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After a quarter century in power, Russian President Putin isn't going anywhere

Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin meets with the media at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2024.
Natatlia Kolesnikova
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin meets with the media at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2024.

Updated March 18, 2024 at 8:30 AM ET

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin won a landslide reelection victory on Sunday, taking 87% of the vote after a three-day election derided by government critics and the West as neither free nor fair.

Preliminary results of the presidential election are displayed on a screen at the campaign headquarters of Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 17, 2024.
Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Preliminary results of the presidential election are displayed on a screen at the campaign headquarters of Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Sunday.

Going into the vote, the Kremlin was believed to seek not merely victory but a historic turnout: one that showed the country more united than ever behind their leader, more than two years into the full scale invasion of Ukraine.

Russia's Central Elections Commission later issued data showing 77% of the country's eligible 114 million voters had cast ballots — a new post-Soviet record.

Yulia Navalnaya, widow of late Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, speaks to the media outside the Russian Embassy after she voted in Russian elections on March 17, 2024 in Berlin, Germany.
Sean Gallup / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Yulia Navalnaya, widow of late Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, speaks to the media outside the Russian Embassy after she voted in Russian elections on Sunday in Berlin.

"I want to thank all of you and all citizens of the country for your support and this trust," Putin said at campaign headquarters in Moscow early Monday.

Russian voters outside a voting precinct in central Moscow on Sunday as part of the "Noon Against Putin" protest.
Charles Maynes / NPR
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NPR
Russian voters outside a voting precinct in central Moscow on Sunday as part of the "Noon Against Putin" protest.

Later, fielding questions at a press conference, Putin derided claims the vote was undemocratic and said Russians had merely rallied behind him when faced with threats from Ukraine and an aggressive West.

"We have many tasks ahead. But when we are consolidated — no matter who wants to intimidate or suppress us — nobody has ever succeeded. Not in history, not now, nor will they ever succeed in the future," said Putin.

A woman holds a placard reading dictatorship is not our tradition during a gathering of Navalny supporters near the Russian Embassy in Paris on March 17, 2024, during Russia's presidential election.
Mathilde Kaczkowski / Hans Lucas/AFP via Getty Images
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Hans Lucas/AFP via Getty Images
A woman holds a placard reading dictatorship is not our tradition during a gathering of Navalny supporters near the Russian Embassy in Paris on Sunday, during Russia's presidential election.

Yet the outcome of the contest was never in doubt.

Putin's opponents in the race — all members of Russia's rubber-stamp parliament — barely ran campaigns or held any rallies at all. None received more than 5% of the vote.

Meanwhile, antiwar candidates were banned from the ballot over registration errors — undoing the will of thousands of Russians who backed their candidacies with cumbersome signature gathering campaigns.

"The Kremlin couldn't afford having these candidates in the race," says Abbas Gallaymov, a former Kremlin speech writer turned government critic in exile.

"The election would have turned into a referendum on the issue of war and peace," he adds, noting that was a referendum Putin would lose.

There were also widespread concerns of vote rigging — particularly given the election's unusual three-day schedule, expanded electronic voting, and the fact that Russia's military was charged with securing the vote in occupied territories of Ukraine.

Beneath the veneer of Putin's landslide, dissent was visible throughout the election.

According to a human rights monitoring group, at least 89 Russians were detained for a series of election-related protests — some of them quickly went viral online.

In several cities, voters dumped dark liquid dye into ballot boxes. In others, they set fire to voting booths.

The death of Putin's fiercest critic, the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, in a remote prison colony last month – under mysterious circumstances — also stirred resistance.

From Berlin, Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya called on her late husband's supporters to honor his last known political plan: a symbolic protest that would see Russians swarm polling stations at noon on the last day of the vote — providing a visual counterpoint to what the opposition insists is Putin's hollow mandate.

In Moscow, an NPR reporter witnessed some two hundred people gather at a voting precinct shortly after noon – despite the presence of police and what appeared to be plain clothed government agents filming with cameras.

"The stars magically aligned for me to show up here at noon," said Alexei, a university student who — like others at the event — declined to provide his last name out of fear of reprisals from the state.

"If all the people who say they want change actually did something about it, we'd live in a different country," he added.

Vera, a retiree, said she'd come to the protest fearing she'd be alone.

"But today is my day. Look at these beautiful young people," she said, pointing to the line going down the block from the polling station.

She said she'd brought her own pen into the voting booth and drawn on her ballot: "NAVALNY."

Similar lines were spotted in voting precincts around Moscow and other major Russian cities.

Tributes also appeared to "our real president" at Navalny's grave in the south of Moscow.

Meanwhile, larger crowds, some in the thousands, formed outside Russian embassies around the globe — a reminder of the hundreds of thousands of Russians who fled their country in the wake of Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

Yet for all the power and symbolism of their actions, voters opposed to Putin could do little to impact the vote itself.

That was much to the delight of Kristina and her husband Sergei — Putin supporters who declined to give their last names to an American journalist due to their work in the government security services.

"Russia should have a czar. Call it what you want: a monarch, president, the secretary of the Communist Party, but we need someone who can manage the country," said Sergei, who credits Putin with saving Russia from economic and political chaos following the end of the USSR.

"And the longer he stays, the better," added Kristina.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Charles Maynes