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Russia votes, Putin expected to tighten grip
( 2003-12-07 10:45) (Agencies)

Russia began voting on Sunday in a parliamentary election overshadowed by a train bombing near Chechnya that appeared unlikely to stop parties backing President Vladimir Putin from making gains.

Russian soldiers in armored vehicles patrol the central street of the Chechen capital Grozny on December 6, 2003. Russia tightened security ahead of parliamentary poll overshadowed by a suspected suicide bomb attack that killed at least 42 people aboard a packed commuter train near rebel Chechnya. [Reuters]
Polling stations in the far eastern Arctic region of Chukotka opened at 3 p.m. EST Saturday as many Muscovites, 5,600 miles away, were enjoying a Saturday night drink.

In the Pacific Ocean port city of Vladivostok, residents queued at polling stations in the first heavy snowfall of the year, hoping the new parliament might improve living standards in a city that has been short of water for months.

"The most important thing is that we should get pensions like those the people we're voting for get, but that's not going to happen," said Lyusya Gerbasova, a 65-year-old doctor waiting outside a polling station in temperatures of minus 13 degrees Celsius (8 degrees Fahrenheit).

The poll, only the fourth since the end of Soviet rule, is expected to strengthen Putin's mandate to press economic reforms while re-asserting tighter control over political life.

The pro-Putin United Russia bloc has campaigned on a law-and-order, anti-corruption platform and pollsters predict an increase in its lead over the still-strong communists, possibly wiping out the liberal opposition altogether.

This would place the 51-year-old KGB spy-turned-president, criticized by his opponents for an increasingly autocratic style, in an unstoppable position if he runs for a second term in the Kremlin next March.

From Chukotka, voting swept westwards as the sun rose across the sprawling country's 11 time zones, and was due to reach Moscow at midnight EST Saturday.


Voters were electing a new State Duma (lower house) after a dull campaign marked by curbs on the media, a Kremlin drive against oil giant YUKOS that has unnerved big business and -- until Friday -- an information blackout on the war in Chechnya.

The separatist war in Chechnya forced its way back onto the agenda when at least 42 people were killed by a suspected suicide bombing on the packed commuter train in southern Russia, and Itar-Tass news agency reported 370,000 policeman would be on the streets to make sure the poll passed peacefully.

"I am convinced that the measures which the security structures take...will secure the safety of all election stations," Alexander Veshnyakov, head of the Central Election Commission, told television.

The Kremlin has indicated it fears a low turnout among the 109 million Russians eligible to vote, and in Vladivostok, where local election results have been annulled 24 times through low turn-out, many residents could not be bothered to vote.

"Nothing will change, everything is decided beforehand. There was United Russia and it will remain. Of course, I'll still hope, but I don't expect anything special," said one 50-year-old man, who did not give his name.

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