Russia is in the midst of unprecedented protests against Vladimir Putin, the designated Presidential candidate of the United Russia Party for the upcoming Presidential elections. For the past 12 years he has dominated the political scene in Russia and despite the protests, he is still the strongest politician in Russia today.
Undoubtedly Putin's popularity has plummeted drastically in the last few weeks. However, his popularity is still more than 40%, much ahead than other veteran contenders for the presidency. Furthermore, he is way ahead than leaders like president Barack Obama.
However, there is every possibility that Putin may not receive the 50% threshold required to win the elections in the first round itself as he did in both the elections in 2000 and 2004 and would have certainly done in 2008 had he been able to compete. Nevertheless, as it stands, he will eventually win a second round contest.
The most probable contender to come second in the first round is the veteran communist, Gennady Zyuganov. If it comes to a contest between the two men, Putin will almost certainly become the winner.
Here lies a dilemma faced by the Western powers vis-a-vis Russia. The West hardly prefers Putin who has raised his country back to a superpower status capable of challenging the West. It was Putin who returned Russia to her past glories. Putin's achievements are perhaps even more far reaching than any Russian leader before him (except Peter the Great). Many Czars and Soviet leaders expanded Russia's military capabilities while giving comparatively little attention to the welfare of the people. Under Putin, even though the gap between the rich and poor may have increased, the people generally benefited economically. The middle class has become larger and stronger. The Russian economy is stronger than ever in her entire history. Even though Russia was not a democratic state by Western standards, Putin may call upon Niccolo Machiavelli for his defense by arguing that the ends justifies the means. Until recently, many Russians did agree with him.
So, if not Putin, who else? The leading contender is the communist Zyuganov. Imagine Russia going communist? Hardly a possibility the West would prefer. They may prefer Zhirinovsky, but the Russians will not elect the repeatedly unsuccessful presidential bidder over Putin.
The presidential bid by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov may be what the West was waiting for. The best they can hope for is Prokhorov becoming a serious challenger to Putin. However, given the nature of Russian politics, it is a highly unlikely scenario.
Come what may, the Western nations will almost certainly have to settle with the best alternative: Vladimir Putin himself.