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Votes for Putin surged among Russians in the West

Russian Ambassador to Germany Sergey Nechaev addresses the media after casting his vote in Russia's presidential election at the Russian Embassy in Berlin on Sunday. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images)
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MOSCOW — Western politicians are condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reelection as a sham. What’s gone relatively unnoticed is that Putin’s electoral re-coronation played out in dramatic fashion on their home turf.

A Washington Post analysis of precinct-level data from Russia’s Central Election Commission shows support for Putin surged in Sunday’s election among Russians voting in the West. Russian embassies and consulates in the 29 countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization reported a total of 129,231 votes cast for Putin at their ballot boxes, according to the Post analysis. In the last presidential election, in 2012, Putin got just two-thirds that amount of votes in those countries.

The numbers point to Russia’s success in mobilizing pro-Putin votes, including by busing voters to the polls in Germany. The findings also provide new data points documenting the growing estrangement between Russians and the West.

In Germany, the number of votes for Putin nearly tripled from 2012 to more than 27,000 in Sunday's election. In the voting precinct run by the Russian Embassy in Washington, votes for Putin roughly doubled to 1,531. The overall rise in Putin votes in NATO countries is about double the rate in the Russian election as a whole, in which Putin’s vote tally increased by about 24 percent from 2012.

Russian immigrants “feel uncomfortable because Russia is blamed for everything in the Western press,” said Yury Yeremenko, editor of Russkoye Pole, an online portal for Russians in Germany. “The fact that so many people came to vote was in a way a protest reaction to the pressure on the Russian diaspora.”

The vote totals are small compared to the millions of Russians who live abroad, and the many Russian expats who oppose Putin largely stayed home. But the increase in Putin votes is still significant considering that people had to physically go to one of the polling places set up by Russian embassies and consulates to cast a ballot.

In the United Kingdom, the total number of votes cast in Sunday’s election was down by nearly a quarter from 2012. But the number of votes for Putin nearly doubled, to 2,056. Some Russians were motivated by a get-out-the-vote campaign by the Russian Embassy and by the intensity of British outrage at Russia over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.

“The whole atmosphere surrounding the Skripal situation has made it pretty scary to be a Russian in London,” said Tonia Samsonova, a correspondent based in London for the Echo of Moscow radio station. “You are living here and see London is now against Russia, and you feel a little bit like a traitor. You can’t explain to yourself who you are now, and it is frustrating. One way to exorcise this frustration is going out and voting for Putin.”

The biggest increase in Putin votes took place in Germany, home to one of the largest Russian immigrant populations. In 2012, 10,883 Russians cast ballots for Putin in Germany, or 51 percent of the vote in the country, according to precinct-level figures tallied by The Post. In 2018, the number of votes for Putin in Germany nearly tripled, to 27,503 — or 82 percent of the number of valid ballots cast.

Election observers across Germany reported seeing voters bused to the polls by the hundreds. A Russian Embassy spokesman in Berlin said diplomats helped Russian organizations and Jewish community groups in far-flung cities and towns organize transportation to polling places.

“Many [voters] told us that they were voting for the first time in 20 to 30 years,” Denis Mikerin, an embassy spokesman, said in a statement.

Revina-Hofmann said that in Munich, she observed that the number of voters did sharply increase from 2012, with many Putin supporters in the crowd, while the president’s critics largely boycotted the vote. She said the voters seemed energized by what they saw as “the West’s disdain for Russia.”

Putin supporters in Germany “say they don’t want to live in Russia,” she said. “But they like Putin’s foreign policy.”

Mikerin rejected the fraud allegations, citing a lack of direct evidence. He said the voting process was “distinguished by a maximum level of transparency” and took place in accordance with Russian law and international standards.

Votes for Putin also more than doubled from 2012 in Denmark, Italy, Hungary, France and Spain. In the United States, their number grew 57 percent to 5,261, even though the total number of votes cast dropped by a quarter from the previous election.

The Russian government went to great lengths to increase turnout. A rules change made it easier for people to vote away from home. The Foreign Ministry opened polling stations for Russians vacationing in Thailand (which brought in 4,385 votes for Putin) and fighting in Syria (where there were 3,242 Putin votes).

On Russian state television after polls closed Sunday night, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described foreign turnout as “unprecedented.” She said the ministry mounted a public relations campaign to get Russians to the polls abroad to cut through Western criticism of the election.

The result, she said, “is fantastic.”

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.