Newly elected President Vladimir Putin yesterday promised Russians a continuation of the stability and order that helped him win a landslide victory, and pledged to open up the political stage to divergent voices after a campaign criticized as unfair and one-sided.
With 99.2 percent of precincts reporting from Sunday's election, Putin sailed into a second four-year term with 71.2 percent of the vote, and Central Election Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov declared him the winner.
Putin's closest challenger, Communist Nikolai Kharitonov, received 13.7 percent.
Election officials said 64.3 percent of the 109 million registered voters cast ballots, surpassing the 50 percent required for the election to be valid.
"I think I have worked hard all those years, and I worked honestly. People must have felt it," Putin said, appearing before reporters at his Red Square election headquarters tieless, wearing a black sweater under a black blazer. "I promise you that for the next four years, I will work in the same mode."
The former KGB agent is credited by many Russians with bringing stability to this nation after the social and political upheavals brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has been helped by high world prices for oil, Russia's main export commodity and the engine driving its economy. Putin's image as a disciplined, sober, hard-working official also appealed to Russians after his predecessor Boris Yeltsin's health troubles and reported alcohol abuse.
Putin's convincing victory -- considerably higher than the 52.5 percent of the vote he received in 2000 -- further tightens his grip on power. His first term saw a crackdown on the independent media, a tight leash put on the often unruly governors, the election of an obedient parliament in December, the weakening of opposition parties and the nation's top posts filled with Putin loyalists and former security officials.
During the campaign, Putin's opposition challengers complained that state-controlled media's lavish coverage of the incumbent gave them little opportunity to get their message to voters. They also charged that regional government officials, apparently eager to curry favor with the Kremlin, hampered their campaign appearances.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the US "was concerned about a level of authoritarianism creeping back in the society."
"We don't hesitate to point out to President Putin that he should use the popularity that he has to broaden the political dialogue and not use his popularity to throttle political dialogue and openness in the society," Powell told ABC TV.
That set off an angry rebuke from the Cabinet chief of staff and a calmer retort from Putin, who said the 2000 Florida election fiasco in the US showed the weaknesses of the world's oldest democracy.
Russia will consider the criticism and "if we think there is something to think about, will draw the corresponding conclusions," he said.
Putin promised that during his second, four-year term "all the democratic achievements will be guaranteed."
He said his government would work to develop the multiparty system, ensure further economic growth and strengthen civil society and media freedom.
"We must create conditions to develop parties of every orientation so that the country's political stage can hear all voices -- from small and big parties," he said.