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What Putin’s Latest Win Means for Russia

March 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
With a 64 percent landslide, Vladimir Putin claimed his third term as Russia's president Sunday, prompting celebrations, protests and accusations of voting fraud. Protesters vowed to continue demonstrating until their demands for democracy are met. Margaret Warner reports from Moscow on Russia's varying reactions to the vote.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, Vladimir Putin’s election victory gets mixed reviews at home and abroad.

Margaret Warner has been covering the story for us from Moscow.

MARGARET WARNER: Vladimir Putin strode into his campaign headquarters after midnight, buoyed by winning a third term as president and six more years as Russia’s preeminent leader.

Putin took a victory lap by satellite with managers and workers at a Ural Mountains metals factory. Amid thanks for their support, he took shots at the protest movement that broke out after December’s disputed parliamentary elections.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian prime minister (through translator): You put in our place those who dare to insult the working people. You showed what a real Russian working man is. You showed that you are high above any of those good-for-nothing chatterboxes, and it became the biggest present for me.

MARGARET WARNER: That present was celebrated tonight at a jubilant pro-Putin concert outside the Kremlin gates, while a half-mile-away passed a riot-ready contingent of police and military. The opposition gathered at Pushkin Square to denounce Putin’s election.

MIKHAIL MIROV, student (through translator): Putin’s victory is unfair. He could have won in a fair fashion, but he preferred to use fraud. That’s why we do not accept his victory.

MARGARET WARNER: Election authorities conceded today there may have been some irregularities. Independent and opposition party monitors charged there were 3,000 or more. They sent tens of thousands of observers to the polls armed with smartphone apps and wary eyes. Social media spread videos showing buses allegedly ferrying voters to cast ballots in multiple locations and cited by activist blogger Alexei Navalny.

ALEXEI NAVALNY, opposition activist (through translator): We already have a lot of physical evidence and video recording of the falsifications.

MARGARET WARNER: But given the 64 percent landslide, the larger debate was over what voters were really saying and what Putin would hear.

In a village near Moscow yesterday, a retired teacher lauded Putin for providing stability and security.

SVETLANA CHEREPANOVA, retired teacher (through translator): I voted for Putin. I would like him to be even more of a strong man, without any liberal compromises.

MARGARET WARNER: But art historian Natalya Simonova voted none of the above.

NATALYA SIMONOVA, art historian: We want to express our feeling that we are something and the government should hear our voice.

MARGARET WARNER: In Moscow, this telecom sales manager shows billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who got only 7 percent, but mostly to send a zinger to Putin.

LEONID FEOKTISTOV, telecommunications sales manager: I voted for Prokhorov in order to let the authorities know that there are different opinions.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he’s going to listen to that message?

LEONID FEOKTISTOV: I think he’s a clever man. That’s my own opinion, personal. So, I think that if he does his homework, does his — you know, he would spend a little more time on real thinking about what people need, he can do that. I believe in him.

ALEXEI PUSHKOV, chairman, State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs: I think Putin is a hard-headed realist, actually. I think the signals he got in the last two months, they matter. And they have impressed him.

MARGARET WARNER: Alexei Pushkov, newly elected chairman of Parliament’s International Affairs Committee, believes Putin will loosen his tightfisted control, but that people who voted for and against him have something in common.

ALEXEI PUSHKOV: They want a more democratic system. They want the authorities to listen more to the population, to the citizens of the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Putin takes office in May. The protesters vow to keep returning to go the streets until their demands for more participation are met.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Brown spoke with Margaret a short while ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret, hello.

So, things got quite a bit rougher this evening, with riot police moving in to disperse the crowds and the arrest of some opposition figures. What can you tell us?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right, Jeff.

After we left Pushkin Square, this rally which had been allowed by the authorities from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., most people left, but some people stayed on. And the authorities made very clear, either move out or you’re going to be arrested.

And at some point around 10:00, they started moving in on them, arrested, it’s estimated, some 250 of these activists, including the prominent blogger, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who’s in our piece and we interviewed last week.

He kept blogging from — or tweeting, rather, from the paddy wagon and the station. And the most recent one, which was just a few minutes ago, said, well, they’re going to fine me. And I should be out in an hour or two.

But, clearly, the Russian government was sending a message that there are going to be some boundaries here on demonstrations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you reported that a number of watchdog groups have raised questions about voting abuses. What does the opposition say about how hard it will push back on this question of the fairness of the election?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, they’re going to push back.

First of all, they have filed thousands of complaints. And all of those are supposedly to be investigated. Secondly, they have told me, because they had monitors in almost every polling place that got certificates actually of what the vote was at a particular — at the end of the day, that once the election commission comes out with their final, final results on I think it’s Friday, they’re going to — a monitor will be able to compare the certificate he or she has with what the election commission says occurred.

And if there’s a discrepancy, then you’re going to hear a lot. So I think the question really for the opposition is, yes, they’re going to keep that issue going, but it’s really what do they do next politically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so that is the question. What does happen? What kind of presence do they seem themselves being now and on what issues? Is any of that clear yet?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what they say is they want a really fundamental rewriting of the political rules of the road.

And they want something that is really outside what the constitution provides, which is for Putin to invite these liberal activist leaders into a dialogue, redraw the political rules to make it even easier to form political parties — Putin and Medvedev have already announced some changes in that regard — and then, once that’s done, actually hold new parliamentary elections, not in December 2016, when they’re scheduled, but maybe in a year or two.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, that goes to the big question for the opposition and everyone else. What of Vladimir Putin now that this election is behind him? Does he rule with a lighter hand or crack down further? What’s the early thinking there?

MARGARET WARNER: I’ll tell you, Jeff, that is the big unanswered question. For a figure who has been in public life as long as he has, he’s really opaque.

Again, he did send a message tonight — or at least the Russian government send a message. He did invite, on the other hand, all his rivals over to his residence today and talked about investigating these fraud allegations. But the real question is, does he liberalize politically, or does he continue treating them with the disdain that he did when they first started demonstrating back in December, when he compared the white ribbons they wear to condoms?

And, certainly, the comments he made last night didn’t seem to give them any quarter. I was at a very interesting dinner last week with some very senior, well-connected observers and writers in Moscow. And it was fascinating what a split of opinion there was about Putin.

Some people said, he’s really flexible and adaptive. He’ll do whatever it takes to get in power. He knows that if his legitimacy is questioned, it will undermine his authority. So, he will probably liberalize.

Others said: Absolutely not. This is a man, a KGB intelligence officer obsessed with control. He only knows how to rule through fear or favor. He is incapable temperamentally really of the give-and-take of politics.

And nobody knows.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, Margaret, what’s been the U.S. reaction? You were expecting to have an interview with U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul tonight, but I gather that was called off.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right. He was supposed to be standing right here next to me, Jeff.

It was called off by the White House. This is a very delicate situation, because the reset — so-called reset the Obama administration has worked with now President Medvedev of the relationship really is in trouble because of the campaign, because of criticism by Secretary Clinton and others of the fairness of the December elections.

Putin took umbrage at that. He has responded by accusing the U.S. — and, in fact, Europe, too — of trying to — of criticizing the election process as a way of weakening Russia. This is a serious situation as far as the Obama administration is concerned, because they have so many issues they want to continue to do — they need Russian cooperation on, Iran and North Korea and moving troops in and out of Afghanistan.

And so the administration is treading very gingerly here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay.

Margaret Warner in Moscow, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Jeff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To see all of Margaret’s reports from Russia and links to additional coverage from our partners at Public Radio International’s “The World,” visit our website at NewsHour.PBS.org.