Vladimir Putin today prepared to reoccupy the Kremlin after a crushing presidential election victory that Russian and foreign observers said had been skewed in his favour from the start.
Amid a growing controversy over the ballot’s fairness, tens of thousands of people were set to descend on central Moscow for a “Russia without Putin” protest that was to be followed by similar demonstrations throughout the week.
Putin secured almost 64 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, winning back the Russian presidency he held for two terms from 2000-2008 before his four-year stint as prime minister.
His nearest rival, the Communist Party boss Gennady Zyuganov, trailed well behind in the landslide victory and only tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov sprung a surprise by coming third despite building his political base from scratch.
But concerns of election-rigging shadowed the polls just as they had done after parliamentary elections on December 4, when claims of fraud sparked the first mass protests against Putin in over a decade in power.
“The Russian elections were neither free nor fair and were not in line with the demands of Russian law and international electoral standards,” said the independent vote monitor Golos, whose data showed Putin winning less than 51 percent.
International observers led by the OSCE said while there had been progress in transparency, the campaign had been massively tilted in favour of Putin and was followed by major irregularities in the vote count.
“Conditions (for the campaign) were clearly skewed in favour of… Vladimir Putin” while the vote count was “assessed negatively in almost one-third of polling stations observed due to procedural irregularities,” they said.
In a lukewarm European welcome to Putin’s election, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the bloc was “encouraging Russia to address these shortcomings”.
Britain for its part called Putin’s victory “decisive” while noting that the OSCE had “clearly identified some problems”.
However Putin received congratulations from Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and was expecting a similar call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime received strong backing from Russia despite almost global condemnation of its crackdown on dissent, also sent a congratulatory telegram to Putin, the Syrian state news agency said.
The OSCE-led report found “bad or very bad” vote counting procedures in 29 out of 98 observed cases and noted that Putin’s experiment with web cameras at polling stations “did not fulfil the expectations”.
The opposition had earlier raised concerns about so called “carousel” voting where people cast multiple ballots at different polling stations using absentee voting documents.
Putin said he would soon instruction election officials to “carefully check all the possible violations that were mentioned.”
Almost full results showed Putin winning 63.60 percent of the vote, better than most pre-election forecasts and well ahead of Zyuganov’s 17.18 percent.
The billionaire Prokhorov was in third with 7.97 percent, while the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky beat out former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov for fourth.
Opposition leaders are expecting tens of thousands of people to attend a rally in Pushkin Square later Monday that activists hope will be followed by a succession of similar actions to up the pressure against Putin.
In an unexpected move ahead of the protest, the Kremlin said outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev had ordered a review of the conviction of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose jailing the opposition sees as politically motivated.
Putin, whose new presidential mandate is for six years, will return to the Kremlin at a time of rapid social change in a Russia that is seeing an increasingly critical middle class and an explosion in Internet use.
But these concerns did not spoil his night as he appeared before more than 100,000 supporters just outside the Kremlin and appeared to wipe tears from his eyes, although he later claimed this was caused by the wind.
“I promised you we would win, we won. Glory to Russia!” Putin said.