Russians began voting Sunday in a presidential election that will produce a successor to Vladimir Putin and almost certainly open a path for Putin to take a new and powerful role after eight years in which Russia's global influence has expanded and its domestic democracy has contracted.
There is no significant opposition to Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's endorsed choice to take over the presidency, and Medvedev 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," a telling demonstration of how Putin established dominion over Russian politics through genuine popular support and through measures that have marginalized opposition parties and put national broadcast media under the state's thumb.
Critics denounce the election as little more than a cynical stageshow. 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 who is the Kremlin's most internationally prominent opponent, shelved his ambitions to run after his supporters were refused rental of a hall in which to hold the 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; ultranationalist 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 it 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 or essentially Putin's handmaiden. 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.
But the president sets the government's philosophical and rhetorical tone, including its foreign policy, and 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.
Putin's confrontations with the West _ including allegations that Western organizations were trying to foment revolution and his apparently drawing of parallels between the United States and Nazi Germany _ underlined the new boldness that Russia feels as its economy soars.
The new president's major domestic tasks hover around economic issues. Russia got rich from skyrocketing world oil prices, but the 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 of 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 Correspondent Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report