RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And Vladimir Putin claimed his expected win last night in Russia's presidential election. He gave a fiery victory speech, displaying plenty of anger at the protesters who, in recent months, have challenged his authority. Exit polls showed Vladimir Putin winning 60 percent of the vote, but independent observers say the election was riddled with violations.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: With the Kremlin - Russia's citadel of power - at his back, Putin told a cheering crowd that they had won.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
PRIME MINISTER VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: We won in an open and honest battle, he said, repeating a campaign theme that cast the election as a war against foreign influence.
PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: We showed that no one can impose anything on us, he said - no one, nothing. We showed that our people can distinguish between the desire for renewal and a political provocation that has only one goal: destroy Russian statehood and usurp power. It was a harsh rebuff to the tens of thousands of people who've taken to the streets in Moscow and other big cities in recent months to demand fair elections. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, says the speech may have been a release of Putin's tension over that challenge.
DMITRI TRENIN: Mr. Putin must have been truly worried that dark forces out there - in the United States, I think - working through their agents in Russia, were trying to topple him.
FLINTOFF: Trenin says the vehemence with which the Russian leader delivered that speech showed that Putin must believe that the protests against him were at least partly the work of the U.S. State Department. Three times during his speech, Putin insisted that his victory had been honest or clean, an apparent effort to preempt widespread complaints of election fraud.
The election was probably the most thoroughly monitored in Russia's history. Opposition groups recruited and trained tens of thousands of volunteer poll watchers, and the government installed Web cameras at polling places. But the independent election watchdog group Golos reported more than 3,700 complaints of voting violations. One of the most common complaints was of so-called carousel voting, in which operatives are driven from one polling place to another, using absentee ballot forms to cast multiple votes. But Putin's support is strong in many places among people who say they've seen their lives improved.
IGOR SMOLIY: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: Outside a polling station in central Moscow, Igor Smoliy and his wife Yelena said proudly that they had voted for Putin. He's a 40-year-old military officer. She's 36 and a kindergarten teacher. They're a good-looking, well-dressed couple who stand arm-in-arm and finish each other's sentences.
YELENA SMOLIY: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: They have three children, Yelena says, and it was a lot more of a financial struggle to raise the first one - before Putin came to power - than it was with the children who came afterward. That, they say, was a result of Putin's policies. At the same polling place, though, people also register their opposition to Putin. Larissa Kirilenko, a 52-year-old businesswoman, is here with her 30-year-old son Sergei, a manager in a trading company. She says she cast a protest vote in favor of the marginal candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but that she'd rather cast a vote that would assure a better future for her son.
LARISSA KIRILENKO: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: I want to know what sort of country he'll be living in, she says, so that he won't have to leave the country with his good education. Sergei himself says he spoiled his ballot so that it wouldn't count because he didn't like any of the candidates on the list. Putin's fiery victory speech may be stirring deeper divisions between people like the Smoliys and the Kirilenkos. It could also herald a harsher crackdown on the opposition members who say they want to keep pressure on the government for fair elections and other reforms. The opposition is planning a protest in the capital this evening. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.