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Russians Vote in Parliamentary Elections

Citizens throughout Russia are going to the polls Sunday, choosing a new parliament in an election that is generally seen as an index of support for President Vladimir Putin.

Voting began in frigid weather in Russia's Far East. Correspondents who interviewed voters at random in Vladivostok and other cities found mostly supporters of Mr. Putin's United Russia Party, which is aiming for a big victory Sunday.

Campaigning officially ended Friday at midnight, but opposition leaders including Garry Kasparov say their efforts to persuade voters never really got started, because of government-led pressure tactics and tight controls on the media.

VOA's Moscow correspondent says Mr. Putin made clear during the campaign that his United Russia party intends to gain influence over all of the country's key power structures, including parliament, the federal and regional governments, the courts and the Central Bank.

With campaigning over on Saturday, Russia's television networks highlighted the government's plan to raise pension benefits by 30 percent, along with a 15 percent hike in military salaries.

More than 100 million Russians are eligible to vote, including those who live abroad but retain their Russian citizenship.

The constitution prohibits Mr. Putin from running for a third consecutive term as president in March, and for that reason he has told voters their choices for parliament are particularly important.

The president's name is at the head of United Russia's candidate list, indicating he might become prime minister in the next government, and thus retain much of the power he now holds.

Opposition leader Kasparov, the former world chess champion, calls the elections a farce. He was freed Thursday after completing a five-day jail sentence imposed on him and others who took part in an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow one week ago.

The press-freedom group Reporters Without Borders says Russians have not received fair and unbiased information about all of the parties competing in the election. It says harassment tactics have been employed to prevent Russian news media from reporting about opposition parties' activities.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP.