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Russian groups document ‘dirty’ vote as election commission certifies Putin win

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his address to the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2022. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Observers continue to document irregularities in Russia’s presidential election as the Central Election Commission (TsIK) announced Vladimir Putin had officially won a landslide victory in a vote that the international community has called a “sham” and not “free and fair.”

TsIK said final results from the May 15-17 vote showed Putin won another six-year term with 87.3 percent of the vote amid a brutal crackdown on civil society that saw dissent stifled and any real challengers to Putin’s reign imprisoned, forced into exile, or ruled out from running on technical reasons, which came as no surprise to Kremlin critics and close watchers of Russian politics.

While Western election observers were banned from monitoring the balloting, several local groups and independent media outlets estimated that as many as one-third of votes may have been falsified or tampered with in some way.

The Golos independent vote-monitoring group that Russia has labeled a “foreign agent” said two days after the election ended that its analysis of paper ballots only showed some 22 million of the record 76.3 million votes Putin recorded were the result of “pure stuffing.”

“The country did not see what was happening in the elections…. It was the most dirty, falsified presidential election in the history of the country,” Golos’s Ivan Shukshin said in an analysis of the proceedings.

The 71-year old Putin — who has ruled as either president or prime minister since 2000 — is set to surpass Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s nearly 30-year reign by the end of his new term to become the longest-serving Russian leader in more than two centuries.

The vote was the first for Putin since he launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 that has killed tens of thousands of Russians and led to a clear break in relations with the West.

Speaking after TsIK announced the final results on March 21, Putin thanked voters for “choosing the path the country will proceed further” and expressed thanks to what he called trust the voters showed in “supporting the current political course.”

The vote was also held in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers are located. Moscow illegally annexed the regions since launching the invasion, though it remains unclear how much of the territory it controls.

In the tightly controlled race, Putin was opposed by three relatively unknown, Kremlin-friendly politicians whose campaigns were barely noticeable.

Prior to the election, the Kremlin banned anti-war politician Boris Nadezhdin from the ballot after tens of thousands of voters lined up in the cold to support his candidacy. Nadezhdin threatened to undermine the narrative of a nation united behind Putin and his war, experts said.

Russia’s opposition movement suffered a serious blow last month when Aleksei Navalny, who was Putin’s fiercest and most popular critic, died in unclear circumstances in a maximum-security prison in the Arctic where he was serving a 19-year sentence on charges of extremism widely seen as politically motivated.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia, has urged the international community to refuse to recognize Putin as a “legitimate” leader of the country saying the elections have “no meaning.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told RFE/RL this week that Russia’s presidential election was “not free nor fair” and only confirms that Russia is “an authoritarian society,” adding that Moscow’s attempt to conduct the vote in occupied territories of Ukraine was a violation of international law.

Also this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Kremlin’s marginalization of civil society and the “intense repression” of independent voices in Russia mean the election “can only be described as undemocratic.”