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Vladimir Putin regains the presidency amid claims of voting fraud

By Shaun Walker in Moscow

Vladimir Putin was set to return to the Kremlin last night, with early results giving him more than 60% of the vote in presidential elections that were marred by allegations of fraud.

Claiming victory, Mr Putin thanked his supporters for helping foil plots aimed at destroying Russia, sounding a nationalistic theme that has resonated with his core supporters.

“I have promised that we would win and we have won! We have won in an open and honest struggle,” he shouted to the flag-waving crowd, which responded with shouts of support.

The first results, with 15% of ballots counted, gave Mr Putin nearly 62% of votes and Communist veteran Gennady Zyuganov a distant second with around 18%.

The result was never in any doubt: preparations had been under way all day for a victory rally on Manezh Square, outside the Kremlin.

Thousands of Russians, many bussed in from the provinces, gathered to wave flags in freezing temperatures in a display aimed to show that Mr Putin still has support among ordinary Russians.

He will return to the Kremlin for another six years, until 2018. But protests in recent months have changed the Russian political context. Tens of thousands of Muscovites protested against December's parliamentary elections, chanting slogans that became less about fair elections and more about removing Mr Putin.

The protesters are still a minority, but thousands of police were on duty in Moscow last night for what promised to be the biggest protest yet, in the central Pushkin Square.

During the campaign Mr Putin said: “The battle for Russia continues”, and suggested street protests against his rule are directed from abroad and aimed at destabilising Russia. He voted at a Moscow polling station with his wife Lyudmila, who is hardly ever seen in public. “I did some sport and then came to vote,” he said, adding that he was expecting a “good” result.

He had ordered cameras to be placed in every polling station, with live feeds viewable online, and the government spent over £250m on setting cameras up before the vote. But criticism still came from many quarters.

“These are not going to be honest elections, but we must not relent,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, as he voted in Moscow.

“Honest elections should be our constant motto for years to come.”

Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption leader who is de-facto leader of the “non-systemic” opposition, held court at a cafe in Moscow yesterday, where opposition leaders had gathered. He said the opposition protest would be “peaceful but forceful”.

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