Russia`s President-elect Dmitry Medvedev appeared to send a strong signal Monday that he would continue his predecessor`s tough stance toward neighboring states seeking closer ties with the West when the company he chairs reduced gas supplies to Ukraine, according to AP.
The action came only hours after the election of Medvedev, who currently serves both as a deputy prime minister and as chairman of Gazprom, the mammoth state-controlled gas monopoly.
Russia says the dispute is strictly a financial one over Ukraine`s failure to pay for past gas deliveries. But the two have sparred over Ukraine`s desire for closer ties with the West and NATO membership.
Medvedev won the election with more than 70 percent of the vote, according to nearly complete returns, in large part due to his promise to continue to pursue the polices of Vladimir Putin, who has reasserted this country`s power abroad while keeping a tight grip on society at home.
Observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said Monday that Russia`s presidential election reflected the will of the people, but unfair access to the media called into question the overall fairness of the vote.
Andreas Gross, who led the 22-member mission, described Sunday`s vote as a "reflection of the will of the electorate whose democratic potential unfortunately has not been tapped." Two of Medvedev`s three challengers alleged there were violations and threatened to challenge the results in court.
Golos, a respected Russian monitoring group, said it had received reports of hundreds of violations during the election, include ballot box stuffing, false voter registration and multiple ballots being cast.
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.
The campaign was dominated by Medvedev, the Kremlin`s favorite, who refused to debate his rivals or formally campaign but received the bulk of the television coverage. In the end, no one was surprised by the result.
The head of the Central Elections Commission on Monday released nearly final results from 99.45 percent of precincts showing that the 42-year-old Medvedev had 70.2 percent of the vote. Official results are due Friday, and no further results will be released on Monday.
The liberal opposition alliance headed by former chess champion Garry Kasparov planned marches in cities around the country Monday. Riot police have used violence to break up similar marches in the past, and trucks of police were stationed early Monday near the square where the Moscow march was to begin.
The main outstanding question was who would be calling the shots in Russia once Medvedev takes over and, as is widely expected, names Putin prime minister. The outside world will watch closely how the new leadership in Russia, with its immense oil and gas reserves, engages with global rivals and partners at a time of rising commodities prices.
Most Russians expect the mild-mannered Medvedev to follow Putin`s lead, at least at first.
In his rhetoric, Medvedev has presented himself as a pro-business liberal and more Western-leaning face to the rest of the world. But he has also helped implement Putin`s drive to give the Kremlin a near monopoly on political power and energy resources.
At a news conference early Monday, Medvedev was asked who would run foreign affairs — him or the prime minister. "Under the constitution, the president determines foreign policy," he said.
Medvedev ran against three rivals apparently permitted on the ballot because of their loyalty to the Kremlin line. But Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov and ultranationalist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky still alleged violations after the voting ended.
Zyuganov, Medvedev`s nearest challenger with almost 18 percent in the nearly complete results, said he would dispute the result. Zhirinovsky, with 9 percent, threatened to do so as well.
As a key implementer of Putin`s polices, Medvedev is seen as unlikely to alter Putin`s assertive stance with the West, reduce state control over Russia`s mineral riches or allow truly independent opposition candidates to compete in elections.
"Our candidate, Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, has taken a firm lead," Putin said late Sunday, appearing alongside his protege at a celebration at Red Square outside the Kremlin.
Medvedev — pronounced med-VEHD`-ev — thanked voters and vowed to pursue Putin`s policies.
"We will increase stability, improve the quality of life and move forward on the path we have chosen," Medvedev said. "We will be able to preserve the course of President Putin."
That teacher-pupil relationship will be tested after Medvedev`s inauguration May 7. Medvedev has said he would propose making Putin his prime minister, and Putin has said he will accept the offer. But in Russia, the premier wields significantly less power than the president, and Putin may find his new chair confining.
Gazprom`s reduction of gas to Ukraine could be an early signal of Medvedev`s foreign policy. Another early sign could come in July at the summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations: If Putin goes alone or accompanies Medvedev, that could indicate his reluctance to relinquish control.
Some officials who know the quiet, unassuming Medvedev have said privately that he is tougher than his appearance and demeanor may suggest. Russian history also shows that rulers often like to get rid of those who backed their ascent to power.
Medvedev will be the first Russian leader to succeed his predecessor according to a constitutional timetable; Putin became acting president first after Russia`s first president, Boris Yeltsin, stepped down early, and only later won election.
But Medvedev`s election was not a wide-open contest.
Liberal opposition leaders Kasparov and Mikhail Kasyanov were barred from running after authorities decided they had not met the strict requirements for gaining a spot on the ballot. Voters across Russia say they were being urged, cajoled and pressured to vote in an effort to ensure that Medvedev scored a major victory.
Kasparov held his own protest against the election Sunday near Red Square. Escorted by a dozen riot police, he carried a plastic shopping bag that read: "I am not participating in this farce."
Associated Press writers Lynn Berry, Maria Danilova, Angela Charlton and Peter Leonard contributed to this report from Moscow.