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Russian vote seen as referendum on Putin

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071202/ap_on_re_eu/russia_election Russian vote seen as referendum on Putin By JIM HEINTZ, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 40
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 2, 2007
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071202/ap_on_re_eu/russia_election

      Russian vote seen as referendum on Putin

      By JIM HEINTZ, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 40
      minutes ago

      MOSCOW - Russians voted Sunday in a parliamentary
      election where the only question was whether President
      Vladimir Putin's party would win a strong majority of
      seats or a crushing share.

      The election follows months of increasingly acidic
      rhetoric aimed against the West and efforts, by law
      and by truncheon, to stifle opponents.

      A huge win for Putin's United Russia party could pave
      the way for him to stay at the country's helm once his
      presidential term expires in the spring. The party
      casts the election as essentially a referendum on
      Putin's nearly eight years in office. Many of its
      campaign banners that festoon the capital read "Moscow
      is voting for Putin."

      "He's a good man. Any woman would love to see him in
      her house," said Polina Amanyeva, 58, at a Moscow
      polling station where she said she voted for United
      Russia.

      Putin is constitutionally prohibited from running for
      a third consecutive term as president in March. But he
      clearly wants to keep his hand on Russia's levers of
      power, and has raised the prospect of becoming prime
      minister; many supporters have suggested his becoming
      a "national leader," though what duties and powers
      that would entail are unclear.

      He has said that a strong showing for the party Sunday
      would give him the moral right to ensure that
      politicians in power continue his policies. Recent
      opinion polls suggest the party could win up to 80
      percent of seats.

      "I'm sure that voters have determined their
      preferences and now only have to come and vote for the
      party whose platform seems convincing, vote for those
      people in whom you trust," Putin told reporters after
      casting his ballot at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

      The dominance of United Russia provoked a fatalistic
      attitude in some voters.

      "I think the result was pretty much planned in
      advance. I don't know who I'll vote for; I'll decide
      when I get to the booth," said Ivan Kudrashov as he
      entered Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral for
      Sunday Mass.

      Alexander Mikhailov, 39, said outside a polling
      station in Moscow that he wanted to vote for a "truly
      democratic party" and chose the liberal opposition
      Yabloko because "there is no other choice."

      In Moscow, about 15 gay-rights activists were detained
      at a polling station after a protest in which they
      scrawled "No to homophobia" on their ballots.

      The voting started in the Far Eastern regions of
      Chukotka and Kamchatka while Muscovites were preparing
      for bed late Saturday. It concludes in the western
      exclave of Kaliningrad at 1 p.m. EST Sunday.

      The vote is the first national ballot under new
      election laws that have been widely criticized as
      marginalizing opposition forces. All the seats will be
      awarded proportionately to how much of the vote a
      party receives; in previous elections, half the seats
      were distributed among candidates contesting a
      specific district, which allowed a few mavericks to
      get in.

      The new laws also say a party must receive at least 7
      percent of the national vote to get any seats — up
      from the previous 5 percent. A poll by the All-Russia
      Public Opinion Research Center in mid-November showed
      the Communists and two other parties hovering near the
      cutoff point.

      Opposition parties, meanwhile, claim authorities have
      confiscated campaign materials and that the managers
      of halls have refused to rent them out for opposition
      meetings. Police have violently broken up opposition
      rallies — most recently in Moscow and St. Petersburg
      last weekend — and national television gives the
      parties hardly any coverage.

      In contrast, Putin's speeches to supporters have been
      broadcast in full and repeated throughout evening
      newscasts.

      "The fact is, they're not just rigging the vote.
      They're raping the democratic system," said chess
      champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov on
      Sunday.

      Kasparov, who was jailed for five days after the
      Moscow protest, spoiled his ballot by writing on it
      "Other Russia," the name of his opposition umbrella
      group.

      Sunday's vote "meets none of the criteria of a free,
      fair and democratic election. In effect, it is not
      even an election," Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser
      to Putin, wrote in a commentary for the Cato Institute
      think tank.

      Under Putin, Russia has become inundated with oil
      revenue, a nascent middle class is developing and the
      war against separatists in Chechnya has faded into
      sporadic, small clashes. Russia's newly assertive
      military policy and inclination to taunt and criticize
      the West appeals strongly to Russians who suffered
      physically and emotionally in the early post-Soviet
      years.

      Disdain for the West has been one of the dominating
      themes of the election. Putin has called his opponents
      "foreign-fed jackals" and warned that Russia will not
      tolerate meddling from abroad.

      All those factors contribute to strong support for
      United Russia. But with the competition stifled and
      the election result seen as a foregone conclusion,
      some of the 107 million eligible to vote could find
      apathy, inertia or simply the winter weather keeping
      them away from the ballot box.

      "It's clear that the current election will only
      stabilize the interests for one man, who has already
      run the country for a long time," said Musa Isayev, a
      40-year-old resident of Grozny, the capital of
      Chechnya.

      There's no minimum turnout needed for the election to
      be valid — another change from previous elections —
      but a low number of voters could undermine Putin's
      claim that Russia is developing into a true democracy,
      albeit one with only passing resemblance to Western
      democracies.

      Authorities throughout Russia's 11 time zones appear
      determined to ensure a sizable turnout, through
      pressure, persuasion and even presents. One region is
      offering young voters passes to pools and sports
      facilities; another says new housing will be built in
      whichever village shows the most "mature" turnout.

      Teachers, doctors and other workers have complained
      that their bosses are ordering them to vote — usually
      with the implication that they should vote for United
      Russia.

      With Russia showing an increasingly assertive military
      policy and with foreign hunger growing for Russia's
      oil, gas and minerals, the election is of strong
      interest overseas. But international organizations are
      not able to watch as closely as they had hoped.

      The elections-monitoring arm of the Organization for
      Security and Cooperation in Europe, regarded in the
      West as the most authoritative assessor of whether an
      election is fair, canceled plans to send observers. It
      said Russia had delayed granting visas for so long
      that the organization would be unable to conduct a
      meaningful assessment of election preparations.

      Russia has criticized monitoring by the OSCE elsewhere
      in the former Soviet Union as supporting protests that
      forced leadership changes, but it denied that it was
      impeding operations in Russia. Putin claimed the
      pullout was initiated by the United States in an
      effort to discredit the elections and his government.

      A total of about 300 observers from various
      international organizations were scheduled to monitor
      the voting, including some from the Shanghai
      Cooperation Organization of Russia, China and
      ex-Soviet Central Asian republics.

      ___

      Correspondent Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed
      to this report.
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