MOSCOW - Vladimir V. Putin's return to the Russian presidency on Monday will technically give him greater powers than he wielded as prime minister. The irony is that his position will be arguably weaker than at any time since he first came to power more than 12 years ago.
In part because of the heavy-handed way in which he reclaimed the presidency, Putin finds himself the leader of a changed country, where a growing portion of society is no longer willing to silently tolerate a government that denies its citizens a political voice.
How Putin, who turns 60 this year, responds to the calls for free elections and accountable government will help define his next six years in office and to a great extent determine the future of Russia itself.
The pressure on Putin began to build in the months ahead of the March presidential election as a series of protests drew tens of thousands into the streets of Moscow. Although the number of protesters has dwindled since the vote and expectations were low for an opposition rally on Sunday, the protest movement has led to real change in Russia.
In response to the demonstrations, the Kremlin has agreed to allow more political competition in future elections. National television channels have slightly opened up, expanding beyond their role as a Kremlin propaganda arm. Even some members of the Kremlin-controlled parliament have become more willing to challenge Kremlin legislation.
Equally significant, the protests have roused a new generation of Russians out of their political apathy and brought forth a civic awakening that already has led to greater involvement in local politics.
During the last four years, the presence of the younger and seemingly more liberal President Dmitry A. Medvedev allowed people to hope that change was possible, even though everyone understood that Putin was still in charge as prime minister.
Medvedev promised to fight corruption, make the courts more independent and modernize the economy, but in the end nothing really improved. His empty words only made the problems more obvious and fed social dissatisfaction.
When Medvedev announced in September that he was stepping aside to allow Putin to take back the presidency, many Russians were offended by the implication that their votes were considered just a formality.
Two months later, Putin was greeted with catcalls at a Moscow sports arena, an unprecedented rebuke that an opposition leader described as "the end of an era."
The anger burst out onto the streets after a December parliamentary election that was won by Putin's party with the help of what observers said was widespread fraud.
Putin seemed stunned by the sudden outburst of discontent, but he quickly fought back. He portrayed the protest leaders as in the pay of the Americans and intent on bringing about a revolution that would take Russia back to the instability and humiliations of the 1990s. With Kremlin-controlled television still the main source of information for most Russians, many believed him.
Even some who have soured on Putin say he is the only one capable of leading the country. They see no viable alternative and believe that Russia needs a strong hand.