Despite opposition, Putin extends rule

President Putin will remain in power amid increasing dissent.



March 18, 2024 - 3:57 PM

Yulia Navalnaya, centre, widow of Alexey Navalny, stands in a queue with other voters at a polling station near the Russian embassy in Berlin, after noon local time, on Sunday, March 17, 2024. The Russian opposition has called on people to head to polling stations at noon on Sunday in protest as voting takes place on the last day of a presidential election that is all but certain to extend President Vladimir Putin's rule after he clamped down on dissent. AP can't confirm that all the voters seen at the polling station at noon were taking part in the opposition protest. Photo by (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

President Vladimir Putin extended his reign over Russia in a landslide election whose outcome was never in doubt, declaring Monday his determination to advance deeper into Ukraine and dangling new threats against the West.

After the harshest crackdown on dissent since Soviet times, it was clear from the earliest returns that Putin’s nearly quarter-century rule would continue with a fifth term that grants him six more years. Still, Russians heeded a call to protest Putin’s repression and his war in Ukraine by showing up at polling stations at noon on Sunday.

Putin has led Russia as president or prime minister since December 1999, a tenure marked by international military aggression and an increasing intolerance for dissent. At the end of his fifth term, Putin would be the longest-serving Russian leader since Catherine the Great, who ruled during the 18th century.

Asked if an open clash could erupt between Russia and NATO, Putin responded curtly by saying: “Everything is possible in today’s world,” adding: “it’s clear to everyone that it will put us a step away from full-scale World War III.”

Any public criticism of Putin or his war in Ukraine has been stifled. Independent media have been crippled. His fiercest political foe, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic prison last month, and other critics are either in jail or in exile.

Voters had no real alternatives to Putin, and independent monitoring of the election was extremely limited.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was particularly critical of the election and voting in regions of his country that Russia has illegally annexed, saying “everything Russia does on the occupied territory of Ukraine is a crime.”

Germany sharply criticized the vote with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s spokeswoman, Christina Hoffmann, saying that “in our opinion, it was not a democratic election.”

“Russia, as the chancellor has already said, is now a dictatorship and is ruled by Vladimir Putin in an authoritarian manner,” she told reporters in Berlin.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis also derided the voting in Russia: “some might call it reappointment, lacking any legitimacy.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Putin, as did North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the presidents of nations that have historic and current ties to Russia, such as Azerbaijan and Belarus.

Navalny’s associates urged those unhappy with Putin or the war to go to the polls at noon on Sunday — and lines outside a number of polling stations both inside Russia and at its embassies around the world appeared to swell at that time.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, who spent more than five hours in the line at the Russian Embassy in Berlin, told reporters that she wrote her late husband’s name on her ballot.

Asked whether she had a message for Putin, Navalnaya replied: “Please stop asking for messages from me or from somebody for Mr. Putin. There could be no negotiations and nothing with Mr. Putin, because he’s a killer, he’s a gangster.”

Putin referenced Navalny by name for the first time in years at the news conference, declaring that he had been ready to release him in a swap for unidentified inmates in Western custody just days before the opposition leader’s death.

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