MOSCOW – Russians voted Sunday in regional ballots marred by complaints that Kremlin opponents are increasingly being sidelined before national parliamentary elections in December and a vote to replace President Vladimir Putin next year.
The elections for legislative assemblies in 14 of Russia's 86 regions were held under new rules critics say continue a retreat from democracy and restrict the ability of voters to voice discontent.
They provided a test for Just Russia, a new party that promotes itself as the opposition but supports Putin and is seen as a tool to channel public anger at the authorities away from ardent opponents while broadening the Kremlin's support base.
Exit polls showed the dominant Kremlin-controlled party, United Russia, retaining its strength in most regions, but suggested that Just Russia would gain a foothold and take nearly half the votes in one province.
Just Russia led United Russia in the Stavropol region, with 40 percent to 29 percent, according to exit polls conducted by the respected VTsIOM, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion. The organization said it questioned about every fifth voter at polling stations until 6 p.m., two hours before the polls closed.
Official preliminary results were not expected until Monday, but VTsIOM's exit polls in nine other regions showed United Russia appearing to retain approximately the level of support it had in the old regional assemblies.
In some of those regions United Russia apparently will retain the numerical majority of seats; in others, such as St. Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad region, United Russia had not held a majority and its proportion appeared little changed.
While 14 parties and their candidates competed in the elections, critics said the appearance of genuine pluralism was only superficial.
"I don't want to vote because I don't trust any of these parties," said Viktor Krylov, 38, a manager at a shipping company in St. Petersburg. "It's clear that any elections just define who will have access to the state's money and use it as they wish."
Voters casting ballots for St. Petersburg's legislature expressed dismay that some parties had been barred from the ballot -- notably Yabloko, a liberal party that was excluded by a ruling that more than 10 percent of the signatures it gathered to enter the race were invalid. Yabloko called the ruling a farce and claimed the city governor, a Putin ally, was bent on keeping it out of the legislature because of its vocal criticism.
"I did not like that fact that Yabloko and some other parties were not allowed on the ballot," said Anna Vyborova, 33, a tour guide. "It didn't look good -- it looked rather artificial that they were not allowed."
The liberal Union of Right Forces, known by its Russian abbreviation SPS, was barred from the ballot in four regions -- in some cases, its leader said, because candidates withdrew under pressure from threats or with promises of jobs.
Sunday's vote signaled the start of a year of elections that will culminate with a March 2008 presidential vote in which Putin is constitutionally barred from running, because he has served two terms. Critics say the Kremlin -- nervously eyeing his departure -- wants to choreograph the elections to ensure a smooth succession and enable the popular president to maintain influence after he steps down.
Putin has hinted he will choose a favored successor and he evidently wants to leave little to chance: the electoral system has been shaped by the Kremlin in ways that critics say have rolled back democracy. Critics say legislation initiated by Putin or United Russia aims to discourage pluralism and silence dissent.
Voters could no longer cast ballots "against all," and in most regions there was no longer a minimum turnout required to make the election valid. In a few, all voting was by party, meaning no ballots could be cast for individual candidates, and the threshold parties had to clear to gain seats was increased to 7 percent.
By limiting the outlets for opposition sentiment, the Kremlin has pushed some opponents into the streets. Last weekend, police in St. Petersburg violently dispersed one of the largest opposition demonstrations in Russia in years; among protesters' main complaints was that opposition parties were blocked from the ballot.
United Russia and Just Russia were on the ballots in all 14 regions, along with the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, whose flamboyant ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky is seen as loyal to the Kremlin. SPS, Yabloko and several smaller parties were also on some of the ballots.
One man was shot and wounded in a fight outside a polling place in the violence-plagued Dagestan region, officials said. Police spokeswoman Anzhela Martirosova said the conflict was not linked to the elections.