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Putin extends his rule in unprecedented 5th term

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And we begin this evening in Russia. That's where President Vladimir Putin seems to be on the verge of gaining an unprecedented fifth term in office. With 60% of all the ballots counted, Putin is cruising to a reelection victory. The vote took place over three days, spanned 11 time zones, involved 114 million voters and led to an outcome that was never in doubt. The Kremlin used both intimidation and the offer of prizes, including new homes, to get the outcome it wanted. NPR's Charles Maynes was watching every day. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

DETROW: So what did you see?

MAYNES: Well, you know, this election at times had an atmosphere of a carnival. You know, you noted giving out big prizes like apartments. There were cars, iPhones, all to lure in voters. And it seemed part of a wider Kremlin strategy to secure not only this huge victory for Vladimir Putin but also a historic turnout. It's to show the country's united behind the president after more than two years of war, of course, in Ukraine. But I must say that I met several Putin supporters this weekend who still look backwards. You know, they're focused on how Putin, in their view, rescued the country from the chaos and humiliation of the post-Soviet '90s. Let's listen.

VLADIMIR: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So this is someone named Vladimir, a pensioner who is a voter, saying that words of politicians are just empty air but that Putin had made life actually better for Russians. In fact, he says that Putin was a man of deeds who raised the country from its knees.

DETROW: And despite statements like that and despite the turnout and the numbers that we're seeing, there were moments of dissent. Some of the moments of dissent were a little bit bizarre. Tell us about them.

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, dozens of Russians were arrested for protests that included setting voting booths on fire, pouring liquid dye into ballot boxes, all in apparent frustration over an election that offered no real choice. You know, keep in mind, Putin's three competitors here were all from his rubber-stamp Parliament and largely supported Putin's policies. Meanwhile, openly antiwar candidates were banned from the ballot over registration problems. Vote rigging was also a concern, not least because of an expansion of electronic voting.

And one would-be voter I met, Sergei, who works in the security business, said he was sitting out the election because he thought the whole thing was rigged. In fact, he insisted that if there was an honest vote, the results would basically be reversed.

SERGEI: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Sergei says, in reality, 75% of Russians are against this war and against this president who is leading the country to ruin.

DETROW: And let's just put the protests that we did see in context because there were demonstrations against Putin by Russians and other people outside of Russian embassies in other countries. But, I mean, it must be really hard to make a show in Russia itself, right?

MAYNES: Yeah. I mean, this is a highly repressive environment now. Most of the opposition is either in jail or worse. Of course, last month, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in a remote Arctic prison colony under still-mysterious circumstances. We don't know the whole story. Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, called on her husband's supporters, in fact, to act on his last known political wish by swarming polling stations at noon on Sunday and providing a symbolic contrast to what she argues - and also, you know, Navalny's allies say - is Putin's hollow mandate. And so today, I watched as some 200 Russians suddenly appeared at the stroke of noon at a voting precinct in Moscow, even if talking to people about it could feel like having a conversation in code, given the police.

ANTON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Yeah. So this is Anton, a young professional, who told me he showed up at 12 because that was his family's tradition for elections - with a bit of a wink - because if true, a lot of other people were observing it. You know, lines formed at polling stations in Moscow and other big cities across Russia today, all at noon. But of course, nothing like the huge crowds we saw outside Russian embassies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere.

DETROW: Interesting, interesting way to protest in a way that you can in that environment. So we have the outcome. What happens next?

MAYNES: Well, we haven't heard from Putin about the results. We might not right away. Russia marks 10 years since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine - illegal annexation, I should say. That's later this week. So that may be his moment to proclaim triumph. But it's expected that Putin will seize on these election results to argue that Russians have united behind the war effort. And yet he may have to deal with a sense of war fatigue that seems to be setting in. You know, I think it's no accident that a recent poll found 75% of Russians would support ending the war tomorrow.

DETROW: That's NPR's Charles Maynes reporting from Moscow. Thank you so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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