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WORLD | 18-03-2024 12:05

Kremlin hails 'exceptional' Putin win in vote blasted by West

In power since the last day of 1999, Vladimir Putin is now on course to become the longest-serving Russian leader in more than two centuries.

The Kremlin hailed President Vladimir Putin's election win as "exceptional" on Monday, after the ex-spy won over 87 percent of the vote in a three-day ballot blasted as illegitimate by Western powers.

Moscow has presented the weekend presidential election as proof that Russians have rallied around Putin more than two years into the Ukraine offensive.

Putin's victory is widely expected to further tighten his grip on Russia, where dissent is no longer tolerated under fast-accelerating repression.

In power since the last day of 1999, he is now on course to become the longest-serving Russian leader in more than two centuries.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the result showed Russians were consolidating "around his [Putin's] path."

All of the 71-year-old's major opponents are dead, in prison or in exile and voting took place a month after Putin's main challenger Alexei Navalny died in prison.

Authorities had called on Russians to take part in the vote out of patriotic duty.

Kremlin-friendly electoral chief Ella Pamfilova said Putin had won a "record" result and got "almost 76 million" votes.

The West slammed the election as unfair but Pamfilova, speaking on state television, dismissed the statements as made by "a dying branch of humanity."

She said international OSCE observers were not invited because they were "in the hands of the Anglo-Saxons."

Despite no real competition, her commission said the vote ran smoothly and fairly.

But Golos, an independent Russian election observer, said: "We have never seen a presidential campaign that fell so far short of constitutional standards."  

 

Ballot spoilers to be 'dealt with'

The three-day vote – also held in occupied Ukraine – was marred by spoiled ballots and Ukrainian bombardments.

Thousands responded to the opposition's call to protest the election by forming long queues at polling stations – both inside and outside Russia.

Yulia Navalnaya – who has vowed to continue her late husband Alexei's work – queued with crowds in Berlin Sunday and said she had written his name on her ballot paper.

Moscow had warned Russians not to take part in the protests and on Monday dismissed the opposition.

"There are many people who... have completely broken away from the motherland," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. 

"Yulia Navalnaya, whom you mentioned, belongs to this group of people who lose their roots," he added.

Moscow has regularly blasted the hundreds of thousands of Russians who fled their country in the aftermath of the Ukraine offensive as traitors.

Ballots were also spoiled by green dye and there were several incidents of voting booths being set on fire. 

Putin on Sunday warned that Russians who spoiled their ballots "have to be dealt with" and dismissed opposition protests as having "no effect."

 

'That's life'

Putin on Sunday also said Navalny's name for the first time in public – breaking his years-long tradition of never referring to his opponent by name.

It was the first time he had commented on Navalny's death in prison on February 16th.

Putin alleged that he had green-lighted an initiative for a prisoner swap including Navalny for Russians held in Western jails – confirming allegations made by Navalny's team.

"I agreed on one condition: for us to exchange him and for him not to return," Putin said. 

He said Navalny died days later. 

"But this happens. There is nothing that you can do about it. That's life."

He did not say how Navalny died.

The Kremlin on Monday stressed that Putin did not say there were negotiations, only that "the idea was put forward and that he agreed to it."

Navalny's team alleges that he was killed on the eve of a prisoner swap with the West.

Navalny is the latest Putin opponent to die in mysterious circumstances that have not been fully clarified by the Kremlin.

 

West slams vote

The Kremlin said Putin held phone calls with his ex-Soviet allies in Central Asia, Belarus and Azerbaijan after the vote. He also received congratulations from other authoritarian countries such as China, North Korea, Venezuela and Myanmar, Russian state media said.

Putin reaffirmed growing ties with Beijing in his victory speech.

Whereas the previous four presidential elections Putin won since 2000 saw Western leaders pour in their congratulations, his victory this time was met with scathing statements.

"This election has been based on repression and intimidation," the EU's foreign minister Josep Borrell said.

The United Kingdom also slammed the vote as unfair.

"Putin removes his political opponents, controls the media, and then crowns himself the winner. This is not democracy," Britain's Foreign Secretary David Cameron said in a statement.

Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Putin was a "dictator" who wanted to "rule forever."

Kyiv stepped up attacks on Russian soil in the run-up and during the election. Russia said Monday that another two people were killed in the Belgorod border region.

 

'Illegitimate'

Former oligarch and prominent Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Monday called on Western governments not to recognise Putin's election win.

"It is now about... finally publicly recognising Putin as illegitimate," Khodorkovsky told journalists in Berlin.

"We have high expectations for Western society, who we ask to turn to their governments to ask them not to recognise Putin as legitimate," he said in an event at the Center for Liberal Modernity think tank. "When Western heads of state and government shake Putin's hand, that is a very strong legitimation for Putin at home."

Former oil tycoon Khodorkovsky spent a decade in prison after challenging Putin early in his rule and has financed Kremlin-critical projects from exile.

Based in London, Khodorkovsky met Yulia Navalnaya on Sunday as she voted in the Russian presidential elections in Berlin.

The pair held discussions outside the Russian Embassy, where thousands of people lined up to cast their ballots in a sign of protest.

The opposition mobilisation from noon Sunday was organised in memory of Navalny, and saw huge crowds gather at polling stations abroad and in Russia.

Opposition figures including Navalnaya were agreed on the "key questions," Khodorkovsky said, dismissing talk of divisions.

"We no longer want Putin in power and we want to create clarity with honest, transparent elections," he said.

Sunday's election results had "nothing to do with reality," Irina Scherbakova, co-founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Russian rights organisation Memorial, told AFP in Berlin.

Putin's 87-percent share of the vote showed "the rise of this dictatorship," Scherbakova said.

The apparent landslide was a "very threatening symbol", she said, warning of "hard times" ahead for the domestic opposition in Russia.

"We have to expect that violence and repression will be used and that Putin will want revenge."

The election had however shown that there were "many people who are not afraid to actually express their opinion," she said.

 

– TIMES/AFP

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