Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected international criticism of his overwhelming election victory on Sunday and pledged to build democracy in his country even as others allege it is eroding.
Putin promised a strong economy and more democracy for his second term.
Looking calm and collected in the wee hours of Monday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked his supporters for voting him into a second term. Wearing a black turtleneck sweater and black coat, the Russian leader promised to continue the economic growth that has been a hallmark of his first term in office while continuing to expand democracy in the country.
But the Russian leader also seemed to take great pains to calm international fears that democracy in Russia is eroding under his control, including criticism by United States Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice that Putin's political opponents had not been given equal access to the media, which provided a flood of positive coverage for the incumbent candidate.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell
"I have some concerns, but I don't think democracy is in trouble in Russia," Powell said on the U.S. cable channel Fox News on Sunday. "But Russians have to understand that to have full democracy of the kind that the international community will recognize, you've got to let candidates have all access to the media that the president has. You've got to make sure people are not in any way kept from participating in the open, full democratic process. We are concerned about the way this election is being held, and the way the election for the Duma, their parliament, was held not too long ago."
As he declared victory on Monday morning, Putin categorically rejected Washington's criticism.
"I believe nobody has the right to think that if they criticize others, that they shouldn't be criticized themselves," Putin said at a news conference. "In many so-called developed democracies there are also many problems with their own democratic and voting procedures. And we, nearly four years ago, saw in amazement how the American system voting system suffered glitches."
Criticism from OECD
The most direct criticism of Russian elections came on Monday from the Organization for Security and Cooperation, which dispatched close to 340 election monitors across the country to observe the poll. Julian Peel-Yates, who headed the OECD delegation said Monday that Russia had failed to adhere to the necessary standards for a "healthy democratic" process in the run-up to the election, adding that there had neither been a political debate nor a "true pluralism." Peel-Yates accused the state-run media of violating important rules requiring the equal treatment of candidates. Still, Peel-Yates said the actually polling on Sunday was well-organized.
A second election watchdog group organized by the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member, drew similar conclusions.
Germany's Rudolf Bindig, who led the delegation, said there appeared to be no wrongdoing during the vote. Election day had been quiet and the "technical procedures in at polling stations were executed in an orderly manner," he told German public broadcaster ZDF.
Though Bindig gave the thumbs up for clean Russian elections, he joined the OECD in criticizing the Russian media for what he described as bias towards Putin during the presidential campaign.
That was a common concern among Russia’s liberal democrats and international observers in the run-up to Sunday’s vote. The Kremlin controls the nation-wide television stations where most Russians get their news. Glowing reports of Putin usually lead the nightly news with opposition candidates often regulated to the less watched morning hours or simply not appearing on the news at all.
Putin’s forces also control the Russian parliament and with a government reshuffle in the pre-election campaign, they now have a firm grip on the cabinet as well. This and the media control has led to fears that Russia is returning to its Soviet-era roots of authoritarianism.
But Putin’s high numbers also reflect a genuine like of the president among Russia’s 110 million voters. He is credited with bringing stability to the country after years of chaos under former president Boris Yeltsin.
Putin: I will uphold democracy
On Monday, Putin also pledged to protect Russia’s fragile democracy and the multi-party system. He vowed to uphold media freedoms in the country.
"I promise you that all democratic gains of our people will without any doubt be upheld and guaranteed," he said.
With considerable recent debate over Russia's democratic difficiencies, many groups feared it would be difficult to generate a fair vote on Sunday. But at least one European election watchdog said there appeared to be no problems with the Russian poll.
That political track record appeared to pay off on Sunday, with Putin scoring a landslide victory and garnering 71.2 percent of the vote according to official preliminary results released by Russia's Central Election Committee on Monday. Voter turnout of 64.3 percent was also significantly higher than the 52.5 percent of the population who turned out for the last presidential election in 2000.
Only one of the other five candidates in the race, Communist Nikolai Kharitonov, managed to clear double digits. The other competitors failed to reach five percent.