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Putin Softens Rhetoric Toward West Amid Criticism Over Landslide Win


Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with campaign staff at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 19.

MOSCOW -- Vladimir Putin has softened his rhetoric toward the West after winning a fourth term as Russia's president in a landslide victory the United States said it expected and international observers chided for giving voters no "real choice."

A nearly complete ballot count showed Putin winning 76.7 percent of the vote, Central Election Commission said on March 19 -- more than he received in any of his three previous elections and the highest percentage handed to any post-Soviet Russian leader.

Voter turnout was over 67 percent and the other seven candidates were far behind, it said.

While tainted by allegations of fraud -- in some cases backed by webcam footage appearing to show blatant ballot-box stuffing -- the resounding win sets Moscow's longest-ruling leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin up for six more years in office amid severely strained ties with the West.

Putin's government-stoked popularity and the Kremlin's sway over politics nationwide after years of steps to sideline challengers made Putin's victory a foregone conclusion.

"We're not surprised by the outcome," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters on Air Force One, which was carrying President Donald Trump to New Hampshire, adding that no congratulatory phone call between the two leaders was scheduled.

"We will work to cultivate the relationship with Russia and we will impose costs when Russia threatens our interests, but we will also look for places to work together when it serves our interests," Gidley said.

At home, tensions with the West may only have bolstered Putin's popular image as a defender of Russia and given credence to his assertions that Russia is surrounded by foreign enemies.

The United States on March 15 imposed another round of sanctions on Russian entities and individuals over what Washington says was Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Amid severely strained ties, Putin said on March 19 that Russia wanted to build "constructive" relations with other countries but that "not everything depends on us.”

Russia will not "instigate some arms race" and "will spare no effort to settle all disputes with our partners by political and diplomatic means," Putin said, adding that Moscow will always defend its own national interests.

Putin -- who warned the West on March 1 that Russia had deployed or developed formidable new nuclear arms -- vowed to decrease defense spending but said there will be no problem finding money for weapons and national defense.

The head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, talks to reporters on March 19.
The head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, talks to reporters on March 19.

Central Election Commission chief Pamfilova said voting results had been annulled in five districts amid reports of ballot-stuffing, but she denied any incidents of observers being attacked or blocked from polling stations, despite apparent video evidence posted online.

She asserted that were "at least two times fewer" violations than in the 2012 presidential vote, which put Putin back in the Kremlin after four years as prime minister.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had more than 500 observers in Russia for the vote, said that while legal and technical aspects of the election were well administered, "the extensive coverage in most media of the incumbent as president resulted in an uneven playing field."

"Choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice," Michael Georg Link, special coordinator and leader of the OSCE's short-term observer mission, told reporters in Moscow.

"But where the legal framework restricts many fundamental freedoms and the outcome is not in doubt, elections almost lose their purpose -- empowering people to choose their leaders," he added.

Foreign Reactions

Among the first leaders to congratulate Putin was Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has just been handed a second term himself and appeared to be positioned for indefinite rule after presidential term limits were lifted last week.

Putin Celebrates Victory With Supporters
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Other authoritarian leaders -- incuding Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, Belarus's Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Egypt's Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro -- were also quick to congratulate Putin.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has received crucial Russian backing in a devastating civil conflict that has led to war crimes accusations, called the election result the "natural outcome of [Putin's] outstanding...performance."

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Aleksandar Vucic, the president of traditional Russian ally Serbia, also congratulated Putin.

But amid worsening tensions between the West and Russia after the poisoning of a former spy with a potent nerve agent -- an attack Britain blames on Moscow -- many leaders chose their words cautiously when they spoke to Putin.

Ballot-Stuffing Caught On Camera At Russian Polls
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In a phone call, French President Emmanuel Macron wished Putin "success for the political, democratic, economic, and social modernization" of Russia, and urged him to shed light on the "unacceptable" poisoning, the Elysee Palace said.

Angela Merkel said in a message to Putin on March 19 that while the German chancellor “warmly” congratulated Putin, she also but also pointed to tension in relations with Moscow.

"Today it is more important than ever to continue the dialogue with each other and to advance the relations between our countries and our people," she said.

"We should therefore strive to constructively address important bilateral and international challenges and find viable solutions," she added.

The editor in chief of state-funded network RT, meanwhile, asserted that Western policies and attitudes had prompted Russians to unite around Putin and made him stronger than ever. She seemed to suggest he could remain in power indefinitely.

Railing against the West and praising Putin in a tirade on Twitter, Margarita Simonyan said that "as soon as you declared him the enemy, you united us" around Putin.

"Before, he was just our president and he could have been replaced. But now he is our chief," she wrote, using a noun -- "vozhd" -- that is often associated with Stalin. "And we will not let [you] replace him."

Putin And The Seven Dwarves

Putin's comments about foreign ties came during a meeting with the other candidates, whom he called on to cooperate and "be guided by the long-term interests of Russia and the Russian people, always putting group or party preferences on the back burner."

Putin's record-high official result put him miles ahead of the seven others on the ballot, who Kremlin critics have said were window-dressing to create the illusion of competition.

The election commission said Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin was second with almost 12 percent, followed by flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with almost 6 percent and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak with about 1.7 percent.

The four other candidates -- liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, nationalist Sergei Baburin, Communists of Russia candidate Maksim Suraikin, and centrist Boris Titov -- had 1 percent apiece or less.

Speaking to reporters after a late-night rally on voting day, Putin suggested that he would not seek the presidency again in 2030 --when he would next be eligible because of a limit of two consecutive terms.

But he left the door open to a potential move to change the constitution in order to maintain power past 2024 in some capacity, saying only that he is "not planning any constitutional reforms for now."

Reports Of Fraud

With help from state media, Putin is riding a wave of popularity on the fourth anniversary of Moscow's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region and in the wake of a military intervention in Syria that has been played up on Russian television as a patriotic success.

But reports of fraud dogged the election. Independent monitor Golos received reports of nearly 3,000 alleged violations.

Sergei Shpilkin, a physicist and data analyst who has studied fraud in previous Russian elections, suggested that nearly 10 million "extra" votes -- apparently all for Putin -- may have been added through falsified turnout figures.

Voters were bussed to the polls in many places, according to supporters of Aleksei Navalny, the opposition leader barred from running in the election.

They also reported hundreds of cases of alleged voter fraud, notably in Moscow and St. Petersburg, two areas where Putin has relatively low support.

Some voters in various regions said they had been pressured by their employers or teachers to vote and take a photograph of themselves at the polling station as evidence of their participation.

While official turnout was robust even in Moscow, where it has often been lower than in the provinces, there was palpable apathy at some polling stations.

Some Russians said they felt powerless to influence politics in a country dominated by Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999.

"There is no real choice," said 20-year-old Yevgeny Kiva, who was paid by a local election committee to wear a clown suit and dance with children at a polling station in Moscow.

Navalny, who has organized large street protests and alleged extravagant corruption among the ruling elite, was barred from the ballot because of a conviction on embezzlement charges he contends were fabricated by the Kremlin.

With reporting by Christopher Miller in Moscow, RFE/RL's Russian Service, Current Time TV, Meduza, Dozhd, BBC, Reuters, Time, TASS, Interfax, and RIA Novosti
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