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Putin extends one-man rule in Russia after stage-managed election devoid of credible opposition

President Vladimir Putin has tightened his grip on the country he has ruled since the turn of the century, winning Russia’s stage-managed election by an overwhelming majority in a result that was a foregone conclusion.

Putin won 87.3% of the vote on a record turnout of 77.5%, the Central Election Commission (CEC) reported Monday after all the ballots from the three-day presidential vote were counted.

The result means Putin will rule until at least 2030, when he will be 77. Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, he will secure a third full decade of rule.

With most opposition candidates either dead, jailed, exiled or barred from running – and with dissent effectively outlawed in Russia since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – Putin faced no credible challenge to his rule.

The candidates allowed to oppose Putin were carefully curated by the Kremlin. His nearest rival, Nikolay Kharitonov of the Communist Party, had won just 4.3% of the ballots counted.

The result was inevitable – Putin’s spokesman said last year that the vote was “not really democracy” but “costly bureaucracy” – but the ritual of elections is nonetheless crucially important to the Kremlin as a means of confirming Putin’s authority.

The ritual used to be held every four years, before the law was changed in 2008 to extend presidential terms to six years. Later constitutional changes removed presidential term limits, potentially allowing Putin to stay in power until 2036.

In a victory lap at his election headquarters late Sunday, Putin said the election had “consolidated” national unity and that there were “many tasks ahead” for Russia as it continues its course of confrontation with the West.

“No matter how hard anyone tries to frighten us, whoever tries to suppress us, our will, our consciousness, no one has ever managed to have done such a thing in history, and it won’t happen now and it won’t happen in the future. Never,” he said.

Putin on Navalny’s death

Putin’s fiercest opponents have died in recent months.

After leading a failed uprising in June, Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed two months later after his plane crashed while traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The Kremlin denied any involvement in Prigozhin’s death.

The elections were held a month after Alexey Navalny, Putin’s most formidable opponent, died in an Arctic penal colony. Navalny’s family and supporters have accused Putin of being responsible for his death, a claim rejected by the Kremlin.

In his Sunday evening address, Putin made an unprecedented break with his tradition of not uttering Navalny’s name, discussing his death and confirming discussions over a potential prisoner swap involving the opposition figure. Navalny’s allies had previously claimed he was “days away” from being exchanged before his death.

“As for Mr. Navalny – yes, he passed away. It is always a sad event. And there were other cases when people in prisons passed away. Didn’t this happen in the United States? It did, and not once,” he said.

Putin said a few days before Navalny’s death, he was told of a proposal to exchange him for prisoners held in Western countries. “The person who spoke to me had not finished his sentence yet when I said I agree,” Putin said. “But, unfortunately, what happened [Navalny’s death] happened. There was only one condition that we will exchange him for him not to come back. Let him sit there. Well, such things happen. There’s nothing you can do about it, that’s life.”

Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny's widow, waits in line near the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, around noon local time, March 17, 2024. - Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny's widow, waits in line near the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, around noon local time, March 17, 2024. - Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Acts of defiance

Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, had urged Russians to turn out collectively as a show of opposition on Sunday, the final day of voting across Russia’s 11 time zones and 88 federal subjects. In the runup, the Kremlin warned against unsanctioned gatherings.

A CNN team in Moscow saw the line outside a polling station grow rapidly at midday as part of the so-called “Noon Against Putin” demonstrations inspired by Navalny. A woman waiting in line told CNN: “This is the first time in my life I have ever seen a queue for elections.” Asked why she had come at that hour, she replied: “You know why. I think everybody in this queue knows why.”

Similar protests were staged at Russian embassies across Europe, with large crowds gathering at noon in London, Paris and elsewhere. Navalnaya attended a demonstration in Berlin, waiting in line with other voters in a display of opposition.

The election was also marred by more graphic acts of defiance. As of Saturday, Russia had filed at least 15 criminal cases after people poured dye in ballot boxes, started fires or lobbed Molotov cocktails at polling stations. Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia’s CEC, said 29 polling stations across 20 regions in Russia were targeted, including eight arson attempts.

More than 60 Russians were detained across at least 16 cities on the final day of voting, according to independent human rights group OVD-Info.

Voters wait in line at a polling station in St. Petersburg, Russia, at noon local time, March 17, 2024. - AP
Voters wait in line at a polling station in St. Petersburg, Russia, at noon local time, March 17, 2024. - AP

Wartime election

Russia also held the presidential election in four Ukrainian regions it annexed during its full-scale invasion. Ukraine said the elections violated international law and would be designated “null and void.”

Russian-installed authorities in occupied Ukraine reported high turnout of more than 80%. But evidence has emerged of voter coercion. Russian Telegram channels have shown Russian soldiers accompanying election officials as they go house-to-house to collect votes.

One video from Luhansk showed an elderly woman inside her apartment filling out an election paper and putting it in the ballot box, while a man in army fatigues stands over her with a rifle slung across his chest.

After the release of preliminary results Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called Putin a “dictator” and Russia’s election a “sham.”

“It is clear to everyone in the world that this individual, as has happened so often in history, is simply sick with power and is doing everything he can to rule for life. There is no evil he will not commit to prolong his personal power. And there is no one in the world who is immune to this,” Zelensky said.

The election comes after more than two years of war which have exacted huge costs on the Russian population. The Kremlin keeps its casualty numbers shrouded in secrecy, but Western officials believe more than 300,000 Russian troops have been killed or injured on the battlefields of Ukraine.

Responding Sunday to a journalist’s question about French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments last month that he would not rule out sending European forces to Ukraine, Putin said such a move would be “one step from the third World War.”

A man leaves a voting booth at a polling station in St. Petersburg, March 16, 2024. - Dmitri Lovetsky/AP
A man leaves a voting booth at a polling station in St. Petersburg, March 16, 2024. - Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

New avenues

Putin’s invasion has reshaped the world’s post-Cold War geopolitical axes, prompting the West to treat Russia as a pariah state after decades of more amicable relations. The war has also shrunk Putin’s world, after the International Criminal Court last year issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine, obliging more than 100 countries to arrest the Russian leader if he sets foot on their soil.

But the war has also opened new avenues for Russia, which has sought to forge new partnerships and strengthen existing ones. Russia’s relations with China, North Korea and Iran – which have not condemned the invasion – have deepened, and Putin has attempted to court countries in the Global South as he pitches a vision of a world not led by the West.

Putin’s critics accuse him of inventing foreign policy problems to distract from his government’s inability to solve Russia’s myriad domestic problems, from low life expectancy to widespread poverty.

While Russia weathered sanctions imposed by Western countries better than expected, the conflict has warped its economy by sucking resources into military production. Inflation has spiked, basic goods like eggs have become unaffordable, and tens of thousands of young professionals have left the country.

Gauging popular opinion is difficult in authoritarian countries like Russia, where monitoring organizations operate under strict surveillance and many fear criticizing the Kremlin.

But the Levada Center, a non-governmental polling organization, reports that nearly half of Russians strongly support the war in Ukraine and more than three quarters are somewhat supportive. Levada also reports Putin’s approval rating at over 80% – a figure virtually unknown among Western politicians and a substantial increase compared to the three years before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

CNN’s Katharina Krebs, Nathan Hodge, Josh Pennington, Radina Gigova, Andrew Carey, Olga Voitovych, Maria Kostenko, Darya Tarasova and Mariya Knight contributed reporting.

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