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Kremlin Faces Vote Test; Opposition Cries Foul

The ruling Unified Russia party is the most visible in its advertising.
BRYANSK, Russia (Reuters) -- Millions of Russians have voted in local elections in the first test of the Kremlin's popularity since an economic crisis triggered mass unemployment.

Opponents accused the Unified Russia party, headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, of using dirty tricks in campaigning for some town councils, regional parliaments, and mayors to cover up a fall in its popularity.

Unified Russia officials, though, dismissed this as political opportunism in the vote which involves about a fifth of all eligible voters in Russia.

Early reports showed a fall in voter turnout -- one way people can express dissatisfaction -- with Russian news agencies reporting a 10 percentage point drop in two completed city mayoral elections in Russia's Far East.

In Bryansk, an industrial region of 1.3 million people near Russia's border with Belarus and Ukraine, the Communists are mounting a strong challenge for the regional parliament

At a polling station in the regional capital 380 kilometers southwest of Moscow, 70-year-old Kira Aleksandrova had come straight from her work as a night janitor in a school to vote for the Communists. "My monthly pension is 4,300 rubles [around $122]. How can I survive on this pittance?"

A senior official at the regional Communist Party said about 60 to 65 percent of the population supported his party but he said Unified Russia would try and fix the results.

Golos, an independent monitoring group, said it had seen people handing out pancakes, lottery tickets, and small gifts.

At the polling station in Bryansk, Natalya Gudrova, a 45-year-old street cleaner, had voted for Unified Russia. "I voted for Unified Russia because there is stability and because medical services have improved," she said.

She added that the regional governor, a member of Unified Russia, had previously promised to rehouse her from the old building she lives in where she shares a bathroom with other families.

Kremlin Party Quietly Confident Ahead Of Vote

Neither Putin nor the ally to whom he yielded the presidency last year, Dmitry Medvedev, are directly involved in the polls.

But both are expected to look to the results for a measure of their popularity in the face of falling wages and rising unemployment. Data showed a 500,000 rise in unemployment in Russia in December to a 2 1/2-year high of 5.8 million.

Opinion polls show support for Putin and Medvedev has fallen since the financial crisis gripped Russia last October, but analysts expect only a small dip in support at the polls.

In an interview with Spanish media before flying to Madrid for a state visit, Medvedev said the downturn would not trigger instability in Russia and he brushed aside criticism the authorities tried to prevent opposition groups from protesting.

"They take to the streets and call loudly for the president and the government to resign," he said in the interview broadcast by Russian television. "They are free to make all the statements they want to make. It looks like nobody is trying to hush them up and they can say whatever they want to say."

Unified Russia, which dominates the national parliament and holds sway over much of the media, is expected to retain control of the nine regional parliaments, the mayors of the major towns and cities voting, and the great bulk of the town and village councils that are up for election in 3,600 separate campaigns.

There is no voting in Moscow or St. Petersburg or in Vladivostok in the Far East, which recently saw protests over tariffs on imported Japanese cars that hit the local economy.