Russia Re-Elects Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, smiles saying thanks to Dmitry Kozak, his campaign chief, during his victory speech at a news conference in Moscow early Monday, March 15, 2004.
Vladimir Putin is the official winner in Russia's presidential election, Russia's top election official said Monday, after 99.2 percent of precincts reported results.

Putin easily won a second four-year term in Sunday's race, capturing 71.2 percent of the vote and defeating five challengers, said Alexander Veshnyakov, head of Russia's Central Election Commission.

His closest challenger was Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov, who received 13.7 percent of the vote. He was followed by nationalist candidate Sergei Glazyev with 4.1 percent of the vote and pro-business liberal Irina Khakamada with 3.9 percent of the vote.

Oleg Malyshkin, the little-known candidate from flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party, polled 2 percent and Sergei Mironov, the speaker of the upper house of parliament, who has said he was running to support the incumbent, won 0.8 percent.

Turnout was 64.3 percent, well above the 50 percent needed to declare the election valid. Some 3.5 percent of voters cast ballots "against all" of the candidates.

"I promise you that for the next four years, I will work in the same mode," said Putin, thanking his campaign chief, his supporters and voters - for turning out.

Putin went on to promise to ensure further economic growth, strengthen civil society and media freedom. "All the democratic achievements will be guaranteed," he said.

All Russian television stations are now back under state control, and Putin's former KGB colleagues sit in key government positions.

Putin, who reined in Russia's independent media following his first election in 2000, dominated the nationwide television networks before the vote. His five challengers received less coverage, adding to the widespread impression that the vote was a one-horse race.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said he is concerned at a lack of openness in Russia's presidential election and "a level of authoritarianism creeping back" into Russian society. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice also expressed concern.

But Powell said he does not think Russia was reverting to the hard-line ways of the former Soviet Union.

"Russians have to understand that to have full democracy of the kind that the international community will recognize, you've got to let candidates have all access to the media that the president has," Powell said in a broadcast interview.

Dmitry Kozak, Putin's campaign chief, rejected the criticism, saying that Russia's election campaign was "in strict conformity with the election law."

"Russian voters already have significant experience in democratic elections and don't need suggestions from anyone, even less so from representatives of a country that has clear flaws in its election procedures," Kozak said in a statement released Sunday night by the Kremlin press service.

Putin said early Monday that Russia will analyze U.S. officials' criticism of the presidential election that gave him a landslide victory. The Russian president at the same time moved to turn the tables on Washington, by noting that U.S. election procedures are imperfect too.

Assured in advance of victory, Putin was looking for a powerful turnout to further strengthen his grip over Russia - already tightened by his appointment of a loyal new Cabinet just before the vote and by December parliamentary elections that gave the main pro-Kremlin party full control over lawmaking.

"I voted for Putin because he is going to win anyway and what is the point in voting for someone else," said financial inspector Yelena Chebakova, 31, one of a handful of early voters at a Moscow polling station.

A frenzy of television appeals by Putin, his rivals and even top religious leaders urging people to vote reflected Kremlin concerns that the lack of a challenger with a chance of unseating the president might keep Russians away from the ballot box.

After voting in Moscow on Sunday morning alongside his wife, Lyudmila, Putin made a last-minute plea, saying that "much depends on this election" and that "the feeling of involvement must increase year after year."

Nadezhda, a kindergarten teacher who gave only her first name, didn't need the encouragement provided by a van that cruised around her Moscow neighborhood with a loudspeaker shouting that voting is the way to "a dignified life and a bright future."

"I always vote - it is my country and my responsibility," she said, adding that she voted for Putin. She said he is "young and energetic" - qualities that many Russians cite for their support of the trim, 51-year-old president, who has also benefited from steady economic growth during his first term.

"We voted for Putin because under him there's been stability in society, in the economy," said Mikhail Antonchik, a young miner who voted with his wife in Cheryomukhovo, a Ural Mountains village. "You can plan for the family."

But about one-fifth of Russia's 144 million people live below the poverty line and the gap between rich and poor remains wide, stoking anger at the authorities.

Communist challenger Nikolai Kharitonov appealed to the poor and polled more strongly than expected, bringing in 14.9 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results. Some 3.6 percent of voters checked the box marked "against all."

Irina Kozhukhova, a 42-year-old radio factory worker in St. Petersburg, said she'd voted in that category.

"I didn't vote for Putin because I've seen no changes - neither in politics nor in the economy," she said.

Amid calls by some liberals for a boycott of the vote, which came three months after parliamentary elections that international observers called a setback for democracy, rival candidates and rights groups alleged vote-rigging in favor of Putin, including pre-marked ballots and pressure on students and soldiers.

"The authorities are resorting to pressuring the electorate and abusing their powers to manipulate the vote," nationalist candidate Sergei Glazyev told The Associated Press at an election monitoring center he'd set up jointly with Kharitonov and liberal candidate Irina Khakamada.

The monitoring center said that patients at a Moscow psychiatric hospital have complained that the ballots they received were already marked for Putin. VOICE, a grass-roots election monitoring association, reported that officers at a military base in the Volga River region of Samara received telegrams from the Defense Ministry ordering them to tell their superiors, in writing, the time they and their family members voted.