Incumbent President Vladimir Putin has held a campaign rally at a major Moscow sports arena, promising “victories” for Russia in remarks to a supportive audience 15 days before an election that seems certain to hand him a new six-year term.
"We want our country to be bright and looking to the future, for our children and grandchildren...we will do everything we can for them to be happy," Putin told the cheering crowd at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium on March 3.
"Nobody else will do this for us,” said Putin, who has frequently portrayed Russia as a country that is facing severe pressure from abroad and can rely only on itself. “And if we do this, the coming decade and the whole 21st century will be marked by our bright victories."
Ahead of the rally, media reports provided evidence that some people, including state workers, students, and private company employees, were forced, pressured, or paid to attend.
The event, given ample coverage by state media, was one of the closest things to a traditional campaign rally Putin has held since he announced in December that he would seek a fourth Kremlin term in the March 18 vote.
Critics charge that he has improperly used several gatherings as campaign events.
Before he spoke, Olympic athletes and celebrities took to the stage to voice their support for Putin.
Putin, 65, has been president or prime minister since 1999. His popularity, his control over the levers of power, and what critics say have been years of steps to suppress dissent and marginalize opponents virtually ensure his victory.
In the rally at Luzhniki, one of the main venues for the World Cup 2018 soccer tournament that Russia is hosting in June and July, Putin offered few specific details about plans for a bright future.
It came two days after Putin, in a state-of-the-nation address that was delayed by months to be held closer to Election Day, vowed to improve living standards and ordered officials to drastically decrease the number of Russians living in poverty.
Observers questioned whether some of his economic targets were realistic, such as a call for increasing per capita GDP by half in the next six years, and said he offered few details on how to achieve them.
In the annual address on March 1, Putin also boasted of a new generation of “invincible” nuclear-capable Russian weapons, in remarks that came under criticism from NATO as well as the United States, Germany, France, and other Western countries.