Vladimir Putin overwhelmingly wins a third term presidency amid massive street protests and allegations of fraud. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.
MOSCOW -- Vladimir Putin claimed victory in Russia's presidential election and, tears rolling down his cheeks, said it was a historical turning point that had prevented the country from falling into the hands of enemies trying to usurp power.
His opponents, however, called the vote full of fraud and vowed new protests starting on Monday.
"The social base of the protest is going to grow and Putin with his team did everything wrong to make this happen. He really helped us," said journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, one of the leaders of the opposition protest movement.
"He is forcing things to breaking point. He is declaring war on us. As a result the base of aversion to him is growing."
The former KGB spy was triumphant, and unusually emotional, after exit polls and partial results suggested he would win about 60 percent of the vote and return to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister.
"I promised you we would win. We have won. Glory to Russia," Putin, flanked by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, told tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters late in the evening at a victory rally meters from the red walls of the Kremlin. Hundreds of buses that brought them to the capital in a well organized show of force stood by.
It was a defiant and angry speech in which Putin, 59, sounded a clear warning to the mainly middle-class protesters in Moscow and other big cities who have staged huge rallies since a disputed parliamentary poll on Dec. 4.
A teary Vladimir Putin, flanked by President Dmitry Medvedev, addresses supporters at Manezh Square outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday.
His nearest rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, fell short of 20 percent in both exit polls. Zyuganov said his party would not recognize the official results of the election, calling it "illegitimate, dishonest and untransparent."
Putin's swiftly dismissed fraud allegations, which will be repeated at opposition protests starting on Monday.
Official results are not expected from most polling stations until Monday. International observers monitoring the vote have yet to make a statement.
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"We do not consider these elections legitimate," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a leader of the opposition protesters, who plan a new rally against Putin in Moscow for Monday.
Despite the growing opposition, mainly among well-educated and relatively well-off young professionals in big cities, Putin's support remains high in the provinces and his victory had not been in doubt.
The main challenge for the man credited by many Russians credit with rebuilding the country's image and overseeing an economic boom, was to win outright in the first round.
This he achieved by a clear margin. The exit polls put Zyuganov on target to win about 18 percent, and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, ex-parliamentary speaker Sergei Mironov and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov were all under 10 percent.
Some voters said Putin, who has portrayed himself as a man of action and guardian of stability, was the tough national leader the world's biggest country and energy producer needed.
"I voted for Putin because he was a good president (from 2000-08) and our children were looked after and that's all. That's how I feel," said Maria Fedotova, a 92-year-old grandmother in fur coat and hat, flanked by relatives.
Putin has remained Russia's dominant leader and its most popular politician since stepping aside in 2008 to make way for his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, because he was barred from a third straight term by the constitution.
But some voters are tired of his macho antics, such as horse riding bare-chested, and a system that concentrates power in his hands. They fear he could win another term in six years and rule until 2024 - almost as long as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
"They are stealing our votes," said Valentin Gorshun, a patient in Moscow hospital number 19, where more than 90 percent of votes went to United Russia party in December.
"It is probably the same at all hospitals," he said. "I think they are preparing a huge falsification. Emperor Putin has decided everything."
Vote monitors from the opposition and bloggers posted allegations of election rigging across the country of 143 million. Golos, an independent monitoring group, said it had registered at least 3,100 reports of violations nationwide.
An Interior Ministry spokesman denied there had been any major violations. Election officials also dismissed reports of widespread fraud in a parliamentary election on Dec. 4, which triggered the opposition protests.
The opposition protests were sparked by the disputed Dec. 4 election, but anger was focused at Putin, who bungled the Sept. 24 announcement of his presidential bid by appearing simply to inform Russians that he would rule for another six years.
Putin, who will not formally take office until early May, now faces huge economic and political challenges.
"It's a watershed -- Russia faces decline and stagnation unless they really kick-start reforms, and push forward an ambitious reform agenda," said Tim Ash, head of emerging markets research at the Royal Bank of Scotland in London.
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