There seems no doubt that Vladimir Putin won Sunday's presidential elections, with a whopping 63.7 percent of the votes, according to the latest results from the official Central Electoral Commission.
But the legitimacy of the strictly managed Russian system of elections, which more-or-less ordained Mr. Putin's victory, is now the central bone of contention. Opposition leaders in Moscow are gearing up for what they say could be weeks of protests aimed at forcing fundamental changes in the system, while incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev (remember him?) has stepped in to propose a series of reforms that could go at least part of the way toward meeting opposition demands.
Russian security forces locked down the city center Monday in anticipation of a wave of competing rallies for and against the election result.
Mr. Putin himself was jubilant Sunday night. Speaking to crowds of supporters near the Kremlin Sunday night, Putin said "We have won an open and honest fight.... We are appealing to all people to unite for our people, for our motherland, and we will win. We've had a victory! Glory to Russia!"
International observers, reporting Monday, said they'd found irregularities in about a third of the polling stations. But more significantly, they said, the entire process was skewed to ensure Putin's victory.
"There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt," Tonino Picula, one of the monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said. "The point of elections is that they should be uncertain: this was not the case in Russia."
[ Video is no longer available. ]
At least one case of outrageous vote-rigging, in the southern republic of Dagestan, was caught by the newly installed system of webcams and was later broadcast by the state-owned English language RT network. The results in that polling station have been officially annulled.
"It's obvious that there were a considerable number of violations, and for the most part the official election commission is not admitting them," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the independent Mercator think tank in Moscow. "For example, the electoral commission says there were no irregularities reported in Moscow, while we know that observers have documented hundreds of them..... As professional analysts examine these results over the next few days, the impression of a legitimate victory for Putin will fade and doubts will strengthen. Putin will have to keep proving his victory, and this cloud of doubt will continue to hang over him."
Some experts say quarrels over vote-tampering are likely to take second place in the concerns of protesters as they take to the streets this week. It is Putin, who announced his return for a third presidential term last September, and then set in place the machinery to make it happen, who has become the main target of popular anger, they say.
"The legitimacy of Putin's win is deeply problematic," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Imagine an athlete who is able to choose his own competitors, appoint the judges, and establish the rules of the game. Now we're discussing whether his final score is accurate or not. Many people are not interested in having that conversation."
Powering the protest movement
It was the demand for fair elections which powered the protest movement that took to the streets following allegedly fraud-tainted December Duma elections, and opposition organizers say they will remain in the streets until that demand is realized.
"It is just unbearable to think of living with this regime for another 12 years," says Nadezhda Matyushkina, a representative of the Solidarnost anti-Kremlin public movement. "The entire process was falsified, from beginning to end. For Putin this is an 'end justifies the means' kind of victory."
They are likely to be joined even by supporters of losing candidates who, despite having been allowed to participate in elections, complain their chances to campaign effectively were curtained and their votes were stolen.
The latest official vote tallies showed Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov in second place with 17.1 percent, and Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire oligarch and owner of the New Jersey Nets, coming third with 7.8 percent.
"Our observers in the regions say the official results are much lower than they should be," says Alexei Uzarov, press spokesman for Mr. Prokhorov. "Putin has won, we don't doubt that, but there are real questions about the difference in support between him and the other candidates. There are many questions about the vote-counting process that need to be answered."
For the unhappy, a few reforms
Meanwhile, President Medvedev has introduced a series of liberalizing reforms in recent weeks that appear designed to take the steam out of the protest movement and, perhaps, save Medvedev's personal image from the impression that he was nothing more than a "seat warmer" for Putin.
Medvedev, who has virtually dropped from public view since agreeing to step aside in Putin's favor, technically remains president until Putin is inaugurated in May.
Among other things, Medvedev has called for easing requirements for registering political parties and presidential candidates and a return to the system of electing local governors rather than imposing them by Kremlin appointment. On Monday, he ordered a judicial review of more than 30 sentences passed by Russian courts in recent years, including the controversial verdict against dissident oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Another Medvedev idea is to create a public TV channel that would be truly independent of authorities and would serve to alter Russia's political culture gradually by delivering reliable information on a daily basis.
"Medvedev's moves are probably too little, too late," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a veteran left-wing activist and director of the independent Institute for the Study of Globalization and Social Movements. "These reforms had to be started much sooner. Now they won't work, because people are really angry, the crisis is growing rapidly, and these reforms are too far behind the curve. If the authorities really wanted to change things, they are desperately behind schedule."