Sunday's landslide election that handed victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin was "overly controlled" and "lacked genuine competition," international election monitors said Monday.
Michael Georg Link, who led a team of observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said election day was conducted professionally and in an orderly manner, but that the vote was held on "an uneven playing field."
He pointed to the extensive media coverage given to Putin on tightly controlled state-run television, the main source of political information in Russia.
"Where the legal framework restricts many fundamental freedoms and the outcome is not in doubt, elections almost lose their purpose," Link said Monday at a news conference in Moscow.
"Most candidates publicly expressed their certainty that the incumbent President would prevail in the election."
Link said that although a significant number of people turned out to vote, restrictions on their fundamental freedoms "have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine political competition."
"A choice without a real competition, as we have seen in this election, unfortunately is not a real choice," he said.
With nearly all the votes now counted, Putin has won 76.7% of the vote, giving him the mandate to rule Russia until 2024. The Communist Party's Pavel Grudinin came in at a distant second with 11.8%.
Putin's critics have slammed the election as unfair, citing the Kremlin's tight control over the media, quelling of the opposition and restrictions on some election monitors to ensure a free vote.
His most vocal political opponent, Alexei Navalny, was barred from running in the election because of an embezzlement conviction that he says was designed to keep him off the ballot. Navalny had called for a boycott of what he described as a sham vote. The Central Election Commission said 67.98% of eligible voters cast a ballot.
"A great many people in this country are willing to stand against the authorities. They need a proper opposition," Navalny said Sunday.
The independent Golos Association, an election watchdog, said Monday that there had been irregularities with the presidential vote "not only on voting days but throughout the campaign."
Golos reported more than 2,900 voting irregularities on Monday.
"Unfortunately, we have to note that not all candidates behaved honestly in line with international standards," said a Golos spokesman, without naming specific candidates.
The elections "were to some extent unfair and undemocratic," he said.
Controversial voting in Crimea
Western diplomats also criticized Russia for holding the vote on the Crimean peninsula, a bold decision by Putin, whose current term has been characterized by provocations against Western powers.
Moscow chose to hold the election four years to the date of when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, a day now celebrated in Russia as one of "reunification."
Noway's foreign ministry refused to recognize the vote in Crimea.
"Norway will continue to support the EU's non-recognition policy. #CrimeaIsUkraine," it wrote on its official Twitter account.
The Dutch foreign ministry showed similar support on Twitter: "NL remains committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. #CrimeaIsUkraine."
While congratulating Putin, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned the President that his country's actions could worsen relations.
"Mistrust, armament and a climate of insecurity contribute to instability. I hope and wish that we will be able to counteract the estrangement on our continent, and between the people of Russia and Germany, and that you will use your new term of office for this purpose."
Putin: UK spy row 'delirium'
In a meeting with the losing candidates, Putin said Monday that Russia would strengthen its defense posture, but emphasized the country would not start another arms race.
Before the election Putin boasted about "invincible" nuclear-capable missiles with an incendiary video showing a Russian missile striking a map of what appeared to be Florida.
The election also comes amid a diplomatic crisis between Russia and the UK over the poisoning of a Russian former spy, his daughter and a UK policeman on British soil.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has openly blamed Russia for the incident. Putin described the accusations Sunday as "delirium," and both countries have expelled respective diplomats over the row.
Relations with the United States took another hit after Washington on Thursday announced new sanctions on Russia over its reported meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Russia has vowed retaliation.
Despite criticisms of the Kremlin's actions ahead of the election, Putin is a genuinely popular figure in Russia, and confrontation with the West has boosted his approval ratings, past polling shows.
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