When Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went to the polls in Russia's weekend presidential election, he accidentally dropped his ballot paper on the floor before casting his vote.
Shortly after he left the polling station, activists from the Ukrainian women's rights group Femen showed up, stripped off their shirts, and tried to steal the ballot box while chanting "Putin is a thief" before being hauled off by police.
Minor indignities for the Russian leader, to be sure. But the symbolism was lost on few.
Putin claimed a decisive victory in the first round of the March 4 election, which was marred by claims of fraud by his opponents and independent observers. But the confident aura of invincibility and unchallenged authority that characterized his first two terms in the Kremlin appears to have faded beyond recognition, analysts say.
"Putin reclaims the presidency, as everybody assumed he would. But he doesn't necessarily reclaim the authority he had in his first two terms of office," Nikolas Gvosdev, a longtime Russia watcher and professor of international security at the U.S. Naval War College, says. "He won the election but hasn't claimed the authority he thought he would."
In contrast to his rise to power over a decade ago when he was hailed as a tough-minded savior who would bring stability to Russia after the chaos of the 1990s, Putin now appears to be a diminished figure, analysts say.
He must govern a deeply fractured country in which significant numbers of its fledgling middle class see his return to power as illegitimate -- and have taken to the streets to make their case. He is faced with an elite that is bitterly split over the need to reform and modernize the economy and political system.
As Edward Lucas, longtime correspondent for the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes The West" notes, during his campaign he made promises of lavish spending to win support that the Russian economy simply can't sustain.
"I think Putin has won the battle but he's lost the war. And he's lost the war in two senses," Lucas says. "The promises he made in the election campaign are unsustainable. He can't deliver them with oil at $110 a barrel, so he is going to be disappointing his supporters. He's also lost the war that he can't convince the protesters that Russia is on track toward modernization and a pluralistic political system."
Many in the Russian elite, most notably former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, have stressed that the Russian economy needs to be diversified away from its dependence on oil and gas exports and that the authoritarian political system needs to be opened up and liberalized to allow innovation in society to flourish.
But such reforms threaten powerful interests, most notably those of the "siloviki," the cadre of security service veterans who are close to Putin. Many siloviki, like the powerful Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Sechin, have close ties to the energy sector and are adept at protecting their bureaucratic interests.
Lucas points out that true reform would lead to uncomfortable questions for many in Putin's inner circle over issues of corruption and a spate of unsolved killings like the October 2006 assassination of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the July 2009 killing of human rights activist Natalya Estemirova.
"The fundamental point is that any real reform will have to include the rule of law and open media. And as soon as you have the rule of law and open media you will get very difficult questions about Mr. Putin and his close associates," Lucas says. "How did they get so rich? Where did all the money go and who killed all these people. As soon as you get a political system that is open not just in a sham sense but in a real one, people are going to ask these questions and want answers."
Moreover, the rigid, disciplined, and top-down political system Putin designed -- called the "power vertical" by Russian officials -- is showing cracks as latent divisions become more manifest.
'Going To Be Messy'
A divided elite, analysts say, opens up the possibility for the protest movement to push harder for political and economic reform. Gvosdev notes that it also allows for independent centers of power and influence to develop in society.
"There is a sense now that the vertical of power is no longer absolute," Gvosdev says. "[There is a sense] that you can defy the vertical of power, that you negotiate with the vertical of power. You can carve out space from it and say, 'Here is the zone I have carved and now you have to negotiate with me.'"
Gvosdev adds, however, that it remains an open question whether the protest movement, itself deeply divided between Western-style liberals, socialists, and nationalists, can take advantage of the opening.
"For the protest movement, do they organize around a set of achievable objectives so they can sustain the pressure for those objectives? Or does the protest movement begin to splinter?" Gvosdev says. "Then you have the possibility for [the Kremlin to pursue] a divide and conquer approach."
The result, Lucas says, will likely be a protracted period of low-intensity struggle between Putin and his inner circle and an increasingly assertive civil society.
"I think it is going to be messy," Lucas says. "The opposition is too weak to win. I don't think [the authorities] have the capabilities to do a real crackdown. I don't think the authorities can put them down. So I think we'll have a long and inconclusive tug-of-war. The big question is: What tricks do the authorities play to try to get out of it."
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