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Polls open in Russian vote to extend Putin’s reign

Written by World Events

Service members register to vote in Russia’s presidential election in Moscow on March 15.//AFP

Moscow, Russia – Russians started voting on Friday in a three-day presidential election set to hand hardline leader Vladimir Putin another six-year term as fresh attacks bring the raging conflict in Ukraine further into Russian territory.

In power as president or prime minister since the final day of 1999, the former KGB agent is casting the election as a show of Russians’ loyalty and support for his military assault on Ukraine, now in its third year.

Polling stations in a country spread over 11 time zones opened at 8:00 am on Friday (2000 GMT  Thursday) on the Far Eastern Kamchatka peninsula and will close Sunday at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, wedged between EU members Poland and Lithuania.

Victory will allow Putin to stay in power until 2030, longer than any Russian leader since Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century.

As voting started, both Moscow and Kyiv said civilians had been killed in the latest wave of overnight aerial strikes.

Putin had urged Russians to back him in the face of a “difficult period”.

“We have already shown that we can be together, defending the freedom, sovereignty and security of Russia … Today it is critically important not to stray from this path,” he said in a pre-election message broadcast on state TV.

A woman casts her ballot in Russia’s presidential election at a polling station in Moscow on March 15.//AFP

The Kremlin leader’s confidence is riding high with his troops recently having secured their first territorial gains in Ukraine in nearly a year.

At home, his most strident and charismatic critic of the last decade, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic prison colony last month. He had been serving 19 years on “extremism” charges widely seen as retribution for his campaigning against the Kremlin.

Western governments and Kyiv have condemned the vote as a “sham” and “farce”.

– ‘Above all, victory’ –

In Moscow, a few dozen residents queued in the morning sun to be among the first in the capital to cast their ballots. “It’s important to vote, for Russia’s future,” said 70-year-old Lyudmila.

She said she backed Putin and was hoping for “above all, victory” in Ukraine.

Another Putin voter, Natan, 72, said he wanted the government to “increase employment, work to ensure that there is no war, stability in the country.”

With all of Putin’s major opponents dead, in prison or in exile, the outcome of the vote is not in any doubt.

Election authorities barred the few genuine opposition candidates who tried to run against Putin and a state-run pollster predicted earlier this week that Putin would secure more than 80 percent.

– ‘Landslide victory’ –

Voting was also being staged in occupied parts of eastern Ukraine that Russia claims to have annexed.

Armed soldiers in full combat gear accompanied election officials in the eastern Donetsk region as they set up mobile voting stations on small tables in the street and on the hoods of Soviet-era cars.

Kyiv has branded the vote as a “farce” and said staging the election in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, was “illegal.”

On Friday, EU chief Charles Michel sarcastically congratulated Putin on his “landslide victory”.

Those who oppose Putin still hope to spoil the procession. Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, is among those calling for voters to show up outside polling stations at midday on Sunday, the final day of voting, as a form of protest.

Moscow prosecutors warned it would punish those involved in “the organisation of and participation in these mass events.”

– Ukrainian attacks –

Kyiv has launched some of its largest air attacks on Russia this week ahead of the election — some reaching hundreds of kilometres into Russian territory — and pro-Kyiv guerilla fighters have launched a series of attempted cross-border raids.

Russian-installed officials in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk said Friday that overnight shelling killed three children, while Kyiv said a Russian drone strike on the central Vinnytsia region killed two.

Voters in Belgorod were forced to leave a polling station to head to a bomb shelter as authorities issued an air alert and ordered people to take cover, the RIA Novosti state-run news agency reported. Russia’s defence ministry said Ukraine had fired seven rockets at the region.

Moscow on Friday also appeared to acknowledge that pro-Ukrainian militias had taken temporary control of territory inside Russia in three days of cross-border raids this week.

The defence ministry said it had “fully restored control” over one settlement in the Belgorod region, after Thursday hitting the fighters — made up of Russians who oppose the Kremlin — with artillery, air strikes and guided bombs.

by Agence France Presse

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