MOSCOW -- People across Russia have gone to the polls to elect local and regional councils and governors in the last major vote before a presidential election in March.
Opposition candidates in Moscow hope for a strong showing but have accused authorities of trying to discourage voter turnout on September 10. City officials have rejected those allegations.
Aleksei Samsonov, a 46-year-old teacher, told RFE/RL that he cast his vote for municipal deputies backed by Yabloko's Dmitry Gudkov, seeing it as "the only way to get opposition forces into municipal councils."
"There is hope that a certain rebirth of civil society is taking place at the moment and that there will be a polis of young people untouched by corruption created over the course of 17 years in Russia," Samsonov said near the polling station at a central Moscow school.
Yekaterina, 41, who declined to give her last name or profession, told RFE/RL that she voted for Yabloko because she was angry about regular street maintenance and renovation work in Moscow that is ordered by city authorities without consultating residents.
"Take this road we're standing on," she said. "It has been repaved every year or at least every over year for ages. Why are my taxes being spent like this? I want this to change."
Galina Petrova, a pensioner, said she cast her vote for three young, independent candidates because she wants to see a new crop of politicians -- although she also praised President Vladimir Putin.
"In my life he is the only politician I can think of who actually understands the people," Petrova said.
Natalya Kolosova, a 72-year-old retired theater critic, said she was voting for candidates from the United Russia party, which is associated with President Vladimir Putin.
"I think United Russia have more prospects," Kolosova said. "The KPRF [Communist Party] just talks a lot, but doesn't do anything. They say nice things and promise a lot, but do practically nothing."
Late on September 10, Prime Minister and United Russia Party chairman Dmitry Medvedev said the elections were held "at a high level everywhere."
Voters cast ballots for local legislatures in six far-flung regions where councils, known as dumas, are expected to continue to be dominated by allies of President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party: North Ossetia, Udmurtia, Krasnodar Krai, Penza Oblast, Saratov Oblast, and Sakhalin Oblast.
Direct governors' races are being held in 16 of Russia's 83 regions, and complaints surfaced ahead of the elections from would-be candidates saying they had been unfairly excluded from the ballot.
In nine of the 16 regions with gubernatorial voting on September 10, United Russia's incumbent governors are running for reelection. A second round of voting is scheduled for September 24 in places where no candidate wins a majority.
A recent requirement is being blamed by some for unduly narrowing the field of candidates for governor. To get on the ballot, would-be candidates must get signatures of support from as high as 10 percent of local lawmakers. In most cases, such local legislatures are either members or allies of United Russia.
Elections were also held in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed in March 2014.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maryana Betsa protested against the vote, writing on Twitter: "Ukraine does not recognize any 'electoral processes' in occupied Crimea. A gross violation of Russia's international law and laws of Ukraine."
"Not worthy of substance and content," she added in a separate tweet.
Critics say they have little incentive to see potential opponents get on the ballot.
The rule, dubbed the "municipal filter," was introduced after Dmitry Medvedev reinstated direct gubernatorial elections toward the end of his presidency in 2012.
The Kremlin enacted even tighter controls over Russia’s political landscape after street protests in Moscow and other cities five years ago sparked by accusations of vote rigging in parliamentary elections in December 2011 and Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.
At least four potentially formidable candidates had their bids quashed after they failed to secure the required signatures.
Yevgeny Roizman, a Yekaterinburg mayor with a reputation for being a political maverick, failed to get on the gubernatorial ballot in his native Sverdlovsk region. In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service in August, Roizman alleged that local authorities made sure "they cleared the entire field."
"There's not a single strong challenger," Roizman said of the process. "Not a single strong candidate was even allowed to get close." Roizman predicted that he would have won "plain and simple" if he had been in the race.
Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, rejected suggestions that Roizman had been unfairly targeted by the Kremlin.
"It’s difficult for me to believe that the ruthless Mr. Roizman -- a senior official, a statesman, the head of a major city who has certain administrative resources -- is a sort of weak little victim hounded by the regime," Pamfilova told the Russian business daily RBK in August.
No Surprises Expected
But analysts say the choices are limited and voter turnout may be low as a result.
"There won’t be any surprises in the regions because everything is under control," Dmitry Oreshkin, director of the Mercator think tank in Moscow, told RFE/RL.
Oreshkin predicted that United Russia or "people approved by United Russia" would emerge victorious in regional races.
And he suggested the current domination of the Kremlin in budgeting and other areas would spell trouble for more independent candidates for governor.
"In any case, it's not that important [who wins governors' races] because, in terms of function, any governor depends entirely on Moscow simply because that's the way the federal budget works. He receives money from Moscow and depends on Moscow," Oreshkin said. "So even if a Communist or a liberal did win, he would in any case have to become part of the system of values."
"In any case, they won't win."
Although he has not officially announced his candidacy, Putin is expected to dominate the presidential election slated for March 2018. It would be his fourth term in the presidency, a tenure dating back to late 1999 and interrupted only by a four-year stint as prime minister to avoid a presidential term limit in Russia's constitution.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, Interfax, and TASS