Russians voted Sunday in elections set to see Vladimir Putin’s ruling party win a reduced majority in parliament, amid claims the authorities were engaging in foul play to ensure it maintained dominance.
Russia’s main independent vote monitors have been denounced and harassed by the authorities ahead of the elections, while several opposition news websites were the victims of an apparent mass hacking attack on polling day.
The elections to the lower house of parliament, the 450-deputy State Duma, are seen as a key test of Putin’s ability to hold on to power as he, now prime minister, prepares to reclaim his old Kremlin job as Russia’s president in a March vote.
In the run-up to the parliamentary polls, Russia’s independent monitor group Golos (Voice) claimed rampant violations in the election campaign, including pressure to vote for Putin’s United Russia party. It was denounced by Putin and pro-Kremlin TV.
Golos said Sunday its observers’ “Map of Violations” website documenting claims of campaign fraud became the target of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack while its whole communications system was being undermined.
“Our email is not working, and we only have Skype to communicate with our regional network,” spokeswoman Olga Novosad told AFP.
Meanwhile, the website of popular radio station Moscow Echo, which is owned by state gas monopoly Gazprom but often tackles sensitive issues, was the subject of a similar hacking attack.
“The attack on the website on election day is clearly an attempt to inhibit publication of information about violations,” Moscow Echo editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov wrote on Twitter.
On Friday, Golos was fined nearly $1,000 and became the subject of a prime time television programme that accused the “ostensibly independent observers” of acting in the interests of the US government.
Customs officials held Golos head Lilia Shibanova for 12 hours at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and confiscated her laptop on Saturday.
The four years since the last parliamentary vote in 2007 have been marked by an outburst of criticism of the authorities on the Internet as web penetration in Russia started to finally catch up with the rest of Europe.
Putin’s United Russia is still expected to have a clear majority but opinion polls have predicted that its nationwide poll rating will drop from 2007 when it secured a landslide majority of 64.3 percent and won 315 seats in the Duma.
The three main opposition parties — the Communists, the nationalist Liberal Democrats and the populist A Just Russia — should all see their support tick up without posing any significant challenge to United Russia.
The marathon election process in the world’s largest country kicked off in Pacific Ocean regions and was to conclude 21 hours later with the close of polls in exclave of Kaliningrad on the borders with the European Union, nine time zones away.
Turnout will also be closely watched to see how many Russians are disillusioned with the political process after over a decade of Putin’s strongman rule.
By 0600 GMT, some five percent of the electorate had cast their vote, the election commission said.
Some Russians voting in the Far East said they would support Putin’s United Russia, while others noted they had so far seen nothing from it but empty promises.
Anastasia Levchenko, a former United Russia supporter from the Pacific city of Vladivostok, said the ruling party had done virtually nothing over the past four years.
“I am disappointed,” said the 62-year-old pensioner, adding she voted for A Just Russia.
But Nikolai Ponomaryov, a warrant officer from the Marshal Shaposhnikov anti-submarine warship based in the Pacific port, said he voted for Putin’s party because he saw changes for the better.
“Already this spring my family will get an apartment in a new district,” he said. “I link these changes with the work of United Russia,” he said as his uniformed colleagues queued outside a polling station early Sunday.
Putin, who was recently subjected to unprecedented booing at a martial arts fight, and President Dmitry Medvedev have made clear they did not want to see a squabbling 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.
Pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours) said that 15,000 of its members would be moving around Moscow during the vote while the members of the radical opposition said they would stage unsanctioned protests later in the day.