MOSCOW • Russian President Vladimir Putin basked in a landslide re-election victory yesterday, extending his rule over the world's largest country for another six years at a time when his ties with the West are on a hostile trajectory.
Mr Putin's victory will take his political dominance of Russia to nearly a quarter of a century, until 2024, making his rule the longest since that of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Mr Putin, who will be 71 at the end of his term, has promised to beef up Russia's defences against the West and raise living standards.
In an outcome that was never in doubt, the Central Election Commission, with nearly 100 per cent of the votes counted, announced that Mr Putin, who has run Russia as president or prime minister since 1999, had won 76.68 per cent of the vote.
With more than 56 million votes, it was his biggest win and the largest by any post-Soviet Russian leader.
NO CREDIBLE THREAT
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: 76.6%
COMMUNIST PARTY CANDIDATE PAVEL GRUDININ: 11.8%
NATIONALIST VLADIMIR ZHIRINOVSKY: 5.6%
Putin's inner circle
President Vladimir Putin has kept the possible reshuffle of his inner circle a mystery. Here are its key members:
DMITRY MEDVEDEV, 52
THE LOYAL PRIME MINISTER
He was chosen by Mr Putin to be president in 2008 when he was largely unknown to the public. In 2012, he swopped roles with his mentor and became Prime Minister. Last year, the opposition accused him of corruption, sparking street protests.
SERGEI SHOIGU, 62
PUTIN'S MILITARY MAN
The Defence Minister since 2012 is behind the modernisation of the Russian army. He proved himself a successful manager while heading the Ministry of Emergency Situations for 18 years.
SERGEI LAVROV, 67
MOSCOW'S VOICE ABROAD
Appointed Foreign Minister in 2004, he continues to defend Moscow's position around the world, expressing himself almost daily on the Ukrainian and Syrian crises.
IGOR SECHIN, 57
THE FACE OF STATE CAPITALISM
An old friend of Mr Putin's, he heads the state-owned oil giant Rosneft, which he has transformed into a global giant. He is often called Russia's second-most powerful man.
ELVIRA NABIULLINA, 54
THE ORTHODOX ECONOMIST
The well-known economist and former adviser to Mr Putin was appointed head of Russia's central bank in 2013. Financial circles welcomed her management of the economic crisis that hit Russia in 2014.
ALEXEI KUDRIN, 57
He was finance minister from 2000 until Mr Medvedev sacked him in 2011. A liberal appreciated abroad, he uses his independence to give regular interviews on economic issues. He served as an adviser to Mr Putin during the recent election campaign.
In a late-night victory speech near Red Square, Mr Putin told a cheering crowd the win was a vote of confidence in what he had achieved in tough conditions.
"It's very important to maintain this unity," he said, before leading the crowd in repeated chants of "Russia! Russia!"
Backed by state TV and the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating around 80 per cent, he faced no credible threat from a field of seven challengers.
Mr Putin's nearest rival, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, won 11.8 per cent while nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky got 5.6 per cent.
His most vocal opponent, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was barred from running.
Critics alleged that officials had compelled people to come to the polls to ensure that boredom with the one-sided contest did not lead to low participation.
Near-final figures put turnout at 67.47 per cent, just shy of the 70 per cent the Kremlin was reported to have been aiming for.
Opposition and independent monitors reported cases of alleged fraud such as ballot stuffing and repeat voting. But the electoral commission dismissed most concerns, saying monitors sometimes misinterpret what they see.
Putin loyalists said the result was a vindication of his tough stance towards the West. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down suggestions that tensions with the West had boosted turnout, saying the result showed that people were united behind Mr Putin's plans to develop Russia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the first to offer his congratulations yesterday to Mr Putin, but Mr Heiko Maas, Germany's new Foreign Minister, questioned whether there had been fair political competition.
How long Mr Putin wants to stay in power is uncertain. The constitution limits the president to two successive terms, obliging him to step down at the end of his new mandate.
Asked after his re-election if he would run for yet another term in the future, Mr Putin laughed off the idea. "Let's count. What, do you think I will sit (in power) until I'm 100 years old?" he said, calling the question "funny".
Although he has six years to consider a possible successor, uncertainty about his future is a potential source of instability in a fractious ruling elite that only he can keep in check.
"The longer he stays in power, the harder it will be to exit," said Mr Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank.
"How can he abandon such a complicated system, which is essentially his personal project?"
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE