Vladimir Putin shed a tear at a victory rally outside the Kremlin last night, as Russian voters handed him a new six-year presidential term in a vote that opposition activists claimed was marred by irregularities.
With half the votes counted, Mr Putin had nearly 65 per cent, well over the 50 per cent needed for victory in the first round. Communist veteran Gennady Zyuganov was a distant second with 17 per cent.
"I promised you we would win," Mr Putin told the crowds close to midnight. "And we won! Glory to Russia!" The result had never been in any doubt: preparations for the victory rally got underway early in the morning. Around 100,000 people, many bussed in from the provinces, gathered to wave flags in freezing temperatures.
Mr Putin will return to the Kremlin until 2018, but protests in recent months have changed the political context in Russia. Tens of thousands of Muscovites protested against December's parliamentary elections, chanting slogans that gradually became less about fair elections and more about removing Mr Putin. Thousands of police will be on duty in Moscow this evening for what promises to be the biggest protest yet, in the central Pushkin Square.
Mr Putin voted at a Moscow polling station yesterday with his wife Lyudmila. "I did some sport and then came to vote," he said. In an attempt to prove the vote was fair, Mr Putin had ordered cameras to be placed in every polling station, at a cost of £250m.
But criticism still came from many quarters. "These are not going to be honest elections, but we must not relent," said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, as he voted in Moscow."
In Moscow, the vote-rigging seen at December's polls was largely absent. But monitors said there were still numerous violations, including cases of multiple voting and ballot stuffing.
An observer in Chechnya, which in December voted over 99 per cent for Mr Putin's United Russia party on a 99.5 per cent turnout, claimed people were voting repeatedly. A video that was posted online claimed to show ballot stuffing in Dagestan.
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