MOSCOW (Reuters) - Kremlin candidate Dmitry Medvedev swept to an easy victory as Russia’s next president but Western criticism of the vote and scattered street protests took some of the shine off his win.
Medvedev, a 42-year-old lawyer, pledged to continue the policies of his mentor President Vladimir Putin after taking just over 70 percent of the votes in Sunday’s election, a contest criticized by opponents as devoid of real competition.
Small groups of protesters took to the streets in Moscow and St Petersburg to demonstrate. But most Russians did not express concern at the outcome, which some hope will prolong the economic boom they have enjoyed under Putin.
In Moscow, protesters were outnumbered by a few thousand pro-Kremlin activists, who marched peacefully on the U.S. embassy shouting pro-Putin slogans and Medvedev campaign chants.
Western governments mostly avoided direct criticism of the elections, preferring to stress their willingness to work with Medvedev and their hope that he would respect democracy and freedom, which critics say have eroded under Putin’s rule.
“The United States looks forward to working with him,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. “It’s in our mutual interest for Russia and the United States to work together on areas of common interest such as non-proliferation, counterterrorism and combating transnational crime.”
Germany and France made clear the vote did not meet their criteria for a democratic election, but alongside Britain and the European Union they congratulated Medvedev on a victory they said appeared to reflect the will of the Russian people.
“You have set yourself a goal to push ahead with the modernization of Russia,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote in a message to Medvedev.
Medvedev will be the youngest Russian leader since Tsar Nicholas II when he is sworn in on May 7, and the country’s third president since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Putin, a former KGB spy who is by far Russia’s most popular politician, has said he will serve as prime minister under Medvedev. This ushers in an unusual era of double-headed power in a country long used to a single strong leader.
“I think (my presidency) will be a direct continuation,” said Medvedev, referring to Putin’s eight years in office — a period marked by a concentration of power in the Kremlin and a willingness to stand up to the West on foreign policy.
In a sign Russia would not soften its assertive energy policy, state-controlled Gazprom cut supplies to Ukraine by a quarter on Monday. Gazprom, whose board is chaired by Medvedev, said supplies to the rest of Europe would not be affected.
Medvedev has spent most of his career in Putin’s shadow. He largely avoided campaigning altogether and made few stump speeches, leaving analysts largely in the dark about the extent to which he might diverge from his mentor once in the Kremlin.
“The difference between a Putin Kremlin and a Medvedev Kremlin is likely to involve more change in style than substance, but that itself can actually be rather important,” said Roland Nash, head of research at Renaissance Capital.
Referring to widespread perceptions that Medvedev’s legal training and younger age may make him less abrasive than Putin, Nash said: “A less combative Kremlin with the same focus on generating economic growth as the principal strategy for a resurgent Russia should be welcomed.”
Election observers were less generous.
Andreas Gross, head of the only Western monitoring mission, told reporters the result broadly reflected voters’ wishes but said “there was not freedom” in Sunday’s vote.
Russian independent observers Golos said the poll was marred by official pressure to boost voter turnout, ballot stuffing and multiple voting — charges which were immediately rejected by the Central Election Commission (CEC).
“Russia’s new political system born in 1989 is now in a state of degradation and has been thrown back to Soviet times,” Andrei Buzin, a Golos expert, told a news conference.
CEC chief Vladimir Churov, an old university classmate of Putin’s, said nobody had produced any convincing evidence of serious violations and scorned calls for greater transparency.
“What should I do, should I make CEC members work naked?” Churov said in televised remarks.
Riot police in Moscow detained dozens of activists at a banned demonstration and dragged protesters to waiting police buses. Some of the protesters lit flares spreading smoke across a central square, shouting: “Your election is a farce.”
In St Petersburg, about 2,000 activists chanted “revolution, revolution,” and “Russia without Putin”.
(Click on the following link to see Reuters blog on the Russian election: here )
Additional reporting by Christian Lowe, Guy Faulconbridge, Conor Sweeney, Chris Baldwin and Maria Golovnina; editing by Keith Weir