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It is also election season in Russia, with votes for Parliament in December and president next March. President Dmitry Medvedev has stepped aside to allow his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, to run for the presidency again. Putin currently wields power as prime minister. As Peter Van Dyk reports from Moscow Russians are dubious the upcoming elections will be free and fair.

YELENA: (Foreign language spoken)

PETER VAN DYK, BYLINE: Putin will be president, says thirty-year-old Yelena. The lifelong Muscovite is chatting to a friend in Alexander Gardens next to the Kremlin. Yelena, who like many Russians won't give her last name when discussing politics, says she's not even sure she will vote.

YELENA: (Foreign language spoken)

DYK: Everything's been decided, she says. It will be the same, no matter who we vote for.

That's a common complaint, despite official boasts that the whole political spectrum is represented on the ballot, from the Communists through the ruling United Russia party, to the nationalist Liberal Democrats. The problem is that many Russians believe the process is an elaborate puppet show with the Kremlin pulling the strings.

Even opposition parties are not really independent, critics say, and newer parties are simply Kremlin creations. Four years ago, the left leaning A Just Russia party entered parliament with a strong showing. This year, its leader has been cast out by the Kremlin.

The economically liberal Right Cause party was expected to do well in this coming election. Not anymore. Its leader, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, Mikhail Prokhorov, was voted out at last month's party convention. He blamed the Kremlin for his ouster. Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center says you can only get on the ballot with Kremlin approval.

NIKOLAI PETROV: The Kremlin looks like chef which controls all dishes, and he will be happy if any of these dishes will be ordered. But the problem is that the whole restaurant is becoming less and less popular.

DYK: That isn't to say Putin isn't popular - he is. Experts agree, he would be elected president even in a totally open election.

Back in Alexander Gardens, Tatiana Kozlova says she will vote for him.

TATIANA KOZLOVA: (Through Translator) I will go to the elections, because I'm not ashamed to vote for the current government, and for the president.

DYK: Putin remains hugely popular, but his United Russia party is a different matter. It's been called the party of crooks and thieves and the tag has caught on, at least in big cities like St Petersburg and Moscow.

Pavel Danilin edits a political website and is an adviser to United Russia. He says the lack of credible opposition parties means United Russia has to be all things to all people. But that is just not possible.

PAVEL DANILIN: The young people in big cities, the intelligentsia, are against United Russia.

DYK: Danilin says that could mean the ruling party gets less than 50 percent of the vote in some big cities like St Petersburg. And that's the problem - anything less than a majority of the vote will be seen as failure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DYK: This video from the Central Election Commission attempts to show why people should trust the election process. Titled "High-Tech Elections", it explains security procedures and demonstrates how paper ballots will be scanned automatically and deposited into ballot boxes. But opinion polls show a majority of Russians think there will be fraud, and it will favor United Russia.

Aside from the Kremlin-encouraged official opposition, there are political parties more actively opposed to Putin and United Russia, but they are barred from taking part. Parnas, the People's Freedom Party, is one. But it still wants people to go to the polls - just so they can spoil their ballots. Parnas hopes this will make the election harder to fix and reduce United Russia's share of the vote. Anton Yemelin, a young Parnas activist, admits it will be difficult.

ANTON YEMELIN: My enemy is not Putin or Medvedev. My enemy is when everybody don't care.

DYK: The 23-year-old says many of his friends ignore politics. So he faces the same problem as the Kremlin-approved parties - convincing Russians to cast votes when they believe nothing will change.

For NPR, I'm Peter van Dyk in Moscow.

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