Voting starts in Russian presidential election

( Reuter )- Russians voted for a new president on Sunday, in an election expected to deliver a big victory to Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin's chosen successor and another blow to Moscow's already tarnished democratic image.

Election officials in the Far Eastern peninsula of Chukotka, the first of this massive country's 11 time zones to cast ballots, said voting began on schedule at 0800 local time (2000 GMT Saturday).

"All 59 regional polling stations opened as planned a few minutes ago," a spokeswoman for the Chukotka regional election commission said by telephone from the regional capital of Anadyr.

Exit polls and first results are due after the last of the 96,300 polling stations closes in the European enclave of Kaliningrad bordering Poland at 2000 (1800 GMT) on Sunday.

Opinion polls have predicted right from the outset a massive victory for Putin's protege, the 42-year-old St. Petersburg lawyer and Kremlin official Dmitry Medvedev, making the campaign a dull affair devoid of political sparring.

The last polls to be published said Medvedev would win 70-80 percent, way ahead of his nearest rival, 63-year-old Communist veteran Gennady Zyuganov on 10-16 percent. Turnout is seen around 70 percent, though critics say it is inflated by factory managers and state officials who pressure employees to vote.

Putin, who must step down in May because of term limits, is by far Russia's most popular politician after presiding over an eight-year economic boom and a dramatic revival in Russian power and influence overseas.

His endorsement in December of Medvedev, a colleague for almost 20 years, instantly catapulted the low-profile bureaucrat into the leading position in the polls.

Putin, however, was quick to add that he would maintain an influential role after the election and later said he would become prime minister under Medvedev - a highly unusual division of power in a country used to one supreme leader.

It remains unclear exactly how the new arrangement will work once Medvedev is installed in the Kremlin and his former boss and mentor moves to the prime minister's quarters further along the river to start a role which, on paper, is more lowly.

Buoyed by generous amounts of airtime on state media and lent considerable official support by his status as First Deputy Prime Minister, Medvedev has scarcely campaigned at all. He has preferred instead to tour cities in his official capacity inspecting building projects and social programs.

Further adding to the air of unreality surrounding the election, Medvedev has refused to grant interviews or news conferences with foreign media, or to participate in debates with opposition challengers.

Zyuganov, like other opposition politicians, has complained bitterly of unfair media access and official harassment of his campaign, a charge echoed by democracy watchdogs.

Independent anti-Kremlin candidates, such as former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov or Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, were barred by the authorities from running.

Former world chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov submitted a petition with his allies to the Central Election Commission on Saturday describing the election as a "farce".

"It's very important that there are still people around who believe that this election is a farce," Nikita Belykh, an opposition leader, told reporters.

There was no immediate reaction from the Central Election Commission, which is run by a former colleague of Putin's who has previously rejected opposition allegations of unfairness.

Most Western observers are boycotting the election because of a row with Russian election officials over the number of observers allowed and the duration of their stay. However, monitors from friendly former Soviet states will be watching.

Security was tight, with 450,000 police and troops deployed to watch over voting and guard against terror attacks.

With the election result a foregone conclusion, the main interest has focused on what will happen once Medvedev reaches the Kremlin.

Analysts have little to go on, since Medvedev has given only a couple of major program speeches during the campaign and limited himself to one paid-for interview in a news weekly, where he talked mainly about his earlier career and personal life.

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