Russians go to the polls

Monitored by web cameras and a network of volunteer civilian observers, Russians voted today in presidential elections expected to return Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin.

By midday in Moscow, the independent elections watchdog group had recorded more than 1,000 complaints of irregularities across the country, ranging from questionable voter registration lists to non-functioning web cameras to buses believed to be carrying so-called “carousel voters” from precinct to precinct.

Allegations of widespread vote fraud in last December’s parliamentary elections set off an unprecedented wave of massive protests against Putin, who has remained Russia’s paramount leader despite stepping down from president to prime minister four years ago due to term limits.

The protests, the largest public show of anger in post-Soviet Russia, demonstrate growing frustration with corruption and political ossification in Putin’s Russia. But despite the increased dismay, opinions polls have shown Putin positioned to easily defeat four other candidates and return to the post he held in 2000-2008.

Putin presided over a significant growth in Russia’s prosperity and growing stability that contrasted with the disorder and anxiety of the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin led Russia’s emergence from the wreckage of the Soviet Union.

“Under Boris Nikolayevich, life was simply a nightmare, but, you know, now it’s OK. Now it’s good, I’m happy with the current situation,” said 51-year-old Alexander Pshennikov, who cast his ballot for Putin at a Moscow polling station.

But other voters were tired of the heavy-handed ways of the one-time KGB spy. Natalya Yulskaya, 73, said she voted for billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov as a protest gesture against Putin.

“I know the KGB will be in power ... but I gave it a try,” she said.

Putin has dismissed the protesters’ complaints, portraying them as a minority of urban elitists and as dupes of Western countries that he claims want to undermine Russia. But, sensitive to the galvanised opposition, he ordered installation of web cameras at all of Russia’s more than 90,000 polling stations.

Putin’s disdain for the protesters became more marked in the last week of campaigning, as he publicly suggested the opposition was willing to kill one of its own figures in order to stoke outrage against him. That claim came on the heels of state television reports that a plot by Chechen rebels to kill Putin right after the election had been foiled. Some of Putin’s election rivals dismissed the report as a campaign trick to boost support for him.

Protests after the election appear certain.

“People in Russia are not going to recognise Putin’s victory in the first round,” Alexei Navalny, one of the loosely knit opposition’s most charismatic figures, declared flatly last week.

Putin has promised to appoint Medvedev prime minister if he wins the presidency in order to pursue his reform ideas, but many regard Medvedev as lacking the hard-edge political skills to be an effective reformer.

None of the other candidates have been able to marshal a serious challenge to Putin.

A mid-February survey by the independent Levada Center polling agency found Putin getting more than 60% support – well above the 50% needed for a first-round win. The Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, got support of about 15%, according to the survey, which claimed accuracy within 3.4 percentage points. The others – nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Sergei Mironov of A Just Russia and Prokhorov – were in single digits.

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