As tens of thousands of supporters chanted his name at a wintry outdoor rally, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared victory in the Russian presidential election.
But opponents of Putin promised to respond with their own mass rallies beginning Monday to highlight vote fraud allegations and ongoing government corruption.
Election officials said Sunday that the prime minister held nearly 65% of the vote with almost two-thirds counted.
Putin, who was president before becoming premier in 2008, led four rivals including Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who had 17%, according to the preliminary tabulations of Russia’s Central Election Commission.
“I asked you once if we would win and we did win!” shouted Putin, dressed in black with no hat despite the late-night chill, as the large crowd in Manezhnaya Square chanted: “Putin, Putin, Putin!”
The 59-year-old president-elect asserted that the campaign proved “an open and fair struggle” and that by placing him back in the presidency, voters were rejecting antigovernment forces seeking to “dismantle the Russian statehood and usurp power.”
But many vehemently disagreed.
“It is clear that the slim hopes that the election could be fair have not come true and as we expected the vote was conducted with massive serious violations,” said Grigory Melkonyants, deputy executive director of Golos, a Moscow-based election monitoring association. “The falsifications were multilevel.”
Zyuganov refused to accept the tally, saying “the entire state machine, corrupt inside out, was working for one man on the ballot, Vladimir Putin.”
Another presidential hopeful, metal magnate and NBA team owner Mikhail Prokhorov, said he would file court action. Prokhorov, whose campaign team had placed observers in polling stations throughout Russia, cited numerous violations in favor of Putin.
With 65% of the vote counted, the Central Election Commission said Putin had 64.66%, Zyuganov had 17.1% and Prokhorov had 6.5%. But many Moscow voting stations had yet to be counted, and in two checked at random, Putin had no more than 41.7% of the vote.
Anti-Putin activists reiterated plans to lead tens of thousands of protesters into the streets in Moscow and other big cities on Monday and the following days.
“We know that the election results were falsified and we are not going to put up with Putin’s usurping power like this!” Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader said in a phone interview. “We will take to the streets and stay and we are ready for anything, even a crackdown.”
“But we must warn them that the authorities who unleash a war against their own people always end up very badly,” he added. “Putin has not been elected by the people because Putin has elected himself.”
Putin, who says his goal is to defend Russia from foreign influences, served two terms as president from 2000 to 2008 and will now serve a six-year term. Fraud allegations in Dec. 4 parliamentary elections that saw Putin’s United Russia party win nearly 50% of the vote resulted in a series of “Arab Spring"-like antigovernment protests in Moscow.
On Sunday night, large crowds of Putin supporters filled the square near the Kremlin, waving banners that read “Putin is our president” and “We are for Putin.”
“Those who don’t vote for Putin are either enemies of the state or those who live so well that they go crazy,” said Alexei Gronsky, 40. “I live much better now than before Putin and my job problem is purely temporary.”
Many of the pro-Putin demonstrators were bused to the rally and some said friends were ordered by their bosses to show up in exchange for a day off work.
Putin’s campaign chief, movie director Stanislav Govorukhin, pronounced the election “the cleanest in the entire history of Russia.”
Referring to Putin, Govorukhin told reporters at campaign headquarters that “it was Vladimir Vladimirovich’s initiative that the election must be absolutely clean and transparent.”
Despite the official results, it was difficult to find many Putin supporters among voters at a downtown Moscow polling station on this gray day with snow turning into sludge underfoot.
Artyom Godin, a 31-year-old computer engineer who voted for Putin in 2004, said he had grown increasingly sick and tired of him.
“Putin is not really doing anything as he is simply presiding over the country’s key systems such as education, healthcare and others crumbling down,” said Godin, who voted for Prokhorov. “I think the people in Putin’s government are busy enriching themselves and all they do is lobbying the interests of companies they control.”
Godin called the installation of webcams at polling stations “a ridiculous squandering of the state budget” as fraud could occur elsewhere anyway.
When asked whether he cast his vote for Putin, 60-year-old pensioner Sergei Grachev said it was a silly question. “You have to work really hard in Moscow to find a Putin supporter,” Grachev said. “I voted against Putin but I know it is useless because by hook or by crook he will get the result he needs. We are a big country, you know.”
Despite the results, Putin is in for tough times, said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with the Moscow Carnegie Center.
“During the campaign Putin did consolidate his core electorate and he must have managed to win some of the swing votes too but that was not enough to justify the results of the vote which was most certainly rigged,” Shevtsova said. “Putin lost credibility and legitimacy as he certainly lost Moscow, St. Petersburg and other big cities.
“Putin faces a tough choice as he will have to either restore the rule of law and real political competition in the country, which will be the undoing of the system he built over the last decade, or tighten up bolts and crack down on the opposition,” she said. “In any case, we are bound to soon see the agony of Putin’s regime.”
The mass opposition rallies in recent weeks may actually have played into Putin’s hands and could help explain the level of support he received Sunday, said Sergei Markov, vice president of Moscow-based Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.
“When people in Russia realized that there is a danger of a color revolution they mobilized themselves and voted for Putin because they don’t want any revolutions,” Markov said.