Presidential election under way in Russia's Far East

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

Opinion polls predicted an easy win for 42-year-old St. Petersburg lawyer and Kremlin official Dmitry Medvedev that should ensure Putin stays on as the power behind the throne.

Election officials in the Far Eastern peninsula of Chukotka, the first of the nation's 11 time zones to cast ballots, said voting began on schedule at 0800 local (3 p.m. EST Saturday).

Polling stations also opened in Vladivostok, Russia's main naval base and gateway into the Pacific.

Exit polls and first results were due after the last of the 96,300 polling stations closed in the European enclave of Kaliningrad bordering Poland at 2000 (1 p.n. EST) on Sunday.

Yelena, a 19-year-old student voting for the first time, said she had chosen Medvedev. "Why? I don't really know," she said. "I believe many will vote for him, and I just like him."

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 was seen at around 70 percent, though critics said it would be inflated by factory managers and state officials who pressure employees to vote.

In Chukotka's capital Anadyr, voters were lured by fluffy toys, theatre tickets and even mobile phones gifted to those voting for the first time, Vesti-24 television channel said.

In Vladivostok, polling stations near student hostels tempted voters with teddy bears and baseball caps with Russian flags for those casting ballots for the first time.

Putin, due to step down in May because of term limits, is by far Russia's most popular politician after presiding over an economic boom and rapid revival in Russian 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, promised to 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 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 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 refused to participate in debates with opposition challengers.

Zyuganov, like other opposition politicians, 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.

Most Western monitors were boycotting the election because of a row with Russian election officials over the number of observers allowed and the duration of their stay.

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 weekly, where he talked mainly about his earlier career and personal life.

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