The outcome of the vote would appear to be a foregone conclusion since First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev received a powerful endorsement from incumbent Vladimir Putin. The country's ruling party, Unified Russia, likewise nominated Medvedev as their candidate on December 17 at a giant congress just a stone's throw from the Kremlin. President Putin used that televised occasion to announce his readiness to serve as prime minister if Medvedev becomes president.
Medvedev's two main opponents are likely to be Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist politician at the helm of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Both have been fixtures in post-Soviet politics and can be expected to see modest, if respectable, returns in March.
Other presidential aspirants undaunted by the prospect of running against Putin's anointed heir have until the end of this week to register their candidacies.
Opposition Prospects Dim
The liberal opposition, however, is expected to fare poorly in the vote. "The parliamentary elections demonstrated that the liberals are likely to gather a combined total of 6 or 7 percent, if they have a single candidate," says Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation think tank in Moscow. "That's not the kind of figure that can seriously influence elections."
Plagued by internal divisions and external pressure, Russian liberals have seen their popularity plummet under Putin's tenure. Russia's two largest liberal parties, the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and Yabloko, failed to win any seats in parliamentary elections this month, which handed Putin's Unified Russia 64 percent of the vote.
Disagreements over the choice of a single presidential candidate have created deep rifts within the liberal opposition. Its leaders have in principle agreed on uniting behind a joint candidate but have yet to settle on a choice. The Union of Rightist Forces on December 17 fielded Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister during the 1990s, as its candidate. Two other liberals are running for the presidency: Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky and Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who now heads the Russian Popular Democratic Union. All three have said they are willing to withdraw their candidacy in favor of a single, agreed opposition candidate.
But for observers like Volk, seeing is believing. "[Kasyanov] doesn't appear like someone who might drop his candidacy in favor of someone else," Volk says. "Moreover, I have the strong impression -- an impression that is confirmed by some other political analysts -- that Kasyanov is a Kremlin project. His aim is to weaken liberal forces, to prevent the emergence of a force that could consolidate the liberal movement. He is a kind of spoiler."
Registration shenanigans have also severely hampered the liberal opposition's presidential bid. Under Russian law, presidential candidates must hold a congress attended by at least 500 registered supporters. Candidates who are not backed by parliamentary factions are then requested to collect 2 million signatures nationwide by January 16 before they can get on to the ballot paper.
But a key opposition leader, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, was forced to drop from the presidential race after a series of venues refused to host his congress -- a twist he blamed on Russian authorities. As a result, Kasparov missed the deadline for nonparty candidates to hold their compulsory gathering.
Fellow presidential hopeful Bukovsky ran into the same problem. More than 800 people on December 16 had to line up outside a small Moscow museum to register their support for Bukovsky after another, bigger venue suddenly backed out. The former dissident accused the secret services of orchestrating the incident.
Another major obstacle for the 65-year-old Bukovsky is his dual Russian-British nationality, which could prevent him from running for president. Russian law states that a presidential candidate has to have lived in Russia for the past 10 years in order to be eligible.
Bukovsky, who has lived in Britain since being expelled by Soviet authorities in 1976, has asked the Russian constitutional court to rule on the issue.
"This is a very controversial issue that we've studied together with lawyers," Bukovsky says. "Under the law, nobody is legal, since neither Putin nor Yeltsin in 1996 could have lived in the Russian Federation for 10 years. The Russian Federation was founded in 1991."
Bukovsky spent more than a decade in Soviet camps for exposing the role of psychiatric hospitals in silencing critics. He has described his new political mission as fighting the resurgence of psychiatry as a punitive measure and ensuring that "people are citizens, not subjects."
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report)