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Russia's Vladimir Putin hails election victory, but critics make presence known despite harsh suppression

Putin reelected in stage-managed election
Putin elected to 5th term in stage-managed Russian election 02:54

President Vladimir Putin basked in an election victory that was never in doubt as officials said Monday that he'd won his fifth term with a record number of votes, underlining the Russian leader's total control of the country's political system. After facing only token challengers and harshly suppressing opposition voices, Putin extended his nearly quarter-century rule for six more years.

As CBS News senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports, the highly-predictable election results set Putin up to be the longest serving Russian leader in 200 years. But there were small acts of visible protest against the voting, which was held just one month after Putin's most potent critic, opposition leader Alexey Navalny, died in a remote prison in Russia's far north.

Russia's Central Election Commission said Monday that with nearly 100% of all precincts counted, Putin had won 87.29% of the vote. Commission chief Ella Pamfilova said nearly 76 million voters cast their ballots for Putin, his highest vote tally ever.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference at his campaign headquarters in Moscow early on March,18, 2024. Getty Images

Putin, 71, hailed the overwhelming results as an indication of "trust" and "hope" in him. Critics saw his landslide win, however, as merely another reflection of the preordained nature of the election.

"Of course, we have lots of tasks ahead. But I want to make it clear for everyone: When we were consolidated, no one has ever managed to frighten us, to suppress our will and our self-conscience. They failed in the past and they will fail in the future," Putin said at a news conference at his campaign headquarters in Moscow early Monday, hours after the polls closed.

Putin on Navalny in prisoner swap

Putin referenced Navalny by name for the first time in public at the news conference, declaring that he was ready to release him in a swap for unidentified inmates in Western custody just days before the opposition leader's death.

"As for Mr. Navalny. Yes, he passed away. This is always a sad event," AFP quotes him as saying, adding that Putin remarked that a colleague had proposed several days before Navalny died that Navalny be exchanged for "some people" currently held in Western nations.

"The person who was talking to me hadn't finished his sentence and I said 'I agree,'" AFP reports Putin said.

Navalny supporters have alleged that Putin ordered his killing on the eve of the swap, AFP notes. 

If he finishes his upcoming term, Putin will have been in power longer than any Russian leader since Catherine the Great in the 18th century, the French news agency AFP pointed out.

Public criticism of Putin and his war in Ukraine has been stifled in Russia. Independent media have been crippled. Former Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane explosion in August 2023, two months after he led an armed rebellion against Moscow's military leadership. Putin's fiercest political foe, Navalny, died in prison last month, and other major critics are either dead, imprisoned  or in exile.

Beyond the fact that voters had virtually no choice, independent monitoring of the election was extremely limited.

Putin critics make their presence felt  

Even with little margin for protest, Russians crowded outside polling stations at noon on Sunday, the last day of the election, apparently heeding a call from Navalny's movement to express their displeasure with the president. 

Lines outside a number of polling stations both inside Russia and at its embassies around the world appeared to swell at that time.

Among those heeding call was Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny's widow, who spent more than five hours in the line at the Russian Embassy in Berlin. She told reporters that she wrote her late husband's name on her ballot.

Elections in Russia - Russian Embassy Berlin
Yulia Navalnaya, widow of Alexei Navalny, speaks to the media after casting her vote for the presidential election in Russia at the Russian Embassy in Berlin. Carsten Koall / picture alliance via Getty Images

Asked whether she had a message for Putin, Navalnaya replied: "Please stop asking for messages from me or from somebody for Mr. Putin. There could be no negotiations and nothing with Mr. Putin, because he's a killer, he's a gangster."

But Putin brushed off the effectiveness of the apparent protest.

"There were calls to come vote at noon. And this was supposed to be a manifestation of opposition. Well, if there were calls to come vote, then... I praise this," he said at a news conference after polls closed.

Some Russians waiting to vote in Moscow and St. Petersburg told The Associated Press they were taking part in the protest but it wasn't possible to confirm whether all of those in line were doing so. A voter in Moscow, who identified himself only as Vadim, said he hoped for change, but added that "unfortunately, it's unlikely." Like others, he didn't give his full name because of security concerns.

Meanwhile, supporters of Navalny streamed to his grave in Moscow, some bringing ballots with his name written on them.

Meduza, Russia's biggest independent news outlet, published photos of ballots it received from its readers, with "killer" inscribed on one and "The Hague awaits you" on another. The latter refers to an arrest warrant for Putin on war crimes charges from the International Criminal Court.

Several people were arrested, including in Moscow and St. Petersburg, after they tried to start fires or set off explosives at polling stations while others were detained for throwing green antiseptic or ink into ballot boxes.

Stanislav Andreychuk, co-chair of the Golos independent election watchdog, said Russians were searched when entering polling stations, there were attempts to check filled-out ballots before they were cast, and one report said police demanded a ballot box be opened to remove a ballot.

Some people told the AP they were happy to vote for Putin, however — unsurprising in a country where state TV airs a drumbeat of praise for the Russian leader and voicing any other opinion is risky.

Dmitry Sergienko, who cast his ballot in Moscow, said, "I am happy with everything and want everything to continue as it is now."

Reaction from around the world

Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the presidents of Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela quickly congratulated Putin on his victory, as did the leaders of the ex-Soviet Central Asian nations of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while the West dismissed the vote as a sham.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter: "This is not what free and fair elections look like."

And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy assailed Putin as a "dictator" who was "drunk from power," AFP reported, adding that Zelenskyy said: "There is no evil he will not commit to prolong his personal power."

Voting was held across Russia as well as in Russian-occupied portions of Ukraine, a move that was condemned by more than 50 countries in a joint statement issued by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller last week referred to voting in occupied Ukraine as "sham elections."

"The United States does not and will never recognize the legitimacy or outcome of these sham elections held in sovereign Ukraine as part of Russia's presidential elections," Miller said. 

When asked if the U.S. would recognize Putin as an elected president, Miller said, "We will watch the election, and I'm sure we'll have plenty to say when it concludes."  

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