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Russians vote in their first election since Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia's presidential election begins today. And yes, Vladimir Putin will almost certainly win. But this is Russia - nothing happens without some intrigue.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Now, Putin is widely expected to secure a fifth term in office, extending his hold on power through at least 2030, maybe longer. So do Russian voters really have a choice?

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes is on the line from Moscow. Good morning.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So you were out at polling stations. What have you been seeing?

MAYNES: Yeah. I was out at a polling station at a school in central Moscow when voting got underway this morning. There was a small but steady trickle of voters, including Anastasia (ph) and Alexei (ph), both doctors who work in Russia's state hospital system. And when we spoke outside, I asked, I thought the obvious question, is Russian democracy healthy?

ANASTASIA: (Speaking Russian).

ALEXEI: (Speaking Russian).

ANASTASIA: Anastasia, you can hear there chuckling, says yes, it is. Alexei had a different take that democracy doesn't exist anywhere. But either way, they said Russians' faith in President Putin was strong and that's who they'd cast their ballots for.

FADEL: So it sounds like Putin is up by two votes, then.

MAYNES: Yeah. He's on his way. But of course, it's early going. There are three full days of voting ahead. That's a first for presidential elections here. The government is also pushing new online voting in about a third of the country. Previously, it had only been tested in Moscow. And this election is distinct for another reason. Russia's military securing voting for people in areas of Ukraine that Moscow claims to have annexed, in other words, the occupied territories.

FADEL: Wow.

MAYNES: Now, the Central Election Commission here says all of these moves are designed to offer greater voter access. But Kremlin critics - and it must be said, independent election experts - argue these moves open the door to potential vote rigging or if you look at Russia's recent history of elections, more vote rigging. The track record here isn't good.

FADEL: Yeah, but Putin is popular, at least polls tell us so. So why should anyone be surprised or even outraged if - or more like when - he wins?

MAYNES: Yeah. There's no question. You know, Putin has his supporters, particularly among older Russians attracted to Putin's blend of Soviet nostalgia and nationalist conservatism. So Putin would no doubt do well. But would he do as well as these polls claim? You know, if you believe media reports that cite government leaks that the Kremlin has instructed regional governors and other state officials to secure a historic result for the president, one that shows the people are behind Putin not despite but because of his decision to invade Ukraine. Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for the Kremlin turned critic in exile says this generated mandate is about maintaining Putin's legitimacy at home. Even if there's a danger of overdoing it.

ABBAS GALLYAMOV: It's not enough just to produce the result. It's necessary to be convincing so that your result is believed.

FADEL: Now, there are other candidates, though, right?

MAYNES: Yeah. There are three members from various Duma factions in the parliament that are in the race, only they all basically support Putin's policies and don't seem particularly interested in competing. Meanwhile, those who are did not make it on the ballot. Two anti-war candidates were disqualified over supposed registration violations. And, of course, Putin's fiercest challenger, Alexei Navalny, died in a remote prison colony under circumstances that still aren't clear, and Navalny's allies certainly think his death or murder was timed to these elections. In fact, they're calling on people to honor Navalny's last known political wish to protest the vote by swarming the polling stations at noon on Sunday.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you for your reporting.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.

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