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Voting begins in Russian elections

Latest update : 2008-03-01

Election officials in the Far Eastern peninsula of Chukotka, the first of this massive country's 11 time zones to cast ballots, said voting began on schedule at 9pm GMT+1 on Saturday.

MOSCOW, March 2 (Reuters) - Russians vote for a new
president on Sunday, in an election expected to deliver a big
victory to Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin's chosen successor and
another blow to Moscow's already tarnished democratic image.

Election officials in the Far Eastern peninsula of Chukotka,
the first of this massive country's 11 time zones to cast
ballots, said voting began on schedule at 0800 local time (2000
GMT Saturday).

"All 59 regional polling stations opened as planned a few
minutes ago," a spokeswoman for the Chukotka regional election
commission said by telephone from the regional capital of

Exit polls and first results are due after the last of the
96,300 polling stations closes in the European enclave of
Kaliningrad bordering Poland at 2000 (1800 GMT) on Sunday.

Opinion polls have predicted right from the outset a massive
victory for Putin's protege, the 42-year-old St. Petersburg
lawyer and Kremlin official Dmitry Medvedev, making the campaign
a dull affair devoid of political sparring.

 The last polls to be published said Medvedev would win
70-80 percent, way ahead of his nearest rival, 63-year-old
Communist veteran Gennady Zyuganov on 10-16 percent. Turnout is
seen around 70 percent, though critics say it is inflated by
factory managers and state officials who pressure employees to

Putin, who must step down in May because of term limits, is
by far Russia's most popular politician after presiding over an
eight-year economic boom and a dramatic revival in Russian power
and influence overseas.

His endorsement in December of Medvedev, a colleague for
almost 20 years, instantly catapulted the low-profile bureaucrat
into the leading position in the polls.


Putin, however, was quick to add that he would maintain an
influential role after the election and later said he would
become prime minister under Medvedev -- a highly unusual
division of power in a country used to one supreme leader.

It remains unclear exactly how the new arrangement will work
once Medvedev is installed in the Kremlin and his former boss
and mentor moves to the prime minister's quarters further along
the river to start a role which, on paper, is more lowly.

Buoyed by generous amounts of airtime on state media and
lent considerable official support by his status as First Deputy
Prime Minister, Medvedev has scarcely campaigned at all. He has
preferred instead to tour cities in his official capacity
inspecting building projects and social programmes.

Further adding to the air of unreality surrounding the
election, Medvedev has refused to grant interviews or news
conferences with foreign media, or to participate in debates
with opposition challengers.

Zyuganov, like other opposition politicians, has complained
bitterly of unfair media access and official harassment of his
campaign, a charge echoed by democracy watchdogs.

Independent anti-Kremlin candidates, such as former prime
minister Mikhail Kasyanov or Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky,
were barred by the authorities from running.


Former world chess champion and opposition leader Garry
Kasparov submitted a petition with his allies to the Central
Election Commission on Saturday describing the election as a

"It's very important that there are still people around who
believe that this election is a farce," Nikita Belykh, an
opposition leader, told reporters.

There was no immediate reaction from the Central Election
Commission, which is run by a former colleague of Putin's who
has previously rejected opposition allegations of unfairness.

Most Western observers are boycotting the election because
of a row with Russian election officials over the number of
observers allowed and the duration of their stay. However,
monitors from friendly former Soviet states will be watching.

Security was tight, with 450,000 police and troops deployed
to watch over voting and guard against terror attacks.

With the election result a foregone conclusion, the main
interest has focused on what will happen once Medvedev reaches
the Kremlin.

Analysts have little to go on, since Medvedev has given only
a couple of major programme speeches during the campaign and
limited himself to one paid-for interview in a news weekly,
where he talked mainly about his earlier career and personal

Date created : 2008-03-01