Critics cry fraud as poll gives Putin third term in Kremlin

President, then Prime Minister, and now President again as Russia's most powerful post-Soviet leader reasserts his grip

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The Independent Online

Vladimir Putin shed a tear at a victory rally outside the Kremlin walls last night, as Russian voters handed him a new six-year presidential term in a vote that opposition activists claimed was marred with irregularities.

With 99% of the vote counted, Mr Putin had received nearly 65 percent of the vote, well over the 50 percent needed for victory in the first round. Communist veteran Gennady Zyuganov a distant second with around 17 percent.

“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, of course: preparations got underway early in the morning for the victory rally. Around 100,000 people, many bussed in from the provinces, gathered to wave flags in freezing temperatures, in a display aimed at showing that Mr Putin still has real support among ordinary Russians.

He will return to the Kremlin for another six years, 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. The protesters are still a minority, but 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 had suggested during the campaign that the street protests against his rule are directed from abroad and aimed at destabilising Russia, a theme he repeated in his victory speech last night. He voted at a Moscow polling station with his wife Lyudmila, who is hardly ever seen in public. “I did some sport and then came to vote,” he said, adding that he was expecting a “good” result. In an attempt to prove the vote was fair, Mr Putin had ordered cameras to be placed in every polling station, with live feeds viewable online, and the government spent over £250m on setting cameras up before the vote. 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. “Honest elections should be our constant motto for years to come.”

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 percent for Mr Putin’s United Russia party on a 99.5 percent turnout, claimed people were voting repeatedly, and busloads of people were being transported between polling stations. A video that was posted online claimed to show ballot stuffing in Dagestan.

Of Mr Putin’s various challengers, only the Communist Mr Zyuganov made it into double figures, with the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov both polling around 7 percent, and social democrat Sergei Mironov receiving less than 4 percent.

The big question now is how much of a sustained challenge the nascent street protest movement can provide to Mr Putin’s rule.

Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who is de-facto leader of the “non-systemic” opposition, held court at a Moscow cafe yesterday, where democratic and nationalist opposition leaders had gathered. He said the opposition protest set for this evening would be “peaceful but forceful”. He said he wanted new parliamentary elections in a year, and new presidential elections within two years, demands Mr Putin is extremely unlikely to meet.