MOSCOW - President Dmitry Medvedev faced a test of his pledge to boost Russian democracy on Sunday when polls opened for 30 million voters in regional elections the opposition says have been rigged.
Medvedev has promised to break the near-monopoly of ruling party United Russia over the political system. New democratic times are beginning, he said in August.
Critics say democracy was undermined by his predecessor Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, and the opposition says the situation has deteriorated since Medvedev came to power in May 2008.
Political competition is practically zero, said Liliya Shibanova, head of independent poll watchdog Golos. Medvedev says we need competition, we need a multi-party system, but election results show the exact opposite.
Mayoral, regional and district elections are being held in 76 of Russia's 83 regions, but the opposition has been particularly scathing of elections to the Moscow council, which controls the city's $40-billion budget.
Six parties are registered for Sunday's Moscow vote, but the only posters in the city are for United Russia. Golos said it had reports that Moscow authorities were pressuring workers to vote to boost the turn-out.
Everything is decided in advance, said 28-year-old teacher Jay Komisarzhevskaya. I haven't voted for almost 10 years.
Russia's first recession in a decade has done little to dent support for its ruling party, which has put the emphasis on preserving social order to keep a lid on simmering unrest in one-factory towns where indebted factories have laid off staff.
Medvedev, in an interview to be aired on Russian television later on Sunday, said unemployment was the biggest problem faced by Russia today.
Jobless rates reached a nine-year high of 10.2 percent in March, though have since retreated to 8.1 percent in August.
We will promote economic growth and we will give our manufacturing enterprises the opportunity to develop, but what's most important is to control unemployment, Medvedev said in comments published on the Kremlin's website, www.kremlin.ru.
'IMITATION OF A BATTLE'
Medvedev, wearing a leather coat and open-necked shirt, cast his vote in the morning.
Sixty-two percent of Muscovites polled by the Levada center described the vote as simply an imitation of a battle and said they expected the seats to be distributed by the authorities.
Pro-Western opposition parties say every one of their candidates was refused registration for the 17 first past the post seats on the Moscow council, most because some of thousands of signatures provided for registration were deemed invalid.
Only one liberal opposition party, Yabloko, was registered for the party race, which decides the remaining 18 seats, but an opinion poll suggested they would fall short of the minimum 7 percent and lose both their seats.
Yabloko party leader Sergei Mitrokhin said authorities had blocked access to the media and street advertising, television and newspapers. He said new rules introduced under Medvedev required parties not in national parliament to collect thousands of signatures, draining their resources.
The playing field is uneven. We don't have fair elections, Mitrokhin said after voting in Moscow. Political competition has shrunk further in the past year.
Medvedev's administration blamed local officials for the problems in Moscow, saying it had failed to convince Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a prominent member of the ruling party, to liberalize elections.
Moscow authorities are not ready to live under new standards, Medvedev's chief spokeswoman Natalya Timakova told reporters this week. We will continue encouraging them.
At a polling station in southwest Moscow, pro-Kremlin United Russia enjoyed the support of many elderly voters, some of whom took advantage of a subsidised buffet.
I believe in stability, said 70-year-old pensioner Larisa Akimova, after voting for United Russia. If someone else comes along what will they bring but chaos?
(Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov, Gleb Bryanski and Robin Paxton; Editing by Janet Lawrence)