Rallying support: Muscovites protest against the decision to not register any opposition candidates for the Moscow city council Duma elections. Picture: Getty Images/Mikhail Svetlov
Rallying support: Muscovites protest against the decision to not register any opposition candidates for the Moscow city council Duma elections. Picture: Getty Images/Mikhail Svetlov

Russian President Vladimir Putin has never been one to hide his lights: Putin the bare-chested equestrian; the Russian Indiana Jones, wet-suited and weighed down by the ancient urns he happened upon while diving; Putin on ice, leading his hockey team to victory; the master potter; the crack shot; the maverick pilot; the tiger whisperer …

His talents are such that he doesn’t seem to have been troubled by much in 20 years in power — not Chechen terrorists, Ukrainian territorial claims, or British sovereignty (trip to Salisbury Cathedral, anyone?). Or term limits.

With some fancy political footwork, Putin switched seats with prime minister Dmitry Medvedev when he reached his two-consecutive-term limit in 2008. After a period in prime ministerial purgatory, he returned triumphant to the Grand Kremlin Palace in 2012.

Now he would appear to be on the back foot. It began as a trickle: weekend marches in Moscow, with protesters peacefully making the outrageous demand that opposition candidates be allowed to stand in next month’s city council election. By this weekend, it was a movement of 50,000. The demands are localised, but they’re indicative of increasing dissatisfaction with the limits of Russian democratic space.

Putin’s administration isn’t entirely sure what to do — though in a special irony it has lambasted Google for promoting the protests on YouTube, and warned against "interference" in its politics. It’s tried the stick, arresting more than 1,000 protesters in a day; and the carrot, organising a street festival to distract protesters. That failed, says The Guardian, when musicians joined the demonstration instead.

Somehow, acceding to a demand for an authentic democratic process would seem to be a bridge too far.

What the protests demonstrate — and what must surely concern Putin — is that half-freedom carries the seeds of its own destruction.

It invites a push for the full gamut of liberties — and, with that, a pushback; a garroting of the democratic space.

Given that tanks in the streets don’t make for great PR — and that, bar another Medvedev switcheroo, Putin is on his last presidential life — one hopes he will look to keep the people onside, offering some electoral reform as a salve.