Putin wins election as Russian president; opponents claim widespread fraud

March 4, 2012

Vladimir Putin won the Russian presidency with an overwhelming number of votes as predicted Sunday, but he returns to that office with his strong hand weakened and many of his countrymen far more assertive and ambitious than when he first took power 12 years ago.

With the Kremlin towers gleaming majestically behind him, Putin strode onto a stage Sunday night to declare victory — with only about 30 percent of the vote counted and charges of vote-rigging resounding. Astonishingly, a tear slid slowly from his right eye as he stood before a cheering crowd. Then he uttered a fiery speech more in keeping with the tough-guy image he has so carefully cultivated. He later blamed the tear on the wind.

“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.

Kremlin’s ‘jumpiness’

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.

Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger, tweeted that Sunday’s voting was as flawed as the December parliamentary elections, which set off the unrest.

That suddenly assertive citizenry has rattled the Kremlin. The city of Moscow brought in 6,500 additional police officers over the weekend to patrol the streets, some from as far away as St. Petersburg. “The scale of the security force deployment,” noted Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and security expert who is visiting Moscow, “does suggest a certain jumpiness on the Kremlin’s part.”

Criticism abounds

The protesters say they are at the beginning of a long-term effort to change Russia’s political culture — away from the corruption and the “power vertical” that have marked Putin’s 12 years of rule. After two four-year terms as president, term limitations prevented him from running again, so Putin picked Dmitry Medvedev to replace him. Medvedev made Putin prime minister, but Putin remained the power behind the throne. With the presidential term now six years, he could stay in power until 2018 — and then seek another term.

The protesters did not coalesce behind any of the four candidates running against Putin, who were allowed on the ballot only with his permission and so were not seen as real opposition. But Sunday night, Gennady Zyuganov, the longtime head of the Communist Party, who came in second with about 17 percent of the vote, and newcomer Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire oligarch and owner of the New Jersey Nets, who reportedly got about 7 percent, denounced the conduct of the election and called it unfair.

The government made an effort to show that it took the complaints about the December elections seriously. It spent more than $400 million to install web cameras in a majority of the country’s 95,000 polling places, and about 600,000 citizens signed up to watch the webcasts from their computers.

Critics, however, said the cameras were ineffective because they were trained on voters casting ballots, rather than on officials counting them. And, they said, much of the unfairness began long before voting day, with Putin preventing the opposition leadership from developing and controlling who could run for office.

Putin was considered likely to win without vote-rigging, but the Kremlin had made it clear that it was determined to avoid a second round. That meant Putin needed more than 50 percent of the votes.

The result of all the machinations is that Russians may doubt Putin’s legitimacy. “Everyone will believe what he or she is inclined to believe,” said Grigory Golosov, a St. Petersburg political scientist. “Some will believe the elections are honest, and some will believe they are not, and there will be no way of proving it one way or the other.”

This election was ‘different’

In Moscow, where some of the worst violations occurred in December, the heavy turnout of election observers appeared to have put a damper on blatant vote fraud. Steady streams of voters were met by as many as a dozen monitors at each polling place.

Even as voters said they recognized that Putin was headed for victory, they expressed a determination Sunday to treat the election as a beginning of their efforts to build democracy.

“These elections are different from all the others,” said Julia Stavskaya, a 40-year-old who works for an education company. “People are taking it more seriously.”

She cast her ballot at School No. 648 in northern Moscow, where voters were greeted by folk and march music in the lobby and vendors sold honey, packages of panty hose and hair ornaments.

Stavskaya was complimentary about Putin. “He’s an experienced politician,” she said. “He can do anything, and I believe he will win. It will be fair because he has done a lot for the country.”

But as she headed down the hall, homeward, she turned around. “I voted for Prokhorov,” she said. “I wanted to give him a chance.”

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