Were those really tears running down Vladimir Putin’s cheeks? The returning Russian president has long nurtured a he-man image, but as he addressed thousands of supporters outside the Kremlin walls on Sunday night his voice was, unusually, cracking.
“I asked you once, will we win?” he said. “And we won!” he declared, to cheering and flag-waving from his fans.
“We won an open and honest battle,” Putin added.
Putin later blamed the wind for making his eyes water. But despite the apparent display of emotion, the language was uncompromising. His words suggested the Kremlin will insist on the legitimacy of Putin’s new, six-year presidency – and give no quarter to the opposition, despite its allegations of widespread irregularities.
Sunday’s poll, Putin told his supporters, was “not just an election for president. It was an important test for all of us…a test of political maturity, of self-sufficiency, of independence.”
And the Russian premier made more veiled suggestions that the protests against him had been somehow got up by the West.
“We really showed that no one can impose anything on us! No one! We showed that our people really are capable of easily distinguishing the wish for something new, for renewal, from political provocations, which had only one goal – to destroy Russian statehood and usurp power.”
With Putin’s voting tally at above 64 per cent, with 60 per cent of votes counted late last night, he has avoided the potential humiliation of going into a second round of voting by a very clear margin. That tally may come down as the bigger cities of the Urals and western Russia, including Moscow, come into the total.
But while foreign investors may welcome the clear nature of the victory, such a total is towards the upper end of what they are likely to be comfortable with, given the danger that it could inflame the opposition protests. Russia’s opposition was already insisting on Sunday that ordinary citizens would not view the result as legitimate, and hoping to gather a mass protest rally on Moscow’s Pushkin Square on Monday night.
Since scuffles and arrests of scores of opposition demonstrators in the first couple of days after Russia’s disputed parliamentary election in December, opposition protests have been peaceful. Yet with thousands of police and interior ministry troops massed in central Moscow, and some opposition groups talking of setting up tented protests, despite an official ban, the next few days could still be turbulent.