Sergei Grits, Associated Press
MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin scored a decisive victory in Russia's presidential election Sunday to return to the Kremlin and extend his hold on power for six more years. His eyes brimming with tears, he defiantly proclaimed to a sea of supporters that they had triumphed over opponents intent on "destroying Russia's statehood and usurping power."
Putin's win was never in doubt as many across the vast country still see him as a guarantor of stability and the defender of a strong Russia against a hostile world, an image he has carefully cultivated during 12 years in power.
Accounts by independent observers of extensive vote-rigging, however, looked set to strengthen the resolve of opposition forces whose unprecedented protests in recent months have posed the first serious challenge to Putin's heavy-handed rule. Another huge demonstration was set for Monday evening in central Moscow.
Putin claimed victory Sunday night when fewer than a quarter of the votes had been counted. He spoke to a rally just outside the Kremlin walls of tens of thousands of supporters, many of them government workers or employees of state-owned companies who had been ordered to attend.
"I promised that we would win and we have won!" Putin shouted to the flag-waving crowd. "We have won in an open and honest struggle."
Putin, 59, said the election showed that "our people can easily distinguish a desire for renewal and revival from political provocations aimed at destroying Russia's statehood and usurping power."
He ended his speech with the triumphant declaration: "Glory to Russia!"
The West can expect Putin to continue the tough policies he has pursued even as prime minister, including opposing U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe and resisting international military intervention in Syria.
Exit polls cited by state television predicted Putin would get about 59 percent of the vote. With more than 90 percent of precincts counted nationwide, Putin was leading with 65 percent, the Central Election Commission said. Complete results were expected Monday.
Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov was a distant second, followed by Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team whose candidacy was approved by the Kremlin in what was seen as an effort to channel some of the protest sentiment. The clownish nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and socialist Sergei Mironov trailed behind. The leader of the liberal opposition Yabloko party was barred from the race.
"These elections are not free. ... That's why we'll have protests tomorrow. We will not recognize the president as legitimate," said Mikhail Kasyanov, who was Putin's first prime minister before going into opposition.
The wave of protests began after a December parliamentary election in which observers produced evidence of widespread vote fraud. Protest rallies in Moscow drew tens of thousands in the largest outburst of public anger in post-Soviet Russia, demonstrating growing exasperation with the pervasive corruption and tight controls over political life under Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008 before moving into the prime minister's office due to term limits.
Golos, Russia's leading independent elections watchdog, said it received numerous reports of "carousel voting," in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.
After the polls closed, Golos said the number of violations appeared just as high as in December.
"If during the parliamentary elections, we saw a great deal of ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting ... this time we saw the deployment of more subtle technologies," said Andrei Buzin, who heads the monitoring operations at Golos.
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