By MARK MACKINNON
Monday, March 19, 2018
MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin - bolstered by a barely contested election that gave him another six-year term in the Kremlin - signalled on Sunday that Russia would not change course, despite its escalating confrontation with the West.
"We're not going to be led by the current, short-term considerations. We will think about the future of our great homeland, of our people," he said in a brief speech to a crowd of flag-waving supporters on Moscow's Manezh Square, directly outside the red Kremlin walls.
The remarks came after a week that saw the British government accuse Russia -and Mr. Putin personally - of using a nerve agent to poison a former double agent in the English city of Salisbury. Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats and Russia escalated on Saturday by kicking out 23 British diplomats, and shutting the British consulate in St. Petersburg, and the British Council, an organization that promotes cultural exchanges.
Speaking to reporters at his election headquarters, Mr. Putin dismissed the allegations against Russia as "nonsense." He added that Russia did not possess the nerve agent Britain says was used in the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who both remain in critical condition.
Mr. Putin said it was "absurd to claim that Russia would do anything like that before the elections and the World Cup," referring to the soccer championship that Russia hosts beginning in June.
Mr. Putin's Kremlin is also locked in a sanctions war with the West over his 2014 decision to annex the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And Russia has troops and planes engaged in a real war in Syria, which continues to get bloodier despite Mr. Putin's repeated claims that the conflict is coming to an end.
Mr. Putin mentioned none of that in his postelection address to the crowd outside the Kremlin, speaking for barely two minutes.
He left the stage, then returned for a brief encore to lead the crowd in a chant of "Russia! Russia!"
The speech came shortly after polls closed in Russia's seventh election since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Competing against a field of mediocre candidates - and with his most prominent critic, anticorruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, barred from running Mr. Putin cruised to an easy victory. The early count showed him on track to win roughly 75 per cent of the vote, a significant rise from the 63.7 per cent he won six years before. Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin looked set to finish a distant second with about 15 per cent.
The result will likely be dismissed in the West, and by Russia's scattered opposition, as proof that Russia is no longer a democracy. Mr. Putin's supporters, however, will portray the rise in his support level as vindication of his policies, particularly the annexation of Crimea.
Like the election itself, Sunday's victory party on Manezh Square had an orchestrated feel.
The stage was erected on Saturday, 24 hours before voting had even started, and groups of flagwaving supporters began to gather - guided into position by a thick cordon of police - even as polling stations were still open in some parts of the country.
The crowd was treated to pop songs, including a performance from the famed Alexandrov military choir, while they shivered through a subzero Moscow night, waiting for Mr. Putin to appear. Giant screens displayed Soviet-era footage of vacationers frolicking on the beaches of Crimea.
Sunday was the fourth anniversary of Mr. Putin putting his signature on Russia's annexation of Crimea, a move that made him a villain in the West, but which is widely popular in Russia, where the fracturing of the Soviet Union is still a fresh wound.
Many of those who voted for the 65-year-old Mr. Putin said they did so because of the Crimea annexation, and the feeling of restored pride in Russia that it gave them.
"Crimea is part of Russia and it always has been," said Mikhail Ryabov, a 43-year-old computer programmer who cast his ballot in southeastern Moscow. Mr. Ryabov said Mr. Putin was the best leader the country had seen since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
The result of Sunday's election was never in doubt, especially after Mr. Navalny was barred from running because of a previous conviction for embezzlement that his supporters view as politically motivated.
Focus shifted instead to the level of voter participation. Mr. Navalny called on his supporters to boycott the election, while the Kremlin mobilized its resources to try and ensure high enough turnout to make certain Mr. Putin's win had a feel of legitimacy.
Entertainers danced and music blared in an attempt to give polling stations a festive feel, while vendors tempted voters with cheap groceries.
"I voted for Putin. There is no alternative," said Zhenya Kiva, a 20-year-old student who was dressed as a clown and paid to spend Sunday dancing outside a polling station in Moscow's working class Textilshiki district.
Less scrupulous methods also seem to have been employed.
Videos posted online appeared to show officials stuffing ballot boxes in several of the country's farther-flung regions. There were also widespread reports of companies and government departments pressuring their workers to vote.
"People are being aggressively advised to vote, and then report in after they've voted," said Vitaly Kovin, a member of Golos, an independent election monitoring organization. "We cannot say the number of people who have been forced to vote, but we can definitely say that it's happening."
Mr. Kovin said that Golos, which helped motivate antiPutin protests after revealing the scale of fraud in 2011 parliamentary elections, has come under heavy government pressure ever since. The organization ran an election-complaints call centre on Sunday from a Moscow business premise, but only after it was forced out of two other locations.
Despite the Kremlin's efforts, official turnout was 63.7 per cent, slightly down from the 65.3 per cent recorded in the 2012 presidential election, and short of the Kremlin's reported target of 70 per cent.
With Mr. Putin ensconced in power for another six years, speculation in Russia will turn immediately to whether this is his last term as President, as the country's constitution mandates, or whether Mr. Putin will seek a way to remain in power beyond 2024.
Many voters said they'd support their President if he decided to stay. "He's earned our trust over his long time in office," 23year-old Lyudmilla Iliesh said. "If his health allows it, I hope he will stay longer."
But not everyone is delighted with the idea of Russia having a president-for-life.
"When Putin came [to power], I was in high school. After another six years, I'll be almost 40," said Oleg Kozlovsky, a veteran opposition activist who was volunteering Sunday at the Golos call centre. "It's not nice to think about."
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to supporters during a rally near the Kremlin in Moscow on Sunday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference in Moscow on Sunday. With Mr. Putin ensconced in power for another six years, speculation in Russia will turn to whether this is his last term as President, as the country's constitution demands, or whether he will seek to remain in power beyond 2024.