Russians are voting in an election that holds little suspense after Putin crushed dissent

Voters arrive at a polling station during a presidential election in Russian-controlled Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Friday, March 15, 2024. People in Moscow-controlled Ukrainian regions are voting in Russia's presidential election, which is all but certain to extend President Vladimir Putin's rule after he clamped down on dissent. (AP Photo)

Voters arrive at a polling station during a presidential election in Russian-controlled Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Friday, March 15, 2024. People in Moscow-controlled Ukrainian regions are voting in Russia’s presidential election, which is all but certain to extend President Vladimir Putin’s rule after he clamped down on dissent. (AP Photo)

Russia began three days of voting Friday in a presidential election that is all but certain to extend President Vladimir Putin’s rule for six more years after he stifled dissent.

At least half a dozen cases of vandalism at polling stations were reported, including a firebombing and several people pouring green liquid into ballot boxes — an apparent nod to the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who in 2017 was attacked by an assailant splashing green disinfectant in his face.

Voting is taking place through Sunday at polling stations across the vast country’s 11 time zones, in illegally annexed regions of Ukraine and online. Putin cast his ballot online, according to the Kremlin.

The election comes against the backdrop of a ruthless crackdown that has crippled independent media and prominent rights groups and given Putin full control of the political system.

It also comes as Moscow’s war in Ukraine enters its third year. Russia has the advantage on the battlefield, where it is making small, if slow, gains. A Russian missile strike on the port city of Odesa killed at least 14 people on Friday, local officials said.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has made Moscow look vulnerable behind the front line with long-range drone attacks deep inside Russia and high-tech drone assaults that put its Black Sea fleet on the defensive.

Russian regions bordering Ukraine reported a spike in shelling and repeated attacks this week by Ukrainian forces, which Putin described Friday as an attempt to frighten residents and derail the vote.

“Those enemy strikes haven’t been and won’t be left unpunished,” he vowed at a meeting of his Security Council.

“I’m sure that our people, the people of Russia, will respond to that with even greater cohesion,” Putin said. “Whom did they decide to scare? The Russian people? It has never happened and it will never happen.”

By the time polls closed Friday night at Russia’s westernmost region of Kaliningrad, more than a third of the country’s eligible voters had cast ballots in person and online, according to the Central Election Commission. Online voting, which began Friday morning, is available around the clock in Moscow and 28 other regions until 8 p.m. local time Sunday.

Officials said voting proceeded in an orderly fashion, but in St. Petersburg, a woman threw a Molotov cocktail on the roof of a school that houses a polling station, local news media reported. The deputy head of the Russian Central Election Commission said people poured green liquid into ballot boxes in five places, including Moscow.

News sites also reported on the Telegram messaging channel that a woman in Moscow set fire to a voting booth. Such acts are incredibly risky since interfering with elections is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The election holds little suspense since Putin, 71, is running for his fifth term virtually unchallenged. His political opponents are either in jail or in exile; Navalny, the fiercest of them, died in an Arctic penal colony last month. The three other candidates on the ballot are low-profile politicians from token opposition parties that support the Kremlin’s line.

Observers have little to no expectation the election will be free and fair.

European Council President Charles Michel mordantly commented Friday on the vote’s preordained nature. “Would like to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his landslide victory in the elections starting today. No opposition. No freedom. No choice,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Beyond the few options for voters, the possibilities for independent monitoring are very limited.

No significant international observers were present. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitors were not invited, and only registered candidates or state-backed advisory bodies can assign observers to polling stations, decreasing the likelihood of independent watchdogs. With balloting over three days in nearly 100,000 polling stations, any true oversight is difficult anyway.

“The elections in Russia as a whole are a sham. The Kremlin controls who’s on the ballot. The Kremlin controls how they can campaign. To say nothing of being able to control every aspect of the voting and the vote-counting process,” said Sam Greene, director for Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.

Ukraine and the West have also condemned Russia for holding the vote in Ukrainian regions that Moscow’s forces have seized and occupied.

In many ways, Ukraine is at the heart of this election, political analysts and opposition figures say. They say Putin wants to use his all-but-assured electoral victory as evidence that the war and his handling of it enjoys widespread support. The opposition, meanwhile, hopes to use the vote to demonstrate its discontent with both the war and the Kremlin.

Two anti-war politicians were banned from the ballot after attracting genuine — albeit not overwhelming — support, depriving the voters of any choice on the “main issue of Russia’s political agenda,” said political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter.

Russia’s scattered opposition has urged those unhappy with Putin or the war to show up at the polls at noon on Sunday, the final day of voting, in protest. The strategy was endorsed by Navalny not long before his death.

“We need to use election day to show that we exist and there are many of us, we are actual, living, real people and we are against Putin. … What to do next is up to you. You can vote for any candidate except Putin. You could ruin your ballot,” his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, said.

How well this strategy will work remains unclear.

Golos, Russia’s renowned independent election observer group, said in a report this week that authorities were “doing everything so that the people don’t notice the very fact of the election happening.”

The watchdog described the campaign ahead of the vote as “practically unnoticeable” and “the most vapid” since 2000, when Golos was founded and started monitoring elections in Russia.

Putin’s campaigning was cloaked in presidential activities, and other candidates were “demonstrably passive,” the report said.

State media dedicated less airtime to the election than in 2018, when Putin was last elected, according to Golos. Instead of promoting the vote to ensure a desired turnout, authorities appear to be betting on pressuring voters they can control — for instance, Russians who work in state-run companies or institutions — to show up at the polls, the group said.

The watchdog itself has been swept up in the crackdown: Its co-chair, Grigory Melkonyants, is in jail awaiting trial on charges widely seen as an attempt to pressure the group ahead of the election.

“The current elections will not be able to reflect the real mood of the people,” Golos said in the report. “The distance between citizens and decision-making about the fate of the country has become greater than ever.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of Russia’s election: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-election

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