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Critics call Russian elections one-sided

They say opponents of the Kremlin are being sidelined before a presidential vote.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published March 12, 2007


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MOSCOW - Russians voted Sunday in regional balloting marred by complaints that Kremlin opponents are increasingly being sidelined before national parliamentary elections in December and a vote to replace President Vladimir Putin next year.

The elections for legislative assemblies in 14 of Russia's 86 regions were held under new rules that critics say continue a retreat from democracy and restrict the ability of voters to voice discontent.

They provided a test for Just Russia, a new party that promotes itself as the opposition but supports Putin and is seen as a tool to channel public anger at the authorities away from ardent opponents while broadening the Kremlin's support base.

Exit polls showed the dominant Kremlin-controlled party, United Russia, retaining its strength in most regions, but suggested that Just Russia would gain a foothold and take nearly half the votes in one province.

Just Russia led United Russia in the Stavropol region, with 40 percent to 29 percent, according to exit polls conducted by the respected VTsIOM, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion.

Official preliminary results were not expected until today, but VTsIOM's exit polls in nine other regions showed United Russia appearing to retain about the level of support it had in the old regional assemblies.

Although 14 parties and their candidates competed in the elections, critics said the appearance of pluralism was only superficial.

Voters in St. Petersburg expressed dismay that some parties had been barred from the ballot - notably Yabloko, a liberal party that was excluded by a ruling that more than 10 percent of the signatures it gathered to enter the race were invalid.

The liberal Union of Right Forces, known by its Russian abbreviation SPS, was barred from the ballot in four regions - in some cases, its leader said, because candidates withdrew under pressure from threats or with promises of jobs.

Sunday's vote signaled the start of a year of elections that will culminate with a March 2008 presidential vote in which Putin is constitutionally barred from running because he has served two terms. Critics say the Kremlin - nervously eyeing his departure - wants to choreograph the elections to ensure a smooth succession and enable the popular president to maintain influence after he steps down.

"They know that with free and fair elections and no censorship they will not last long," former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who leads the Other Russia opposition movement, told the Associated Press.

[Last modified March 12, 2007, 01:29:53]


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