Basking In Big Official Win, Putin Urges Unity, Blasts 'Irresponsible Populism'

President Vladimir Putin has thanked voters for their "unprecedented support" and urged Russians to put political differences aside in the name of progress, addressing the country moments after election officials formally declared him the winner of the March 18 election.

The Central Election Commission said on March 23 that Putin won 76.69 percent of the votes in an election that international observers said presenting no real choice due to factors including the longtime leader's domination of the levers of power and state-controlled media.

In his televised address, Putin mixed messages of hope with words of caution, saying that the government will do all it can to improve Russia's lives but that the problems the country and its people face cannot be solved immediately.

He asserted that the Kremlin welcomes criticism but that Russia needed unity to overcome "historic challenges" and make a "dash" forward, saying that "the main objective for all political forces and civic groups "must be national interests and the people's welfare."

"I understand that the essence of competition is criticism of the incumbent authorities -- criticism from all sides and always," he said. "Yes, criticism, arguments, discussions are necessary, but there is no place for irresponsible populism."

That sounded like a jab at vehement opponents such as Aleksei Navalny, who was barred from running in the election due to a financial-crimes conviction on charges he contends were fabricated by the Kremlin to blunt his potential to challenge Putin.

Navalny called on Russians to boycott the election, which he dismissed as Putin's "reappointment," and said that the other seven candidates on the ballot were just helping the incumbent put a veneer of legitimacy on the vote.

According to the results released by the Central Election Commission, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin was second with 11.77 percent of the vote, followed by flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 5.65 percent, journalist and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak with 1.68 percent, and liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky with 1.05 percent. The other three candidates -- Boris Titov, Maksim Suraikain, and Sergei Baburin -- had less than 1 percent.

Putin, 65, has been president or prime minister since 1999, and is Moscow's longest-ruling leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The official result of 76.69 percent of ballots cast was more than he received in any of his three previous elections -- in 2000, 2004, and 2012 -- and the highest percentage handed to any post-Soviet Russian leader.

The election was tainted by allegations of fraud -- backed in some cases by webcam footage appearing to show blatant ballot-box stuffing -- aimed at boosting Putin's vote count as well as turnout in order to strengthen his legitimacy and his mandate in what could be his last presidential term

Term limits mean that Putin cannot seek reelection in 2024 without changing the constitution, and on election day he scoffed at the idea that he would run in 2030.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had more than 500 observers in Russia for the vote, said that while legal and technical aspects of the election were well administered, slanted media coverage that bolstered Putin's dominance at the expense of others "resulted in an uneven playing field."

"Choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice," Michael Georg Link, special coordinator and leader of the OSCE's short-term observer mission, said a day after the election.

He said that "where the legal framework restricts many fundamental freedoms and the outcome is not in doubt, elections almost lose their purpose -- empowering people to choose their leaders."