“We have shown that nobody can impose anything on us,” he said, his voice rising as he once again sounded his campaign theme of enemies here and abroad — including the United States — trying to destroy Russia.
But Putin, who captured a reported 64 percent of the vote, finds himself in unfamiliar circumstances. Since December, he has been the target of huge demonstrations in which many thousands have found the courage and solidarity to speak out against him, and the outcome of Sunday’s election is unlikely to quell their demands for an honest government that listens to them.
The protesters, newly enraged by reports of violations Sunday, are still untested in commitment and strategy. No one knows whether Putin will crack down and they will refuse to submit, or whether he will seek accommodation and gradually reform the authoritarian regime as they hope. One test will shape up Monday, when thousands plan to demonstrate on Moscow’s Pushkin Square.
“This was a disgrace, not an election,” tweeted Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the socialist Left Front. “They again spit in our face. We will be on the streets tomorrow!”
The authorities gave permission last week for protest rallies Monday and Thursday; Thursday is a holiday here in honor of International Women’s Day. But if official tolerance diminishes, confrontation could easily follow.
The 59-year-old Putin, trained as a KGB agent, has cast himself as the all-powerful leader and savior of the nation, immune to criticism. He won 71.3 percent of the vote when he last ran for president, in 2004, but his prestige suffered a blow in December, when the ruling United Russia party won just under 50 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, a humiliating defeat after getting 64 percent in 2007.
Now, people no longer fear protesting against Putin, and he is ridiculed on the Internet, in a way thought impossible only a few months ago. He has revealed few signs of how — or whether — he will be able to adapt to the new political reality.
When he first became president in 2000, Russians were impoverished, still trying to find their way out of the old Soviet system, uncertain of what lay ahead. Politics had a bad name, and most ignored it.
But a growing, more prosperous middle class has begun to care. Thousands of Russians nationwide signed up to monitor the election Sunday. All day, activists reported instance after instance of multiple voting, abuse of absentee ballots and obstruction of election observers. One monitoring group, Golos, said it had received 3,000 complaints.