MOSCOW — Russians began voting today in a presidential election that will produce a successor to Vladimir Putin and almost certainly open a path for Putin to take a new and powerful role after eight years in which Russia's global influence expanded and its domestic democracy contracted.
There is no significant opposition to Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's endorsed choice to take over the presidency, and Medvedev says that if he wins he will ask Putin to become prime minister — an offer that Putin is sure to accept.
Medvedev (pronounced MED-veh-dev) has even based his platform on a vow to pursue "the Putin plan," a telling demonstration of how Putin established dominion over Russian politics through genuine popular support and through measures that have marginalized opposition parties and put national broadcast media under the state's thumb.
Critics denounce the election as little more than a cynical stage show. The Central Elections Commission threw the only liberal candidate — former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov — off the ballot for allegedly forging signatures on his nominating petitions. Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion and the Kremlin's most internationally prominent opponent, shelved his ambitions to run after his supporters were refused rental of a hall in which to hold the mandatory nominating meeting.
"It's not an election; it's a farce. Its results were known long ago," Kasparov said Saturday.
Medvedev's opponents are Gennady Zyuganov, head of the fading Communist Party; ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky; and the little-known Andrei Bogdanov.
Many activists and ordinary Russians say that workers are being pressured by bosses to vote and that some have been ordered to turn in absentee ballots.
International election observers will be barely visible. The influential Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe refused to send observers, saying Russian authorities were imposing such tight restrictions that it could not work in a meaningful way.
The premiership that Putin is expected to take is the most powerful executive position in the government.