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Vladimir Putin is almost certain to win a third Kremlin term in 2012 polls but faces a rougher ride than in his first two mandates amid economic problems in Russia and rumblings of discontent, analysts said Sunday.
His acceptance at a ruling party congress to run for the presidency in March polls marked a dramatic comeback to the country's top post for the former KGB officer who already served two consecutive terms between 2000-2008.
Putin, currently prime minister, consolidated political power and presided over an era of economic stability on the back of high energy prices after inheriting Russia from an ailing Boris Yeltsin.
Even though he curtailed basic freedoms and emasculated civil society, many Russians remain grateful to Putin for returning a degree of self-confidence to a nation that had at times appeared on the brink of collapse in the 1990s.
But his third term may prove trickier than the first two, analysts said.
Russia is dangerously vulnerable to a global downturn due to its dependence on hydrocarbon exports while the belated explosion in Internet use in Russia is allowing citizens to criticise the authorities outside a largely muzzled press.
"Putin's decision to run for president is a sign that difficulties are in store for Russia," said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.
"I believe that Putin's decision is an indirect sign that not all is good in the political environment of our country and nothing good awaits us in the future."
Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin appeared to acknowledge on Sunday that Putin's new term would be different as Russia could no longer pretend it was cordoned off from economic problems elsewhere in the world.
"Of course the next term will be different (from the previous mandates) as we are living not isolated from the world and the actions of the Russian leadership will depend above all on the global economic situation," he said.
Putin will have to guide Russia's $1.5-trillion-economy through a potential new global recession that economists say could be compounded by Russia's own domestic ills.
Despite repeated pledges by incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev to modernise Russia, the economy remains dogged above all by corruption that still pervades all aspects of life.
"No-one will seek to reduce the scale of graft -- it would mean robbing the ruling class," said economist Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute of Globalization Problems.
In its corruption perceptions index survey released last year, Transparency International ranked Russia 154th out of 178 countries putting it on a par with Papua New Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville and Laos.
Russia has already endured a dark summer that exposed the dreadful state of its post-Soviet infrastructure, including the sinking of a Volga cruise ship that killed 122 and three major plane crashes that killed more than 90 people including a top hockey team.
"There will be serious problems," predicted Ruslan Grinberg, head of the Institute of Economy of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Catastrophes will happen more often," he told AFP.
If Putin stays in power for another two terms until 2024, Putin will overtake Leonid Brezhnev as the longest serving Moscow leader since Josef Stalin, a period that could also risk him overstaying his welcome.
"The ruling clan demonstrated its orientation towards lifelong rule," said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The authorities themselves have begun to prepare Russia for its own Arab Spring."
Russia's growing middle class now turns to the Internet -- in particular the wildly popular blogging site Live Journal -- to vent its discontent on problems ranging from a demographic decline to persisting Caucasus unrest.
A survey by the Public Opinion Fund pollster released this spring found that 52.9 million people -- or roughly one in three -- use the Internet in Russia.
"When you stop surviving and start living you begin to ponder why the world is unfair," said Delyagin in reference to the behaviour of the middle classes.
Yuliy Nisnevich, a political science professor at the Higher School of Economics, even predicted that Russia was heading for a cataclysmic scenario that could eventually lead to its break-up.
"There will be an explosion," he said. "It is just unclear so far what will trigger it," he said. "The country could collapse just like the Soviet Union did."