Russia braces for parliamentary elections
Russians prepared Saturday for parliamentary elections amid dwindling support for the ruling United Russia party and unprecedented pressure on election observers.
Voting in the world's largest country will begin at 2000 GMT Saturday in the Russian Far East regions and end 21 hours later when polling stations close at 1700 GMT Sunday in the exclave of Kaliningrad wedged between Poland and Lithuania.
President Dmitry Medvedev heads the party list for United Russia, and opinion polls have shown that while it is still almost certain to retain its parliamentary majority, its support may be eroding after years of dominance.
In a message to the Russian people Friday, Medvedev called elections "one of the highest manifestations of democracy."
But 46 percent of Russians expect the elections to be rigged, according to a Levada opinion poll held in November, with 51 percent convinced that the elections are only an "imitation competition" with predetermined results.
The run-up to the polls has also been marked by unprecedented pressure on election observers, especially on Moscow-based group Golos, which has set up a user-friendly website where people may allege violations.
Golos director Liliya Shibanova said customs officials stopped her overnight at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and demanded that she hand over her laptop computer on the pretext that it contained unlicensed software.
"They are taking my computer away now, and there is no guarantee that they won't upload anything," she told AFP Saturday, fearing that police will proceed to find something illegal on her disk and open a criminal case.
"This is very dangerous. It's an attempt to bar me from leaving Russia" for a meeting at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, where Shibanova planned to discuss the Russian elections.
Golos was taken to court Friday for alleged violations of election rules and ordered to pay a fine of 30,000 rubles ($970, 725 euros). A documentary Friday night alleged the group is acting on behalf of the US government.
The White House said the court decision reflected a "pattern of harassment directed against this organisation."
A legally required campaign blackout went into effect at midnight Friday.
Up to three relatively tame opposition parties are expected to win seats in the next parliament -- the Communist Party, the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democrats and the populist A Just Russia.
One of the main anti-Kremlin liberal parties, the grouping Parnas based around ex-minister Boris Nemtsov and former chess champion Garry Kasparov, cannot take part after being denied registration by the authorities.
But a relatively weak showing for United Russia would be troubling for the authorities after the announcement that Vladimir Putin will seek to return to the Kremlin in elections next year.
Medvedev is to take Putin's current post as prime minister, in a job swap that will continue their tandem rule of Russia.
© 2011 AFP