RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Russia, some 20,000 people took to the streets today in protest against Vladimir Putin, a day before his inauguration as president of that country. They're opposed to what will be a third term for Putin, even though the Russian constitution limits presidents to two four-year terms. But here's the catch: that restriction is for two consecutive terms. It doesn't rule out a third term if someone else holds the presidency in the interim. Someone like Dmitri Medvedev, who was elected president after Putin, but conveniently opted not to run for a second term. So, Putin is back. But as NPR's Mike Shuster reports, the Russian leader is likely to find himself leading a very different Russia.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Vladimir Putin has said very little since his re-election in March. He has put away the sharp-tongued, profane, tough-guy image that worked well for him during his earlier eight years as president. For the last four years, Putin has been running the government as prime minister, and he was restrained when he addressed the Russian parliament last month.

PRESIDENT-ELECT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Russian spoken)

SHUSTER: We've come to the end of the post-Soviet period, he told the deputies. Ahead lies a new stage in Russia's development that can ensure prosperity to citizens for decades ahead. Since he was re-elected, Putin's public comments have been long on generalizations like this and short on specifics - perhaps because his transition to a third term has been rocked by unexpectedly large and loud protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTORS CHANTING)

SHUSTER: Russia without Putin and Putin to Prison were slogans that tens of thousands chanted. The anti-Putin movement grew rapidly, surprising his supporters and opponents alike. It forced Putin to rally his own troops in demonstrations like this:

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

SHUSTER: Pro-Putin speakers trumpeting that the ranks of his voters would grow. That did not happen. Quite the opposite, says Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center here in Moscow.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA: Russia started to ignore him, to reject him and the most important thing, he lost Moscow. He lost the most educated, urban population. He is the president of minority, and his legitimacy among the educated layers of the society and among the big cities is definitely crumbling.

SHUSTER: Shevtsova and many others believe the official results giving Putin 60 percent of the vote were based on fraud. As for Dmitri Medvedev, many were shocked he declined to run for a second term. He might have been re-elected. Often, he was seen as the liberal to Putin's cold conservative, as in a television interview two weeks ago.

PRESIDENT DMITRI MEDVEDEV: (Russian spoken)

SHUSTER: If we are talking about those who protested against the positions of the authorities, I respect their rights, Medvedev said. I don't agree with everything they say, but they deserve respect. For many who have taken to the streets, like political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, there is little respect for Medvedev.

ANDREI PIONTKOVSKY: It's obvious to any observer in Russia and abroad that Medvedev was actually a stooge, keeping warm the seat of presidency for Putin return now.

SHUSTER: Sometimes it seems there is a tendency to exaggerate the nature of Vladimir Putin's past record. Piontkovsky first labeled him a dictator, but then checked himself.

PIONTKOVSKY: If he was dictator like Stalin or Hitler, we wouldn't sit in my kitchen and discuss his rule.

SHUSTER: The same goes for Lilia Shevtsova. Much has changed in Russia for the better, she says.

SHEVTSOVA: I have a freedom to talk to you, and we can discuss Putin's leadership, and I'm not going to be in prison for that. I have freedom to travel across Russia, and I have freedom to emigrate if I chose to. I have freedom to read Internet, and I have freedom to discuss Putin and complain on the streets with my friends.

SHUSTER: But the mass media are not free in Russia, and people like Shevtsova and Piontkovsky are banned from appearing on television. The government's control of television is near absolute. The long list of complaints about Putin rarely reaches a mass audience. Those complaints include charges of widespread corruption, abuses by the police and the judiciary, and ballot rigging. It is no longer the old Soviet Union to be sure, but Putin's Russia is not yet a fully fledged democracy either. Tomorrow, with Putin once again president, more and more Russians are willing to take to the streets to say so. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Moscow.

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