The chances of Putin's return are high. He is still the most popular politician in Russia and the most recognizable Russian symbol in the West. It is possible that the latter fact is connected with the very sound of his name, so close to another famous Russian of the early XX century - Rasputin, who up until these days embodies the mystery of the Russian soul, the tragedy of blind faith, charlatanism, the mystique in the fate of the Russia people, debauchery and saturnalia. However, there are other much more important factors that determine the huge interest in Putin: Russia is the largest country in the world; she has an enormous nuclear arsenal, energy resources and, most importantly - is seeking to recover its former glory and the recognition as one of the greatest powers on earth.
The paradox of Mr. Putin is referring to the strange fact that despite a very weak democratic atmosphere and the absence of basic features of a liberal democratic regime, Putin's popularity continues to hold at 70% level. All the mistakes and failures of recent years bypassed him: it seems that few citizens actually care about the high level of corruption and the lack of a strong civil society, as well as about an inefficient health system, poor social support from the state and the low level of civic solidarity, bribery and the lack of sufficiently strong middle class. Islamist terror is still undefeated; the relations with many of the CIS countries are tense, not to mention the August war with Georgia in 2008 and a chronic crisis in relations with Ukraine. In addition to these, the Russians have little concern about a steadily negative Russian image in the developed world - largely the result of tough foreign policy and extremely low predictability of Putin's behavior.
However, we must admit that in several critical areas Putin's Russia has changed beyond recognition.
Firstly, Putin managed to build the so-called "vertikal vlasti", the chain of command, which brought an end to the oligarchic outrage and criminal debauchery of the 90s. It was clear that the boss is sitting in the Kremlin and has a complete and highly effective monopoly on the use of force and the distribution (and redistribution) of financial benefits. Lawlessness of the Yeltsin era has evaporated, as also its main actors; a new generation has obtained a much more clever use of administrative resources and created a reality (or visibility) of responsible and skilled bureaucratic class. Decisions are made according to certain established standards (although, it is not always clear who sets them, and what are these standards) and the mid-level civil servants are personally liable for mistakes and abuse of power.
Secondly, the economic situation has stabilized, largely due to rising energy prices, market liberalization, the consistently pursued fiscal policies and more targeted use of public resources. As a result, more people can afford to make plans for the future, to travel abroad and get high education, to enjoy the affluence of advanced capitalism and to realize their professional aspirations. Russia "has raised up from her knees", paid off the debts of the Soviet Union and is able to conduct international financial policy in its geopolitical interests. Accordingly, the self-esteem of an average citizen has gradually increased as the country recovered its international prestige.
Third, Russia has proved its importance not only as a regional leader, but also as a global political player defending its interests on a global scale. The so-called "lack of recognition" as a superpower has been largely overcome. In its turn, this fact has a direct affect on the self-perception of ordinary Russians whose national pride is growing from year to year.
Fourth, although an active civil society is still unable to break through the asphalt of a repressive governmental pressure, the social solidarity around a number of national ideas and projects has sharply increased during the eight years of Putin's regime. The traditional pillars of Russian statehood - "Autocracy, Nationality, Orthodoxy" -- has partly evolved and adapted to contemporary reality. Russia is characterized by a quasi-personalistic mode which is perceived as a guarantor of political and economic stability; most of the people have a positive attitude towards the idea of a unique "Russian way", as well as towards the idea of "sovereign democracy", repeatedly articulated by both Putin and Medvedev, and the Russian Orthodox Church is actively involved in the process of nation-building.
Among other achievements that can be noted are: the relative calm in Chechnya (although achieved at the cost of the nomination of one thug over all others), much better criminal situation, the growth of foreign investments and so on. From the perspective of an ordinary citizen these successes definitely outweigh the negative features of contemporary Russia. In the light of the mentioned, the main conclusion may be drawn - the vast majority of the Russian society prefers not the procedural legality of the decision making, but its fecundity. This is the point where Russian mentality opposes the Western one; this is the explanation of Putin's extremely high and stable popularity in modern Russia - almost authoritarian, almost liberal.
Most likely, the current situation does not allow us to predict the exact political developments. Anyway, if Putin decides to return, all of the above-mentioned accomplishments would be praised as his personal achievements; up until now president Medvedev has not added some significant breakthrough of his own.
On the other hand, in the eyes of the West the main problem of modern Russia is its unpredictability, which seems to match the same feature of Putin's character. The question asked in 2000 by an Italian journalist: "Who is Mr. Putin?" - still remains open.