.

Otherwise, super bloggers such as Alexei Navalny and a re-energized democratic opposition leading an increasingly engaged middle class and dissatisfied citizens from across the political spectrum, who no longer accept a trade-off between stability and freedom and appreciate that Russia can't join the increasing global economic competition and co-operation with the politics of fear and the distorted economy they have, will continue to ramp up the pressure.

If Mr. Putin chooses to lead a peaceful transition, as those we have seen in most of Eastern Europe, it will be painful but doable. If he chooses to attack and repress, Russia will enter a new "time of troubles."

Mr. Putin may yet pleasantly surprise us. Unfortunately, his past performance also gives us cause to worry.

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Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto, is the author, most recently, of NATO-Russia Relations in the Twenty-First Century .

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