Vladimir Putin had tears in his eyes as he celebrated his landslide victory in Sunday's election, which secured him a third term as Russian president. Opposition groups claim the vote was marked by widespread fraud, and plan to hold anti-Putin protests on Monday.
Once it was clear that his victory was overwhelming, Vladimir Putin appeared before the public. Dmitry Medvedev, the outgoing Russian president, stood by his side, but the cheers of the around 100,000 people who had gathered in front of the Kremlin were just for Putin. "I thank all those who have said 'yes' to a strong Russia," said Putin, who will now serve a third term as Russian president after winning Sunday's election.
The appearance before his supporters on election night only lasted a few minutes. Putin, 59, used the occasion to draw a line under the last three months. During the weeks since the parliamentary election in December, which was marked by allegations of fraud, the opposition received increasing support on the streets of Moscow. At times, Putin seemed like a relic from another era. "Russia's Incredible Shrinking Prime Minister" was the title of a Time magazine cover story. But Putin's victory on Sunday was so massive that even he seemed overwhelmed.
Standing on stage, with the Red Square and Kremlin behind him and tens of thousands of cheering people in front of him, tears flowed down his cheeks. Vladimir Putin, famous for his macho posturing, was crying.
At that point, the preliminary results already gave him 63 percent of the vote. Early on Monday morning, the election commission in Moscow confirmed that Putin had won with 63.78 percent. Gennady Zyuganov, the aging leader of the Communists, came in a distant second with 17 percent. "The protests woke Putin up," says political scientist Nikolai Zlobin. "He has never worked so hard in an election campaign before."
'Glory to Russia!'
But even with tears in his eyes, Putin was ready to lash out at his critics. "We have shown that no one can force anything on us," he said. The country, he said, had been wary of "political provocation" by individuals who "only have one goal: to destroy the Russian state and seize power for themselves." He concluded his speech by shouting "Glory to Russia!"
Now, others will have to mend the cracks that Putin's aggressive campaign has opened up in Russia. Putin and his campaign chief Stanislav Govorukhin missed no opportunity to label the participants in mass demonstrations in favor of fair elections as stooges of the West, "scum" or "Moscow fat cats."
But it was state television, of all things, that gave those same supposed enemies of the state a platform on Sunday evening. The liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, whose Republican Party was disbanded five years ago, was allowed to speak about "massive electoral fraud" before an audience of millions. He also talked about the fact that his electoral alliance Parnas was not even allowed to take part in the presidential election or the parliamentary election in December.
Also on state television, the historian and Medvedev biographer Nikolai Svanidze accused the Putin camp of having led a "confrontational campaign" in which "anyone who is not for us must be an enemy of Russia."
As in the December election, there was also evidence of electoral fraud in Sunday's vote. On the Internet, there are many reports of "carousel" voting, as the Russians call the practice of transporting voters in buses from one polling station to another in order to vote multiple times. Ryzhkov, the opposition politician, talked of a new fraud technique: "Whole work collectives were carted to the polling stations, where they had to vote under the eyes of their bosses."
In the predominantly Muslim republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus, video cameras recorded an entire stack of completed voting slips being inserted into a ballot box. The vote in the district will probably be annulled.
Opposition groups said they would hold a rally in Moscow on Monday evening to protest against electoral fraud. The Russian news agency ITAR-Tass reported that thousands of police and troops will be deployed to maintain order in the Russian capital.
New People Needed
The evening's two biggest losers were both veterans of Russian politics. Nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky struggled to get 7 percent of the vote. Gennady Zyuganov, who has been leader of the Communist Party for almost two decades, also suffered a heavy defeat. The provisional results showed him with 17 percent of the vote, a worse result than his party achieved in December's parliamentary election. The poor showing came despite the intention of many liberal-minded protest voters to cast their ballots in favor of Zyuganov. "Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky will have to go," commented Valery Fadeyev, editor in chief of the magazine Expert and a member of the liberal wing of Putin's United Russia party. The system, he said, needs "new people."
Alongside Putin, the election had a second winner: Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire presidential candidate. He managed to win third place, ahead of Zhirinovsky. According to data from the VTsIOM polling institute, he received almost as many votes as the communist Zyuganov in central Russia.
After polling stations had closed, the shooting star of Russian politics did the round of the talk shows. None of the other candidates got as much air time on Sunday evening. Prokhorov, who ran on a platform of liberal economic values mixed with a bit of anti-Kremlin criticism, was the consolation prize that the state offered disappointed liberals on election night. The move was intended to prevent thousands of opposition supporters from heading to the planned anti-Putin demonstrations on Monday.
After his successful election debut, Prokhorov, who enjoys the Kremlin's blessing, could become a political force in the long term. "I'm in good shape," Prokhorov said on election night. "This is just the start." He now wants to found his own political party.
Rumors are already circulating that Putin could appoint Prokhorov as his prime minister as an olive branch to the rebellious middle class. The oligarch expressed reservations, saying he would not accept the post in any case.
He will be judged by those words.
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