Vladimir Putin on Monday faced another six years in power after a record win in Russia’s presidential election, but congratulations from abroad were largely muted after opponents accused him of rigging the vote and Moscow’s relations with the West worsened.
Putin, who has ruled Russia for almost two decades, recorded his best ever election performance with 76.66 percent of the vote but rejected the possibility of staying in power indefinitely.
Opposition and independent monitors reported ballot stuffing and other cases of alleged fraud as the Kremlin pushed for a high turnout to give greater legitimacy to Putin’s historic fourth term.
But Putin’s supporters said Western pressure on Putin including Britain’s accusations in a spy row and the Olympic doping ban prompted Russians to close ranks behind their leader.
Longest rule since Stalin
Putin, who is now set to extend his rule until at least 2024 and is already Russia’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin, appeared to rule out remaining president for life.
“What, am I going to sit here until I am 100 years old? No,” he told reporters Sunday night when asked if he saw himself running for president again in 2030.
The Russian strongman ran against seven candidates, but his most vocal opponent Alexei Navalny was barred from the ballot for legal reasons and the final outcome was never in doubt.
“I see in this [result] the confidence and hope of our people,” a beaming Putin told supporters on a square next to the Kremlin Sunday night.
‘United in trying hour’
Putin’s campaign spokesman Andrei Kondrashov said that at more than 67 percent, turnout was 8 to 10 percentage points higher than expected “thanks to Britain”.
“Several foreign leaders – I won’t say their names – made their contribution,” said head of the Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova.
“Our people always unite in the trying hour.”
Putin received more than 92 percent of the vote in Crimea, annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Most of the voters AFP spoke to said they had backed Putin despite Russia’s problems of poverty and poor healthcare, praising his foreign policies.
Moscow faces increasing global isolation over its interventions in Ukraine and in Syria, and a fresh round of US sanctions over alleged Russian election meddling in 2016.
In the run up to the vote, a new crisis broke out with the West as Britain implicated Putin in the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in England with a Soviet-designed nerve agent.
‘Played like guitars’
Authorities used both the carrot and the stick to boost engagement in the polls.
Selfie competitions, giveaways, food festivals and children’s entertainers were laid on at polling stations to entice voters.
But employees of state and private companies, as well as students, reported coming under pressure to vote.
During campaigning, Putin, a 65-year-old former KGB officer, stressed Russia’s role as a major world power, boasting of its “invincible” new nuclear weapons.
Analysts said Putin used tensions with the West to rally support and suggested that armed with a strong new mandate, he could push through further punitive measures against dissenters.
“He wants to show that there is a little bit of Putin in every Russian, that he plays the Russian soul like a guitar,” said political analyst Konstantin Kalachev.
‘Thinking about emigrating?’
Navalny said his team planned to stage protests over “unprecedented violations” but released few details.
He had called on his supporters to boycott the “fake” vote and sent more than 33,000 observers across the country to see how official turnout figures differed from those of monitors.
Navalny’s movement and the non-governmental election monitor Golos reported ballot stuffing, repeat voting and Putin supporters being bussed into polling stations en masse.
The electoral commission dismissed most concerns, saying there were no serious violations.
Runner-up Pavel Grudinin said the elections had been “dishonest”.
The mood was grim among liberal Russians, with a journalist for Kommersant FM radio, Stanislav Kucher, saying: “Have you been thinking about emigrating for a long time? This really is the ideal moment.”
Putin polled well ahead of his nearest competitor, Communist Party candidate Grudinin, who was on 11.8 percent, according to central election commission data with 99.84 percent of ballots counted.
Ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky took 5.66 percent, former reality TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak was on 1.67 percent, while veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky received just over one percent of the vote.
Western leaders were slow to publicly congratulate Putin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters that Merkel would congratulate Putin but would also broach “challenges” in their relations.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas earlier said Russia would remain a “difficult partner”.
Among the leaders who have congratulated Putin so far were Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, the presidents of the leftist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia and Chinese President Xi Jinping.