Putin's victory just "honest" enough?

Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, has tears in his eyes as he emotionally reacts at a massive rally of his supporters at Manezh square outside Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, March 4, 2012.
AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev
CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips is in Moscow covering Russia's national election.

The once and future President of Russia walked down the outdoor stage set up just off Red Square on the frigid Moscow night of his latest victory. A crowd easily numbering in the tens of thousands had been waiting for hours, spilling off the square and up the adjoining boulevards - a cloud of steam rising from their collective lungs, as did a cheer as their hero appeared.

Vladimir Putin claimed an "honest" victory and, by the standards of recent Russian elections, he may have been right - in a Russian kind of way.

A tear famously trickled down his right cheek, its trail glistening in the TV lights. Was he moved or was he just cold? We'll never know. There's a lot we'll never know about this vote and about the unique appeal Putin enjoys among Russians.

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Under intense international and domestic pressure, the Russian election authorities had gone to unprecedented lengths to carry out a vote they could defend. Web cameras were set up, they said, in the more than 90,000 polling stations across the country to discourage the sort of ballot box stuffing that opponents said occurred in the parliamentary elections last December.

It was that blatant vote rigging that brought the Russian protest movement onto the streets.

To be sure, there was also evidence of election shenanigans this time around.

YouTube video clearly shows a group of men calmly feeding sheaths of ballot papers into voting machines in one polling place (the results from which were later "cancelled," we're told). Election monitors tell stories of "carrousel" voting - where groups of people were bussed from one poll to another to vote multiple times. But the violations seem minor compared to the wholesale fix of last year's vote.

The irony is that Putin probably didn't need the help. Pre-election opinion polls had consistently shown a clear majority of voters actually preferred him to the collection of shop-worn and opportunistic candidates ranged against him.

Of the four other candidates, one was a discredited Communist (who finished, as he always does, a distant second). Others included a right-wing firebrand with a minority following, two non-charismatic career politicians and a billionaire industrialist without a political party who was either running as a vanity project or as a Kremlin plant to siphon off opposition votes.

None of that, though, should be taken as a reflection of Putin's lack of appeal in his own right. He may be cast as an authoritarian loose cannon in the West, but in Russia he still enjoys a reputation as the man who rescued the country from the economic and political rot of the immediate post-Soviet era. And if he is a pain in the neck internationally on issues like Iran, Syria and fuel supplies to Europe, so much the better in Russian eyes. It's a sign Russia still counts - always a vote-getter in a country still smarting from its post-Soviet inferiority complex.

Now the talk is of whether this will be a chastened Putin who assumes the presidency again, for a third term, this time for a six-year mandate. Will he take the views of the significant, but disorganized opposition movement into account? That will depend, to a large extent, on whether the opposition movement stays active. It cannot complain this time that the election was stolen. Instead, it can argue that Putin's majority was enhanced - hardly a rallying cry for revolution.

Had Putin declared a victory with the sort of majority numbers used in the past - upwards of 70 percent - the anger may have been too much to contain. But a victory in the mid-60 percent range is more difficult to criticize as it falls roughly into the pre-election opinion poll predictions.

An opposition demonstration has been called for Monday evening. Putin's followers have planned their own gathering in another part of the city and the Moscow authorities seem determined that the two groups of supporters are kept as far apart as possible.

Another frigid night is forecast. That may cool passions. It usually does.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.