MOSCOW • President Vladimir Putin has appealed to Russians' "love of the fatherland" to encourage them to vote tomorrow, as he seeks to boost turnout at an election he is sure to win.
The Kremlin is seeking high participation to give legitimacy to his inevitable fourth term, as opposition leader Alexei Navalny has called for a boycott of a vote he denounces as a sham.
"Who to vote for, how to exercise your right to free choice, that is the decision of each person," Mr Putin said in a video released late on Thursday and carried in news bulletins yesterday morning.
"But if the decision is avoided, then this key defining choice will be made without your opinion being taken into account."
He said Russians should be guided in their decision by their "conscience, understanding of truth and fairness, and love of the fatherland".
Regional officials are resorting to inducements - ranging from free food to prize contests - to lure voters to the polls as Mr Putin extends his rule to 2024.
Opinion polls show Mr Putin, 65, with a commanding election lead, effectively guaranteeing him another term that will take him to nearly a quarter century in power - a longevity among Kremlin leaders second only to Josef Stalin.
The only thing that could dampen Mr Putin's poll triumph is if voter apathy at a predictable contest leads to a low turnout, or if the minority of Russians who vocally oppose him take to the streets to protest against what they see as an undemocratic farce.
Who to vote for, how to exercise your right to free choice, that is the decision of each person. But if the decision is avoided, then this key defining choice will be made without your opinion being taken into account.
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, in a video released late on Thursday and carried in news bulletins yesterday morning.
In an election campaign where Mr Putin has benefited from glowing coverage on mainstream television, he has cast himself as the only person who can defend Russia's national interests in a hostile world.
A deepening row with Britain over allegations that the Kremlin used a nerve agent to poison a Russian double agent in a sleepy English town - denied by Moscow - has not dented his standing.
"We'll withstand this onslaught," Ms Svetlana Andrus, a ribbon round her neck in the colours of the Russian flag, said during a recent rally in Moscow in support of Mr Putin.
His supporters point to Russia's military intervention in Syria and its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014 as proof of his patriotic credentials. They say US and European sanctions over the Ukraine crisis are a price worth paying.
A March 9 survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM gave Mr Putin, who was first elected president in 2000, support of 69 per cent. He is standing against seven other candidates, including millionaire communist Pavel Grudinin and former reality TV host Ksenia Sobchak, but none is polling more than 8 per cent.
The Kremlin shifted Mr Putin's annual state-of-the-nation address from December to March 1, where he hammered home his image among voters as an uncompromising defender of the nation against the West by unveiling a series of new "invincible" nuclear weapons.
That overshadowed his economic message, in which he acknowledged that 20 million Russians live in poverty and pledged to reduce their number by half while propelling the country into the world's top five economies by the middle of the next decade.
Russia is sliding down the world ranking and is forecast to fall to 17th from 11th among the largest economies within 15 years as it is overtaken by South Korea, Spain and Turkey, among others, according to the London-based Centre for Economics and Business Research.
Voting starts in the far east of the vast Russian Federation at 8am local time tomorrow and will roll westwards over 11 time zones, with polling booths in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad due to close at 7pm GMT tomorrow (3am on Monday Singapore time).
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS. WASHINGTON POST