Russia votes in test for Putin as fraud claimed

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Russia voted Sunday in legislative elections set to see an erosion in the majority of Vladimir Putin's ruling party and marred by claims the authorities have engaged in foul play to ensure its dominance.

The United Russia party of Putin was expected again to win the majority in the State Duma parliament but with fewer seats, as opponents said the authorities had downed websites and harassed monitors to limit dissent.

The elections are seen as a crucial test of Putin's popularity in Russia as he prepares to stand in March 2012 presidential elections to return to the Kremlin after his four-year stint as prime minister.

Independent monitor group Golos (Voice), which claimed rampant violations in the campaign, said its "Map of Violations" website documenting reports of campaign fraud was the target of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.

"Our email is not working, and we only have Skype to communicate with our regional network," spokeswoman Olga Novosad told AFP.

Meanwhile, the website of popular radio station Moscow Echo, which is owned by state gas monopoly Gazprom but often tackles sensitive issues, was the subject of a similar hacker attack.

"The attack on the website on election day is clearly an attempt to inhibit the publication of information about violations," Moscow Echo editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov wrote on Twitter.

On Friday, Golos was fined nearly $1,000 and became the subject of a prime-time television programme that accused the "ostensibly independent observers" of acting in the interests of the US government.

Customs officials held Golos head Lilia Shibanova for 12 hours at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and confiscated her laptop on Saturday.

Putin had lashed out at Golos last weekend, comparing its activities to the disciple Judas who betrayed Jesus. President Dmitry Medvedev Friday rejected claims of foul play saying elections were "one of the greatest manifestations of democracy".

Russia's two rulers -- who are set to swap jobs in 2012 with Medvedev becoming prime minister -- voted at separate polling stations without making any comment.

The four years since the last parliamentary vote in 2007 have been marked by an outburst of criticism of the authorities on the Internet as web penetration of Russia started to finally catch up with the rest of Europe.

Opinion polls have predicted that United Russia's nationwide poll rating will drop from 2007 when it secured a landslide majority of 64.3 percent and won 315 seats in the State Duma.

The three main opposition parties -- the Communists, the nationalist Liberal Democrats and the populist A Just Russia -- should all see their support tick up without posing any significant challenge to United Russia.

The marathon election process in the world's largest country kicked off in Pacific Ocean regions and was to conclude 21 hours later with the close of polls in exclave of Kaliningrad on the borders with the European Union, nine time zones away.

Turnout will also be closely watched to see how many Russians are disillusioned with the political process after over a decade of Putin's strongman rule.

By 0800 GMT, over 11 percent of the electorate had cast their vote, the election commission said.

Some Russians voting in the Far East said they would support Putin's United Russia, while others noted they had so far seen nothing from it but empty promises.

Anastasia Levchenko, a former United Russia supporter from the Pacific city of Vladivostok, said the ruling party had done virtually nothing over the past four years.

"I am disappointed," said the 62-year-old pensioner, adding she voted for A Just Russia.

But Nikolai Ponomaryov, a warrant officer from the Marshal Shaposhnikov anti-submarine warship based in the Pacific port, said he voted for Putin's party because he saw changes for the better.

"Already this spring my family will get an apartment in a new district," he said. "I link these changes with the work of United Russia," he said as his uniformed colleagues queued outside a polling station early Sunday.

Putin, who was recently subjected to unprecedented booing at a martial arts fight, and President Dmitry Medvedev have made clear they did not want to see a squabbling parliament like that in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.

"If someone wants to watch a show, then they need to go to the circus, the movies or the theatre," Putin told workers at a shipyard in Saint Petersburg, urging Russians to vote for his party.

Pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours) said that 15,000 of its members would be moving around Moscow during the vote while the members of the radical opposition said they would stage unsanctioned protests later in the day.


© 2011 AFP

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