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RUSSIA

Early Results Give Medvedev 68.5%

Dmitry Medvedev coasted to an easy victory in Sunday's presidential election, which saw strong turnout of more than 64 percent of registered voters.

Medvedev won 68.5 percent of the vote, trouncing his nearest challenger, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who got 18.5 percent, according to preliminary results from the Central Elections Commission at midnight, with 57 percent of all votes counted.

Nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky came in third with 10.4 percent, while Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov finished last with 1.3 percent.

Dressed in a black leather jacket, Medvedev made a surprise appearance at a Sunday night rock concert on Red Square, organized by the pro-Kremlin youth movement, Young Russia.
He was flanked by President Vladimir Putin, the outgoing leader whose support propelled Medvedev to victory.

"I want to thank everyone who voted for me," Medvedev said.

Putin spoke after Medvedev finished. "This victory will guarantee that the path we have chosen with you, the successful course that we followed the past eight years, will be continued," he said as the crowd chanted: "Putin! Putin! Putin!"

In a campaign where Medvedev's victory was never in doubt, one of the only questions was how high voter turnout would be. After intense efforts to bring out the vote, turnout was 64.2 percent, the commission said. By comparison, 63.7 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in December's State Duma election.

The high turnout proved that Sunday's vote was a genuinely democratic contest with real competition, Medvedev campaign manager and Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin said after the results were announced.

"This shows the election was not decided in advance," Sobyanin said in a televised news conference.

Despite his impressive share of Sunday's vote, Medvedev remains in the shadow of Putin, who was re-elected in 2004 with 71.3 percent of the vote -- a record in Russian presidential elections.

Medvedev did manage to come in higher than United Russia's 64.3 percent result in the December Duma election, when Putin headed the party's ticket.

Medvedev voted Sunday morning at a school in west Moscow, along with his wife, Svetlana. "I am in a good, festive mood," he told reporters. "Spring is here. Even though it's raining, that is pleasant. The season has changed."

Zyuganov seemed less pleased after casting his ballot in north Moscow. He said the Communist Party had sent half a million observers to polling stations nationwide in an attempt to prevent fraud. "We have chosen sample polling stations in various regions," he said. "We will ensure total, full control there."

After the vote, Zyuganov complained of numerous election violations and said he had earned a higher percentage of the vote than official results indicated. "From 25 to 35 percent of voters supported me," he said in a Sunday night news conference.

Zhirinovsky cast his ballot at a school in southwest Moscow. "Victory, victory," he said with typical swagger as he cast his ballot. "If I win, the whole nation will have a feast. If they elect another candidate, all will be gloom."

The candidate scoffed at reporters' suggestions that he had no chance against Medvedev before leaving in a Mercedes Benz stretch limousine.

Most voters at the polling station appeared to be unimpressed. Tatyana Shorina, a teacher, said she had voted for Medvedev.

"He is young, competent, and I really like Putin," she said.

Shorina, 40, said she used to work for foreign companies because teachers' salaries were too low. "Now it is possible again to earn a living as a teacher," she said.

Long-shot candidate Andrei Bogdanov voted at his old high school in the Moscow suburb of Solntsevo, accompanied by his parents, wife and brothers. Afterward, he cracked a joke about Zhirinovsky, who attacked one of his aides during the recording of a televised debate last month.

"After all the threats Zhirinovsky has been making, I decided to leave my kids at home," Bogdanov said as his curly, collar-length hair got soaked in the rain.

Bogdanov had the lowest vote count of the four candidates in Sunday's vote, and many analysts saw him as a token democrat backed by the Kremlin to split the opposition.

One would-be opposition candidate, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, derided the election as a farce. "The result doesn't matter as this is an illegitimate transfer of power," Kasyanov told The Associated Press.

Kasyanov was denied registration in January after the Central Elections Commission invalidated 80,000 signatures in support of his candidacy.

The absence of a clear opposition figure like Kasyanov left some voters scratching their heads about the best option for a protest vote.

Liza Sokolova, a psychologist who voted near Chistiye Prudy metro station, said she had voted for Bogdanov as a protest against Kremlin domination.

"As a psychologist, I always want there to be an alternative for people," Sokolova said as she tried to keep her toddler son from walking off.

Even some Muscovites who fit the profile of Medvedev supporters complained about the lack of choice.

A gynecologist whose private practice has flourished under Putin said she would vote "out of principle" for Zyuganov. "We should have been given a choice," she said.

Putin voted at the Russian Academy of Sciences in southwest Moscow. The event was briefly disrupted by an elderly woman on crutches who approached him with a complaint.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov vowed his North Caucasus republic would deliver a high turnout Sunday.

"People here are very active," he said as he cast his own ballot, according to remarks carried by his press service.

In Moscow, foul weather threatened to deter voters. Besides rain and slush, Sunday brought a drop in barometric pressure, a weather condition that often prompts health complaints from Russians.

One member of the Moscow elections commission appeared to take such complaints seriously when he said Muscovites who felt unwell should vote from home, an option typically offered to disabled voters. The application deadline for home voting was 4 p.m. Sunday, commission member Vyacheslav Shulenin told Interfax.

Taking a different tack, many polling stations offered food and gifts as rewards for voting.
Honey, lard and bathrobes were on sale outside a school in southeast Moscow used as a polling station. Inside, voters could treat themselves to cakes and blinis for reduced prices.
A small crowd of middle-aged and elderly voters had already gathered at the school by 8 a.m., the time polls opened. Vladimir Kromin, 56, said he had stopped by on his way to buy groceries.

"I was just going to buy some beer," said Kromin, an electrician. "That's why I dropped in here. Otherwise I wouldn't have gone to vote."

Kromin did not say how he had voted, but he expressed sympathy for Zyuganov. "We have a totalitarian state, like in 1937," he said.

Voters at a school in northern Moscow got mouse-shaped piggy banks that appeared to be leftover New Year's gifts.

"I guess this is for doing my civic duty," said Sergei, a medical student voting to his first presidential election. "I'm going to put it on my desk."

(The Moscow Times 3.iii.08)

 
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