A third presidential term for Vladimir Putin appears to be done and down. An exit poll by the state-run VTsIOM public opinion center, released after polls closed Sunday night, showed the Russian prime minister winning 58.3 percent of the votes, enough to give him a solid first-round victory and send him back to the Kremlin for six years.
Another exit poll, by the independent Public Opinion Foundation, found that Putin won with 59.3 percent of the votes.
But the mood in Moscow, where Mr. Putin's popularity is low, was anything but celebratory. Opposition leaders were already crying foul and drawing up plans for rolling protests this week against elections they say were unfair in their very essence. In coming days, reports from tens of thousands of independent election monitors will likely hit the Internet, adding fuel to the protests if significant fraud should be uncovered.
Much of downtown Moscow was blocked off by about 40,000 special riot police, who set up barricades and blocked access to main squares with rows of buses, apparently aiming to forestall any opposition attempt to hold the kind of fast-moving flash-mob protests that erupted just after the allegedly fraud-tainted elections in December.
Opposition forces will stage a show of strength Monday evening on Moscow's central Pushkin Square, just a five minute walk from the Kremlin, which they expect up to 50,000 people to attend. Some of the more radical leaders, such as anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, argue that it's time to turn the protests from single-event affairs into rolling "Occupy the Kremlin" style tent cities. According to the Moscow Times, Mr. Navalny said Sunday that Putin's re-election can already be judged a fraud, and the popular goal now would be to overturn the result.
"Now it's become obvious that violations that are completely irrefutable are significantly influencing the results of the vote," Navalny said. "Monday everyone should go out on the streets wherever they want," regardless of whether authorities grant permits for the meetings, he said. "We have a right to assemble and it's a citizen's duty to come out and say that we're not happy with what's happened."
The pro-Putin youth group Nashi has pledged to hold its own rallies throughout the city, with the largest to be on Lubyanka Square, just a stone's throw from the Kremlin. If anti-Putin groups fulfill their threat to march to the Kremlin, police might have their hands full keeping the two sides apart.
A new feature in this election was the presence of up to 600,000 volunteer election observers, who were inspired by the upsurge against electoral fraud in recent months to take civic action. Most of them have been specially trained to monitor the approximately 200,000 webcams, worth $300-million, that have been installed in every one of the country's 98,000 polling stations, as the Kremlin's answer to the problem of alleged voting fraud.
"The conditions are difficult to work in, because nobody prepared a space or procedures for observers," says Irina Ryabtseva, an observer in downtown Moscow's polling station No. 175. One problem, she says, is that OMON (riot police) officers were coming in to cast absentee ballots in large numbers – since they had been brought into Moscow for election day duty from other regions – though their documentation was often inadequate.
"This is a big worry, and we need to get some clarification about that," says Ms. Ryabtseva.
At least in a couple of sample downtown polling stations, elderly people tended to say they'd voted for Putin, while many younger people said they never would.
"I voted for Putin, naturally," says German Balitsky, a former mathemetician and pensioner. "Putin is the lesser of evils while the others are just chatterboxes who say what they think people want to hear. Putin may not be the liberal he sometimes pretends to be, but he is a firm man. He failed to defeat corruption before, that's true, but I think he will struggle with it now more than ever."
Many voters complained about the lack of viable choices on the ballot, and some seemed very pessimistic about the future.
"If anything changes after the elections, it will probably be for the worse," says Natalya Serdyukova, a voter. "Under the existing authorities we can't hope for improvements. I fear the chasm between the people and leaders is just growing wider, and there's no way to bridge it. When Putin first came to power he was a different person. But not many people can survive the trial of power. Now I just see [in him] the fear of losing."