Rubber-stamp poll bodes ill for Russia

Vladimir Putin returns to the Kremlin. The question now becomes whether his victory will be measured in a new era of Russian political reforms, or more of the same

Vladimir Putin did not need to rig Sunday's election. We may never know if he really did. The question, however, has to be asked after improbable vote counts in places such as Chechnya, where Mr Putin's United Russia party won more than 99 per cent.

The defining image of this election was Mr Putin, tears streaming down his face, declaring a victory that no one thought was in any doubt. After four interim years as prime minister, the former KGB agent will return as president, but as a much-diminished figure.

The question now is whether despite his popularity among many Russians, he will be a liability because of the recent season of protests, not to mention two recent controversial elections.

Officially, Mr Putin secured nearly 64 per cent of the vote, while his nearest rival, Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov, garnered only 17 per cent. Already monitors have begun pointing out procedural irregularities in almost one-third of polling stations, and have suggested that the election was skewed in favour of Mr Putin.

This was slightly more elegant than just stuffing the ballot. "There was no real competition," said Tonino Picula, a vote monitor from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "Abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt."

And yet the campaign nonetheless saw unprecedented protests and demands for real political and economic reform. It also saw a level of responsiveness that Mr Putin had not demonstrated in previous years - such as inviting election monitors to observe the ballot process.

Whether this portends a more democratic Kremlin seems overly optimistic. Stability, Mr Putin's main selling point, is now his greatest liability as tens of thousands of protesters have shown their willingness to take to the streets.

The fear is that Mr Putin will fall back into old patterns. That would mean few reforms within Russia, and little change in foreign policy - particularly in Syria, where Moscow's support is a decisive prop for the regime.

On Friday, Mr Putin told foreign newspapers that he would not "tighten the screws". But does he know any other way?