- Associated Press - Sunday, March 4, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claimed victory Sunday in the nation’s presidential election, which the opposition and independent observers said had been marred by widespread violations.

Mr. Putin made the claim at a rally of tens of thousands of his supporters just outside the Kremlin as he thanked his supporters for helping foil foreign plots aimed to weaken the country.

Mr. Putin tallied 58 percent, according to a nationwide exit poll conducted by the VTsIOM polling agency. Another exit poll by the FOM opinion survey service showed that Mr. Putin received 59 percent of the ballot.

Official vote results from the far eastern regions where the count already was completed seemed to confirm the poll data. With just more than 20 percent of all precincts counted, Mr. Putin was leading the field with 63 percent of the vote, the Central Election Commission said.

But if thousands of claims of violations made by independent observers and Mr. Putin‘s foes are confirmed, they could undermine the legitimacy of his victory and fuel protests. The opposition is gearing up for a massive rally in downtown Moscow on Monday.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev casts his ballot at a polling station in Moscow on Sunday, March 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Leonid Lebedev)
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev casts his ballot at a polling station ... more >

“These elections are not free … that’s why we’ll have protests tomorrow. We will not recognize the president as legitimate,” said Mikhail Kasyanov, who was Mr. Putin‘s first prime minister before going into opposition.

Golos, Russia’s leading independent elections watchdog, said it had received numerous reports of “carousel voting,” in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.

Alexei Navalny, one of the opposition’s most charismatic leaders, said observers trained by his organization also reported seeing extensive use of the practice.

Evidence of widespread vote fraud in December’s parliamentary election drew tens of thousands to protest against Mr. Putin, who was president in 2000-2008 before moving into the prime minister’s office because of term limits. They were the largest outburst of public anger in post-Soviet Russia and demonstrated growing exasperation with massive corruption, rising social inequality and tight controls over political life under Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin has dismissed the protesters’ demands, casting them as a coddled minority of urban elites working at Western behest to weaken Russia. His claims that the United States was behind the opposition protests resonated with his core support base of blue-collar workers, farmers and state employees, who are suspicious of Western intentions after years of state propaganda.

Putin is a brave and persistent man who can resist the U.S. and EU pressure,” said Anastasia Lushnikova, a 20-year old student who voted for Mr. Putin in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

Authorities gave permission to Mr. Putin‘s supporters to gather just outside the Kremlin walls, and tens of thousands flooded the big square immediately after the vote ended. Some participants of the demonstration, including employees of state organizations, said they were forced by the management to attend under threat of punishment.

The authorities denied the opposition’s bid to hold the rally at the same place Monday but allowed them to gather at a nearby square.

The Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, was trailing far behind Mr. Putin with some 18 percent, according to the exit polls. The others — nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Sergei Mironov of the socialist Just Russia party and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov — were in single digits.

Mr. Putin promised that the vote would be fair, and the authorities apparently sought to take the steam out of the protest movement by allowing more observers to monitor the vote. Tens of thousands of Russians, most of them politically active for the first time, had volunteered to be election observers, receiving training on how to recognize vote-rigging and record and report violations.

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