MOSCOW • Russians headed to the polls yesterday in elections set to hand President Vladimir Putin a historic fourth Kremlin term, as the country faces increasing isolation over a spy poisoning in Britain and a fresh round of US sanctions.
With the vast country stretching across 11 time zones, polls opened in the Russian far east at 2000 GMT on Saturday (4am yesterday, Singapore time) and closed in Kaliningrad, the country's exclave in Europe, at 1800 GMT yesterday.
With Mr Putin not facing any serious challenge to his rule, the Kremlin is seeking high participation to give legitimacy to his inevitable fourth term.
Since taking power 18 years ago, Mr Putin has stamped his total authority on the country, silencing opposition and reasserting Moscow's lost might abroad.
Polling at around 70 per cent, the macho leader is sure to extend his term to 2024 despite a lacklustre campaign and his refusal to participate in televised debates.
Mr Putin has sought to use the election run-up to emphasise Russia's role as a major world power, recently boasting of its "invincible" new weapons and continuing Moscow's support for the Syrian regime in a bloody civil war.
Rising tensions with the West over the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain, and new sanctions from Washington over alleged election meddling, strengthen the impression of a Russia at loggerheads with the rest of the world.
"In America and Europe, they are trying to make us bend over and kneel, but we're still standing," Mr Sergei Babayev, a 55-year-old transport manager, told Agence France-Presse in central Moscow shortly ahead of the vote. "They promised us a crisis and we stuck it out. That's Putin's main quality - he is at the core of our state."
Yesterday also marked exactly four years since Mr Putin signed a treaty declaring Crimea part of Russia following its annexation from Ukraine, an action that led to the war in the east of the former Soviet state.
In retaliation, Kiev said Russians living in Ukraine will not be able to vote as access to Moscow's diplomatic missions will be blocked.
Mr Putin, who has run under the slogan "A strong president - a strong Russia", has declined to take part in televised debates and shot no new material for his own campaign advertisements.
He is standing against seven other candidates, including millionaire communist Pavel Grudinin and former reality TV host Ksenia Sobchak, but none of them is polling more than 8 per cent.
Mr Putin's most vocal opponent, the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, has been barred from standing for legal reasons and has called on followers to boycott the election he says is a sham.
The authorities, however, are seeking a high turnout to add greater legitimacy to a new term for Mr Putin, who is already Russia's second longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin.
"These are not quite the elections we see in Western countries," Mr Stepan Goncharov of the independent Levada Centre pollster told AFP. "People are put in a situation where they have no one to choose from," he said. "If they want to express their disapproval, then they don't turn out."
Mr Putin's opponents alleged that employers with close ties to the state were ordering staff to go and vote, and send back evidence.
In polling station 1515 in Zelenodolsk, 800km east of Moscow, five people photographed themselves voting. Asked why, one among the group, a young woman, said: "What do you mean why? It's a photographic report for our bosses."
At polling station 216 in Ust-Djeguta, Ms Marina Kostina was supervising two teenage girls who were photographing voters. Asked why one woman was photographed, Ms Kostina said: "Her work asked her to report back."
There has been a focus on the youth vote, with prizes offered for the best selfies taken at polling stations.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS