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Pro-Kremlin Party To Dominate Regional Elections

The elections are seen as a test for Vladimir Putin's party
People voted across Russia's nine time zones on March 13 in what's seen as the last major test of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party before parliamentary and presidential elections within the next 12 months.

But United Russia is expected to hold onto its majorities in all 12 regions voting to elect their legislatures amid accusations the Kremlin is using intimidation and distributing rewards to manipulate the electoral system.

Deputy Chairman of the Russian Central Election Commission Leonid Ivlev said that the turnout in local elections is higher than in previous polls and the number of complaints is smaller. He did not provide figures.

Campaigning in the Siberian region of Khanty-Mansiisk this week, Parliament Speaker Boris Gryzlov, a United Russia Party leader, promised the government would lavish attention on its residents.

"The region will soon see tens of thousands of new jobs, which will help extract the region's natural resources and aid industry," Gryzlov said.

The elections come as unrest in the Middle East is driving prices up for oil, Russia's number one export, giving the government windfall profits as the country slowly recovers from the global financial crisis.

That may have made Moscow home to more billionaires than any other city in the world this year, but most ordinary Russians are worried about the effects of inflation. Prices rose more than 3 percent in the first two months of this year.

At the same time, strong-arm authoritarianism and massive corruption are prompting more people to criticize the government, even if their numbers are still small. A poll last month by the independent Levada Center showed Russians equally divided between those who believe their country is moving in the right direction and those who think it's going the wrong way: 42 percent each.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov told state television he sees the regional elections as an important "part of a whole" that includes December's parliamentary elections and the presidential ballot in March 2012.

"That's why we've developed a real program with concrete measures to lead the country out of its crisis, to support agriculture, healthcare, and education," Zyuganov said.

The Communist Party is the only opposition party in parliament, but Kremlin critics say it's no real opposition group. Liberal parties and other groups the Kremlin believes pose a real political threat have been barred from state media, refused registration, or otherwise sidelined from taking part in elections.

Reported Violations

Some 20 million people are eligible to vote in today's voting. Russians in various regions are also casting ballots for mayors and municipal councils.

There have already been numerous reports of ballot stuffing. Andrei Buzin of the independent Golos monitoring agency told RFE/RL's Russian Service that observers have been pressured by the authorities in several provinces, and blocked from all monitoring in the region of Nizhny Novgorod south of Moscow.

"Two observers were detained and the apartment of one of them was searched. He was told only that he was accused of terrorism, but the search violated all procedural regulations," Buzin said.

Regional authorities have promised voters free concert tickets to entice them to the ballot boxes, but election officials say turnout so far has been lower than in previous years.

Analysts say Putin sees the elections as the first step toward the presidential election next year, which many believe he wants to reinstall him in his old job. He stepped down in 2008 after reaching his two consecutive-term limit to make way for his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev.

But most Russians believe Putin still controls the country as prime minister. He was shown on national television this week dressing down regional officials for the poor state of the country's healthcare system.

The government insists elections in Russia are free and fair. But last month, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin made ripples by saying Russia needs "fair and honest" elections to support its economic recovery.

Written by Gregory Feifer in Prague with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian Service and news agencies