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.”