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Medvedev democracy talk faces test in Russian regions

YEKATERINBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Maxim Petlin heads a prominent political party in a major Russian province straddling the Ural mountains, but he will not be on the ballot for regional parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev chairs a meeting on economic issues at the Gorki presidential residence outside Moscow March 10, 2010. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev

His Western-leaning Yabloko party was barred on technical grounds, a move Petlin believes was aimed at keeping Kremlin critics out of the vote -- one of hundreds of contests being held around Russia near the midpoint in President Dmitry Medvedev’s four-year term.

Sunday’s balloting is a test for Medvedev, who has promised cleaner polls and a relaxation of the tightly controlled political system built by his predecessor Vladimir Putin. Putin is now prime minister and the dominant partner in Russia’s ruling “tandem.”

In Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fifth largest city and capital of the industrial Sverdlovsk region, Petlin says local officials have simply ignored the president’s signals from Moscow.

“Medvedev understands something needs to be done, but on the ground, his words mean nothing,” he said. “For us nothing has changed.”

The Sverdlovsk election commission barred all candidates from Yabloko and another liberal party, Right Cause, after ruling that several thousand voter signatures required to get the party on the ballot were invalid.

“They just said they looked false,” said Petlin.

Putin’s United Russia party is expected to dominate the elections across the country, drawing on its immense resources, entrenched position and popular leader. Its national approval rating in February was between 50 and 65 percent, according to state-backed polling agencies.

Three officially tolerated opposition parties -- the Communists, the nationalist Liberal Democrats and left-leaning Fair Russia are relatively cautious in their opposition to the Kremlin and are rarely barred from polls. All have candidates in the eight regional legislative races on Sunday.

Accusations of voting violations were so widespread in a Moscow city council vote last October -- overwhelmingly won by United Russia -- that all three parties walked out of parliament in a rare public protest.

They were coaxed back by Medvedev’s promise of a fairer vote this time around.

Major irregularities could strengthen opposition protests planned for several Russian cities on March 20, six days after the poll, although the Communists, the largest opposition force, have said they will not take part.

Golos, Russia’s largest independent election monitoring body, said it has seen no sign that Sunday’s election for mayors, regional and city assemblies -- in which 32 million are eligible to vote -- will be an improvement on the Moscow vote.

“Over the past two years things have just got worse,” said Golos head Liliya Shibanova. “The election commissions remain 100 percent dependent on the authorities.”

In Yekaterinburg, rival candidates have been invited to televised debates, although they were eclipsed by a fawning 100 minute press conference with regional governor Alexander Misharin, a United Russia member, on the same channel.

United Russia does face challenges. In Yekaterinburg, many voters angry with rising communal services bills said they would vote for one of the registered opposition parties. Others said they would simply stay at home.

“There’s just no one to vote for,” said Nikolai Maximov, 30, a mechanic and former United Russia voter walking under a vast banner showing Putin and Medvedev. “It’s all fabricated.”

Federal election officials have scathingly rejected opposition complaints and say Russian elections are more open than those in Western Europe.

“If they can’t organize themselves that is their problem,” Georgy Belozerov, a United Russia candidate in the Sverdlovsk council elections, said of the opposition.

But Medvedev faces a major credibility problem if he cannot show some progress in political reform before the end of his term, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based analyst.

“Time is running out,” he said.

Editing by Noah Barkin