MOSCOW — Stung by ongoing protests, Vladimir Putin and his supporters have responded with mass rallies across Russia ahead of Sunday's presidential election - a tactic that seems to have paid off.
"We've seen an intense election campaign by Putin, and it looks to have been effective," said Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. "It's almost a given now that he will win in the first round of voting."
A series of pro-Putin rallies culminated in Moscow Feb. 23, when Mr. Putin, the prime minister, took to the stage at Luzhniki Stadium to urge tens of thousands of supporters to "defend the fatherland" from what he has called a U.S.-backed plot to provoke regime change in Russia.
"The battle for Russia goes on, and we will win," he told a crowd estimated at 140,000.
The opposition argues that government employees were coerced into attending that and previous rallies.
Although some of the affection for Mr. Putin at the stadium was clearly genuine, people interviewed by The Washington Times said they did not attend of their own free will.
"I'm fed up with all this," said one participant who refused to identify himself. "I'd tell you why I'm here, but I don't want any trouble."
Mr. Putin, 59, served as president from 2000 to 2008, when he was forced to step down by constitutional limits on consecutive terms.
He handed over power to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who announced last autumn that he would not seek re-election and would back Mr. Putin for president.
The announcement evoked resentment among Russia's nascent middle class and the first stirrings of dissent, which later erupted into street protests after suspected vote fraud in December's parliamentary elections won by Mr. Putin's United Russia party.
No runoff expected
Still, Mr. Putin remains Russia's most popular politician, a standing that his critics says is the result of tight Kremlin control over media, political parties and the electoral process.
"He's consistently eviscerated all other centers of power," said Ms. Lipman. "He's suppressed and/or taken under control of parliament, political parties, regional governors, big business and major media. Plus he's effectively secured the political arena from any other unwanted players."
Despite this grip on power, opinion polls by independent organizations in the weeks running up to the elections suggested that Mr. Putin could be forced into a runoff.
But state-run and independent pollsters now say Mr. Putin will win about 60 percent of the vote.
"It's not of vital importance for Putin to win in the first round, but he would certainly prefer this," said Sergei Mikheyev of the Moscow-based Center for Political Assessment. "But the opposition will claim the polls have been falsified, whatever happens."
"They have no other way forward," he said. "They have been saying the people won't vote for Putin, but it looks, in fact, as if they will."
Mr. Putin said Wednesday that the opposition would resort to dirty tricks to tarnish the election results and that plans are under way to stuff ballot boxes and even order the "sacrificial murder" of a prominent figure to provoke more demonstrations.
"They will bump someone off and then blame the authorities for it. These sorts of people are ready to do anything - I am not exaggerating," said the prime minister, a former KGB official.
Leaders of Russia's diverse protest movement have pledged to take to the streets in the days after the vote, and police Wednesday prevented the distribution of tents to opposition supporters who plan to camp out in Moscow to protest Mr. Putin's re-election.
"No one knows what is going to happen after the elections," protest leader Yevgenia Chirikova said. "But a certain process is under way that is unstoppable.
"People have ceased to be afraid and are going out onto the streets," she said. "People have started to laugh at Putin. And that, you know, is fatal for a politician in Russia."
Need for change
Mr. Putin's expected return to the Kremlin could keep him in power until 2024 because the presidential term has been extended from four years to six.
However, analysts predict that rising dissatisfaction means Mr. Putin will face hard times in the near future, making a second term unlikely.
"He's got a maximum of one term," said Fraser Cameron, head of the Brussels-based EU-Russia think tank. "But much will depend on how the economy develops. If he gets continuing oil prices of above $120 [a barrel], he can hang on. But he's got so many promises he can't fulfill in terms of pensions, social spending and defense and so on.
"Probably by this summer there will be rising social discontent when people realize that these promises will not be fulfilled," he said. "The genie is out of the bottle: He has already lost Moscow and St. Petersburg, and he's fallen back on the heartland."
Even among those who praise Mr. Putin's achievements during his 12 years in power, there is an awareness that he must change to survive.
"Putin stabilized the country, and he gave the people back some dignity," said Alexander Rahr, director of the Berlin-based Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia. "But the Russian people have changed a lot since 2000, and he needs to change as well."
Mr. Putin's re-election is unlikely to change Russia's foreign policies significantly, but relations with the West could deteriorate further. He also has rejected President Obama's attempt to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations, analysts say.
In December, Mr. Putin accused the United States of being behind the ongoing protests and said opposition leaders had acted on a "signal" from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"It's obvious he has been pulling the strings," said Mr. Cameron. "But his anti-U.S. rhetoric has not gone unnoticed in Washington and Brussels and could make it tricky once he's back in the Kremlin to restore good relations with Western leaders."