MOSCOW – 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 today to highlight vote fraud allegations and ongoing government corruption.
Election officials said Sunday that the prime minister held nearly 65 percent of the vote with almost two-thirds counted.
Putin, who served two previous terms as president before becoming premier in 2008, led four rivals including Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who had 17 percent, 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 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, Russian voters were rejecting anti-government 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 multi-level.”
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, metals billionaire 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 percent of the vote counted, the Central Election Commission said Putin had 64.66 percent, Zyuganov with 17.1 percent and Prokhorov with 6.5 percent. But many Moscow voting stations had yet to be counted, and in two checked at random, Putin had no more than 41.7 percent of the vote.
Anti-Putin activists reiterated plans to lead tens of thousands of protesters into the streets in Moscow and other big cities today and on 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 ending in 2018. Fraud allegations in Dec. 4 parliamentary elections that saw Putin’s United Russia party win nearly 50 percent of the vote resulted in a series of “Arab Spring”-like anti-government protests in Moscow.
On Sunday night, large crowds of Putin supporters filled the square near the Kremlin.
“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, an unemployed Moscow resident. “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 of work.
Putin’s campaign chief, Sergei Govorukhin, pronounced the election “the cleanest in the entire history of Russia.”
“It was Vladimir Vladimirovich’s (Putin) initiative that the election must be absolutely clean and transparent,” Govorukhin said.
Despite the official results, it was difficult to find many Putin supporters among voters at a Moscow downtown 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, health care 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.”
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 to 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.”