Vladimir Putin was Monday set for another six years in power after winning a record victory in Russia’s presidential election but so far only allies have congratulated him as Moscow’s relations with the West disintegrate.
Putin, who has ruled Russia for almost two decades, recorded his best ever election performance with 76.67 percent of the vote but rejected the possibility of staying in power indefinitely.
The opposition said the results were rigged but Putin’s supporters said Western pressure on Putin including Britain’s accusations in a spy row prompted Russians to close ranks behind their leader.
Opposition and independent monitors reported ballot stuffing and other cases of alleged fraud as the Kremlin pushed for a high turnout to give greater legitimacy to Putin’s historic fourth term.
Putin, who is now set to extend his rule until at least 2024 and is already Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin, ruled out remaining president for life.
“Listen to me. It seems to me that what you are saying is a bit funny,” he told reporters Sunday night when asked if he saw himself running for president again in 2030.
“What, am I going to sit here until I am 100 years old? No.”
The Russian strongman ran against seven candidates, but his most vocal opponent Alexei Navalny was barred from the ballot for legal reasons and the final outcome was never in doubt.
“I see in this (result) the confidence and hope of our people,” a beaming Putin told supporters on a square next to the Kremlin Sunday night.
Putin’s relaxed mood stood in stark contrast to the 2012 election night when a teary-eyed Putin claimed victory despite huge protests against his Kremlin comeback.
‘Demonisation of Putin’
Spokesman for Putin’s campaign Andrei Kondrashov said that at more than 67 percent, turnout was 8 to 10 percentage points higher than expected.
“Britain should be thanked for that,” he told Russian journalists. “They once again started piling pressure on us when we needed to mobilise.”
“The demonisation of Putin in the West has had an opposite effect in Russia,” tweeted senator Alexei Pushkov.
Putin received more than 92 percent of the vote in Crimea, annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Most of the voters AFP spoke to said they voted for Putin despite a litany of problems like poverty and poor healthcare, praising his foreign policies.
Russia faces increasing global isolation over its interventions in Ukraine and in Syria with a fresh round of US sanctions over election meddling in 2016.
In the runup to the vote, a new crisis broke out with the West as Britain implicated Putin in the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal with a Soviet-designed nerve agent.
Authorities also used both the carrot and the stick to boost engagement in the polls.
Selfie competitions, giveaways, food festivals and children’s entertainers were laid on at polling stations in a bid to entice voters.
“People went to polls in festive moods and brought kids along — like in the old days” in the Soviet era, wrote Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
But employees of state and private companies and students reported coming under pressure to vote.
According to central election commission data with 99.8 percent of ballots counted, Putin took 76.67 percent of the vote, well ahead of his nearest competitor Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, who was on 11.79 percent.
Ultra-nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky took around 5.66 percent, former reality TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak was on 1.67 percent, while veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky received just over 1 percent of the vote.
Navalny — who called on his supporters to boycott the “fake” vote and sent more than 33,000 observers across the country to see how official turnout figures differed from those of monitors — said there had been “unprecedented violations”.
Navalny’s opposition movement and the non-governmental election monitor Golos reported ballot stuffing, repeat voting and Putin supporters being bussed into polling stations en masse.
Navalny said his team planned to stage protests but released few details.
The electoral commission dismissed most concerns, saying monitors sometimes misinterpret what they see.
Runner-up Grudinin said the elections had been “dishonest.”
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has lived in Russia since leaking classified information about the US government’s surveillance programmes, tweeted a video apparently showing ballot stuffing in a Russian school.
“The ballot stuffing seen today in Moscow and elsewhere in the Russian election is an effort to steal the influence of 140+ million people,” he said.
“Demand justice; demand laws and courts that matter.”
Putin’s last term?
Among the few leaders to congratulate Putin so far was Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has just been handed a second term himself and has gained a path to indefinite rule after presidential term limits were lifted last week.
“China is willing to work with Russia to keep promoting China-Russia relations to a higher level, provide driving force for respective national development in both countries, and promote regional and global peace and tranquility,” Xi said.
In Latin America, the presidents of the leftist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia both effusively congratulated Putin on his “overwhelming” victory.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro also commended “the glorious Russian people for its display of civic duty,” while Bolivia’s Evo Morales said Putin’s victory “guarantees geopolitical equilibrium and world peace before the onslaught of imperialism”.
Since first being elected president in 2000, Putin has stamped his total authority on the world’s biggest country, muzzling opposition, putting television under state control and reasserting Moscow’s standing abroad.
The 65-year-old former KGB officer used an otherwise lacklustre presidential campaign to emphasise Russia’s role as a major world power, boasting of its “invincible” new nuclear weapons in a pre-election speech.
Putin’s previous Kremlin term was marked by a crackdown on the opposition after huge protests, the Ukraine conflict, military intervention in Syria and the introduction of Western sanctions that contributed to a fall in living standards.
“There is no feeling that another six years will become Putin’s last in power,” liberal newspaper Vedomosti said in an editorial.