Vladimir Putin celebrated his re-election this weekend
Vladimir Putin has coasted to a fourth term as Russia's president, scoring a landslide victory in an election Kremlin opponents said was marred by fraud and international observers said gave voters no "real choice."
A nearly complete ballot count showed Putin winning 76.7 percent of the vote, Central Election Commission chief Ella Pamfilova said on March 19, 2018 — 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, she 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.
The Kremlin in Moscow, Russia.
"Choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice," Michael Georg Link, special coordinator and leader of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) 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.
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 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."
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.
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, congratulated Putin on a result he called the "natural outcome of your 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.
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's spokesman said at midday on March 19, 2018, that the German chancellor would send Putin a congratulatory telegram "very soon," but also pointed to tension in relations with Moscow.
"We have differences of opinion with Russia and we very clearly criticize Russia's policies on some issues -- Ukraine, Syria," Steffen Seibert said, adding that it was nonetheless important to maintain contact with the Russian leadership.
Heiko Maas, Germany's new foreign minister, questioned the fairness of the election and said Moscow will remain "a difficult partner," although he added that the European Union must be able to continue to talk to Russia.
"The result of the election in Russia was as unsurprising to us as the circumstances of the election. We can't talk about a fair political competition in all respects as we would understand it," he said in Brussels ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
"Russia will remain a difficult partner. But Russia will also be needed for solutions to the big international conflicts and so we want to remain in dialogue," Maas said.
Putin: 'No new arms race'
The United States on March 15, 2018, 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, 2018, 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, 2018, 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 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.
One of the other four Russian candidates, Grigory Yavlinsky.
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.