When a misty-eyed Vladimir Putin celebrated his election victory with supporters in Moscow on Sunday, he said: "We have won in an open and honest battle." That is not what the OSCE observers concluded. In their preliminary report, they said that while the actual voting was well organised and efficient, the campaign was "clearly skewed" in Mr Putin's favour, "and the process deteriorated during the count due to procedural irregularities". Golos, an independent Russian election watchdog, said the polls could not be considered "fair and open".
Similar complaints have been levelled after almost every Russian election, and far back into Soviet times. What is different now is that over the past 12 years – eight as President and the past four as Prime Minister – Mr Putin has had ample opportunity to improve things, and dismally failed to do so. But there is another difference, too: the criticism during this campaign came not just from international observers, but from a veritable army of concerned Russians, equipped with mobile phones, internet connections and cameras. This groundswell of discontent is welcome evidence of a new mood.
For while the presidential election was undoubtedly, and shamelessly, "skewed" in favour of Mr Putin, once the Russian Prime Minister had decided to stand, he was always going to win. It is a further indictment of his years in power that there simply was no credible alternative. In consolidating his authority, Mr Putin left little space for the multiple strands of opinion that are the lifeblood of democracy. In specific ways, he even reversed some of the gains of the 1990s, ending direct elections for regional governors, making it harder for opposition nominees to register as election candidates, and clamping down on the media.
The gap between his vote – at more than 63 per cent – and that of his closest opponent (17 per cent for the Communist, Gennadi Zyuganov) showed that manipulation was hardly necessary, even to save Mr Putin from a second round. His return to the Kremlin is badly tarnished, but he will be Russia's next President.
How his leadership is judged now depends on how he uses his new mandate. Will he try to pick off his opponents in the – probably vain – hope of preserving the status quo for six more years, or might he seize the opportunity that has been presented by the recent emergence of new political forces? Will the outgoing President, Dmitry Medvedev, become Prime Minister, in the expected job-swap, and if he does, will he be able to translate his more liberal words on rights and the rule of law into deeds?
Early signs are mixed. There were many arrests at protests yesterday, and much intimidating hardware was on display. The danger is that Mr Putin is going back to his bad old ways. Against this, however, legislation is in train to simplify the registration of electoral candidates and restore direct elections for governors. And, within hours of Mr Putin's victory, Mr Medvedev had announced on the Kremlin website that the convictions of two dozen people, including that of the oil tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were to be reviewed.
It is not clear whether these moves represent an attempt by Mr Medvedev to make the best of the weeks that remain of his presidency, or new priorities that Mr Putin will choose to leave in place after his inauguration. And, of course, any review of the totemic Khodorkovsky case will only be as good as its outcome. But the announcement was clearly timed to convey a post-election message to the business and professional circles that, rightly, clamour for reform. If those who hold power in Russia are starting to listen to the people – dissenters as well as supporters – then the seeds of real change may finally be sown.