MOSCOW — After eight years of rule that saw Russia's influence and wealth grow while its democratic freedoms shrank, voters in the Far East were the first in this vast nation to cast their ballots Sunday for President Vladimir Putin's successor.
When the election is over and the votes are counted, a path almost certainly will be open for Putin to take a new and powerful role in the government of the man he has endorsed to take his place.
There is no significant opposition to Dmitry Medvedev, who says that if he wins he will ask Putin to become prime minister _ an offer that Putin is sure to accept.
Medvedev has even based his platform on a vow to pursue "the Putin plan." It's a telling demonstration of how Putin established dominion over Russian politics through genuine popular support, marginalizing opposition parties and putting national broadcasters 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 own ambitions after his supporters were refused rental of a hall in which to hold their mandatory nominating meeting.
"It's not an election; it's a farce. Its results were known long ago," Kasparov said Saturday after handing in a petition denouncing the vote at the election commission's headquarters in Moscow.
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 claim that workers are being pressured by bosses to vote and that some have been ordered to turn in absentee ballots, presumably so that someone else could vote in their stead.
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 its monitors could not work in a meaningful way.
With Medvedev's victory virtually assured, the main political uncertainty in Russia in the transition period is whether he will be a truly independent president. The premiership that Putin is expected to take is the most powerful executive position in the government and Putin would be likely to maximize its influence.
Speculation persists that the parliament, overwhelmingly dominated by Putin's supporters, could expand the prime minister's powers, or that Medvedev could resign before his term is out, allowing Putin to return to the presidency.
The president sets the government's philosophical and rhetorical tone, including its foreign policy. The carefully spoken Medvedev so far has shown little of Putin's penchant for provocative criticisms of the West or bold assertions of Russia's reviving military might.
Medvedev did raise eyebrows recently with his comment that he could work with any U.S. president who didn't have "semi-senile" views. He did not elaborate or name the president or presidential candidates to whom he was referring.
Putin's confrontations with the West _ including allegations that Western organizations were trying to foment revolution and parallels he seemed to draw between the United States and Nazi Germany _ underline the new boldness that Russia feels as its economy soars.
The new president's major domestic tasks will center on the economy. Russia got rich from skyrocketing world oil prices, but its economy is hugely dependent on natural resources and needs to diversify to solidify long-term prosperity. Inflation _ more than 11 percent last year _ is undermining the nascent middle class.
Medvedev, meanwhile, has identified corruption as a key problem.
Overall, the race has prompted little excitement. State-controlled television news programs have given almost no coverage to the three other candidates.
Medvedev has not formally campaigned, but spent the campaign period traveling across Russia, visiting farms and industrial enterprises, meeting with young people at sporting events and the elderly at nursing homes. Those trips have dominated television newscasts in recent weeks.
Associated Press Writer Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report.