By Jim Heintz And Peter Leonard Associated Press
MOSCOW — There were “serious problems” in the vote that returned Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency, the head of the major international election observer mission said Monday, adding fuel to an opposition testing its strength with plans for a massive protest rally.
Putin, now the prime minister, rolled to victory as expected Sunday to return to the Kremlin and keep his hold on power for six more years, but opponents claim the vote was rigged and the outcome was never in question.
A protest rally has been set for Monday evening on Moscow’s iconic Pushkin Square, where some 12,000 police have deployed to ensure order.
The observer mission did not directly address complaints of widespread cases of people casting multiple ballots, but said the vote count “was assessed negatively” in almost a third of polling stations observers visited.
“There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt,” said Tonino Picula, the head of the short-term Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission.
Putin, who was president in 2000-2008, got more than 63 percent of the nationwide vote, according to the Central Elections Commission. But the independent Russian elections watchdog Golos says incomplete reports from its observers of individual polling station counts indicate he hovered perilously close to the 50-percent mark needed for a first-round victory.
“It’s one pixel away from a second round,” said Golos’ Roman Udot.
Putin claimed victory Sunday night when fewer than a quarter of the votes had been counted, his eyes brimming with tears. He defiantly proclaimed just outside the Kremlin walls before a sea of supporters that they had triumphed over opponents intent on “destroying Russia’s statehood and usurping power.”
U.S. Sen. John McCain, who had goaded Putin in the past on Twitter, reacted quickly to the images of a tearful Putin with an acerbic Tweet: “Dear Vlad, Surprise! Surprise! You won. The Russian people are crying too!”
Putin’s win was assured as he faced a weak slate of Kremlin-approved candidates and many across the vast country still see him as a guarantor of stability and the defender of a strong Russia against a hostile world, an image he has carefully cultivated during 12 years in power.
While praising the installation of web cameras in Russia’s 95,000 polling stations, a measure proposed by Putin in a gesture aimed at deflecting complaints over irregularities, the OSCE mission said the election was not competitive.
“These elections were unfair, despite some innovations in the election process and unhindered possibilities for campaigning,” Picula said.
Putin benefited in particular from glowing coverage on state media, observers said.
“Broadcast media was clearly biased in favor of one candidate and did not provide fair coverage of the other candidates,” Picula said.
The OSCE observers’ conclusions may have significant bearing on whether Russia’s opposition forces will be able to maintain the protests of the last three months, the largest public show of anger in post-Soviet Russia. Opposition demonstrations previously had been severely limited by officials, and any unauthorized gatherings were harshly dispersed by police.
The authorities gave permission for the massive rallies, which attracted tens of thousands, but it was not clear if the tolerance would continue in the postelection period.
The police presence was intense near the site of Monday’s protest and other areas of the capital, with dozens of trucks carrying riot shield-wielding police and vans used for detaining protesters parked around downtown. Prosecutors warned the rally’s organizers they would face criminal responsibility for any unsactioned protests.
On Monday, outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Justice Ministry to present its explanation for last year’s rejection of registration for the People’s Freedom Party, an organization led by some of the opposition’s most prominent figures.
He also ordered the prosecutor-general to re-examine the legality of the conviction of imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and more than 30 others regarded by the opposition as political prisoners.
Political analysts and opposition activists saw the move as an attempt to soothe protesters, but said that it remains to be seen if it results in any action.
One of the protest leaders, Sergei Udaltsov, said Medvedev obviously tried to respond to the opposition demands. “This step could be welcomed, but I don’t think it would end the criticism of the government and the election,” he was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.
The West can expect Putin to continue the tough policies he has pursued even as prime minister, including opposing U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe and resisting international military intervention in Syria.
Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov was a distant second in the election, followed by Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team whose candidacy was approved by the Kremlin in what was seen as an effort to channel some of the protest sentiment.
The clownish nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and socialist Sergei Mironov trailed behind. The leader of the liberal opposition Yabloko party was barred from the race.
Associated Press writer Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed to this report.