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Discontent as Russians head to polls

KALININGRAD, Russia -- In the glitzy central square of what once was regarded as one of Europe's ugliest cities, Marina Timofeyeva was underwhelmed by the changes brought by a decade under Vladimir Putin. "It's all nice if you have money to buy something, but what if you don't?" asked the 29-year-old manager of a boutique.

She hadn't decided whom to vote for in today's national elections -- except that it won't be for Putin's United Russia party.

Widespread dismay with United Russia threatens to undermine the party's control of Russia, and authorities are clearly nervous, including applying strong pressure on the country's only independent election-monitoring group.

The group, Golos, has complied some 5,300 complaints of election-law violations ahead of the vote. Most are linked to United Russia, the party headed by Putin, who has dominated Russian politics for a dozen years as president and prime minister.

Roughly a third of the complainants -- mostly government employees and students -- say employers and professors are pressuring them to vote for the party.

Golos' leader, Lilya Shibanova, was held at a Moscow airport for 12 hours upon her Friday return from Poland after refusing to give her laptop computer to security officers, said Golos' deputy director Grigory Melkonyants. On Friday, the group was fined the equivalent of $1,000 by a Moscow court for violating a law that prohibits publication of election opinion research for five days before a vote.

The group has come under growing pressure since last Sunday, when Putin accused Western governments of trying to influence the election. Golos is funded by grants from the United States and Europe.

United Russia has received overwhelmingly favorable coverage during the campaign, mostly from Kremlin-controlled national television. But the party is increasingly disliked, seen as representing a corrupt bureaucracy and often called "the party of crooks and thieves." Independent pollster Levada Center said last week that United Russia will receive 53 percent of the vote, down from the 64 percent it got in the 2007 vote. This would deprive it of the two-thirds majority that has allowed it to amend the constitution.

Putin, who is expected to win a third term as president next year, and the party, had won much of their popularity on the back of Russia's economic revival, driven largely by high prices for oil and natural gas. The Kremlin is determined to see United Russia maintain its majority in parliament.

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