Russians start voting in key parliamentary elections

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Russians in the Far East began voting Sunday in key parliamentary elections expected to hand victory to Vladimir Putin's party amid claims of campaign fraud and unprecedented intimidation of observers.

The world's largest country is spread over nine time zones and as Muscovites were going to sleep, deer herders and oil workers in the country's resource-rich Far East were gearing up to cast their ballots.

"Polling stations are open," Konstantin Mikhailov, head of the local election commission in the city of Anadyr in the resource-rich Chukotka region populated by indigenous herders, told AFP.

The other regions to vote first are diamond-mining Yakutia, the region of Sakhalin which includes an island chain contested by Japan, Kamchatka, and Magadan, the site of Soviet-era Gulag camps.

Besides the ruling United Russia, six more parties are running in the elections to the lower house of parliament, the 450-deputy State Duma, which are seen as a dry run of March presidential polls in which current Prime Minister Putin is expected to win back his old job.

Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, who will step aside next year, made clear they did not want to see a squabbling and tightly composed parliament like in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.

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

Analysts say United Russia had initially hoped to repeat the success of the last parliamentary elections in 2007 when it secured a landslide majority of 64.3 percent and received 315 seats in Duma.

But with support for Putin and his party crumbling, United Russia is expected to win just over half the vote, according to pollsters.

Independent monitors and several opposition parties say that United Russia would not receive more than 30 percent of the vote if the elections are free and fair and charge that results would be skewed in favour of Putin's party.

Observers say the only major intrigue during Sunday's polls would be the scale of voter fraud and falsification by the authorities to secure victory for United Russia.

In the run-up, Russia's independent monitor group Golos (Voice) claimed widespread violations in the election campaign, incurring Putin's wrath.

Speaking last weekend, Putin lashed out at Western attempts to "influence the course of the election campaign" through Russian NGOs, warning this was "money thrown to the wind."

Following Putin's address, the small Moscow-based observer association with a network of several thousand volunteers, has become the target of what its supporters say is a brutal campaign of intimidation, a treatment usually reserved for top Kremlin enemies.

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

Golos said its head Lilia Shibanova had been held for 12 hours Saturday by customs officials when she landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after a business trip.

Officials confiscated her laptop, she told AFP, calling the incident "a provocation" aimed at preventing her from travelling to the European parliament next week.

Golos also said the FSB security service and police were harrassing their regional coordinators and its "Map of violations" website documenting claims of campaign fraud became the target of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on Saturday.

"We are not going to stop," the observer group said in a statement.

The election will end 21 hours later when stations close at 1700 GMT Sunday in the exclave of Kaliningrad on the borders with the European Union.

© 2011 AFP

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