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Landslide Putin shrugs off critics

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Putin claims second term as Russian president.
Vladimir Putin
Chechnya (Russia)

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Vladimir Putin has pledged to open up Russian politics and the media to divergent voices after an election campaign criticized as unfair and one-sided.

The country's chief electoral official officially declared Putin the winner early on Monday, saying he won a second four-year term with 71 percent of Sunday's vote.

The closest challenger was Communist Nikolai Kharitonov, who received nearly 14 percent of the vote, with more than 99 of the ballots counted, said Central Electoral Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov.

Officials said 64 percent of registered voters cast their ballots, surpassing the 50 percent required for the election to be declared valid.

Putin's landslide victory -- more emphatic than the 52 percent of the vote he received in 2000 -- cements his grip on power.

He is credited with bringing some stability to the vast country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But he also came under fire in the West for using Russia's state-dominated media to push his campaign, giving little room to rivals.

Putin pledged to focus though on strengthening press freedoms, as well as on boosting the economy, reforming the military, raising standards of living.

"I want to assure you and I promise that, in the next four years, I will work just as hard, do everything in my power to have the entire government work just as intensively," Putin told reporters on Monday at his election headquarters in Moscow.

"I promise you that all the democratic achievements of our people will unconditionally be provided for and guaranteed.

"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.

Putin ran as an independent, although he has a loyal following in the United Russia party, which trounced the opposition in December's parliamentary elections.

He made the fight against Chechen separatist guerrillas a priority of his first four years in office. In the process he earned repeated criticism from the West for human rights abuses in the impoverished Caucasus region.

But despite the ongoing war in Chechnya, which has spurred a series of dramatic, deadly attacks in Moscow blamed on the separatists, Putin has remained widely popular.

Analyst Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Putin had brought Russia a kind of "unstable stability" based on his popularity and on high oil prices.

His popularity has endured even though "almost all political or democratic institutions have weakened" during his first term, Petrov said.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Bush administration has expressed its concern to Putin and other Russian officials that Moscow continue its path towards democracy.

"But at the same time, I think it's an overstatement to think that Russia is going back to the days of the Soviet Union," Powell told ABC's This Week.

"They're not going back there. I think they have discovered what democracy is about. They like it, and they want to be able to vote for their leaders."

A leading human rights watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, issued similar criticism to Washington's.

"The election process overall did not adequately reflect the principle necessary for a healthy democratic election process," Reuters reported the head of the OSCE's Russian election mission, Julian Peel Yates, as saying.

Yates also criticized the role of Russia's state-controlled media. "Essential elements ... such as vibrant political discourse and meaningful pluralism were lacking," he said.

CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.

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