Russia election: Putin basks in election he could not lose

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Moscow

media captionHow the Russian election unfolded

It was the victory rally he never doubted he'd join. Two hours after the last polling stations in western Russia closed, Vladimir Putin strode on stage beneath the Kremlin walls to declare his re-election.

With a broad smile, he thanked the country for what he called "a vote of confidence" and promised to work for the future of a great nation. He then led the crowd of loyal, flag waving fans braving the freezing cold in a chant of "Russia! Russia!"

This was an election with eight candidates but one clear winner from the very start.

Russia's most popular opposition politician Alexei Navalny had been excluded and a communist candidate was vilified by state-run media.

The society-girl-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak ran her entire campaign on the basis she would lose.

image sourceAFP
image captionMs Sobchak (right) visited Mr Navalny (left) at his office on polling day

President Putin shunned the pre-election debates entirely while the other candidates made threats or burst into tears. No wonder some critics called the whole event a circus.

Dancing to Putin's tune

Turnout was the only real variable. So the vast majority of election billboards were not for individual candidates but simply reminders that Russians were "choosing a president".

On voting day itself there was music and entertainment to help pull in the crowds.

At one central Moscow polling station a man on a balalaika played Western rock hits in front of a stall selling cheap pies.

There was a mini-ice hockey game for children, and face-painting. Pensioners could take the chance to sign up for activities including ballroom dancing and keep fit.

It was all part of the effort to secure maximum support for another six years of Vladimir Putin.

image sourceReuters
image captionA child is pictured playing at one polling booth in Moscow on Sunday

The vote was held on the anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea, the moment when the president's rating had soared to a historic high.

"I want to see change, I am so tired of his leadership," Olga said, after casting her ballot for the only female candidate in the race. "I want to see my country develop in a different way."

"I'm not voting for Putin," Kirill agreed, recalling that Vladimir Putin had been in power since 2000. "He's been president too long and should go."

But the final result - a landslide victory - showed that the vast majority of voters disagreed.

"We have started to live much better under Putin, patriotism is spreading. It's wonderful," Gelena Zakharova said, one of many smartly-dressed voters emerging from a central Moscow polling station.

"Russia has become a very powerful country. We're rising from our knees. I really like it."

'Tough guy'

As Russia has "risen" relations with the West have sunk, most lately with furious accusations from the UK over the poisoning of a former Russian spy.

Shortly after his victory speech, Mr Putin made his first extended comments on the case calling claims of Russian involvement "utter nonsense" and insisting his country destroyed all chemical weapons "unlike our partners".

Most people here are baffled by the whole story.

image sourceAFP
image captionThe voters' mandate gives Mr Putin another six years as the country's president

To some, like Dmitry heading into another central Moscow polling station, it's a chance for their president to act tough on the world stage.

"He's one of the most powerful politicians in the world; a real tough guy and that's good."

But squaring up to the West only has limited appeal according to political analyst Ekaterina Shulman.

"The besieged fortress mentality is very useful to mobilise the incumbent. It reinforces the idea that there's no alternative," she says. "But it makes the electorate anxious and tired. It wears them out."

Ultimately she argues the focus will have to shift to people's real concerns - their shrinking wealth, health care, housing and education.

But judging by Vladimir Putin's first comments after victory, a sudden thaw in relations with the West looks unlikely.

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