MOSCOW (AFP) - Russians were voting Sunday (March 18) in a presidential election set to hand Vladimir Putin a record fourth term, with officials reporting strong turnout but the opposition crying foul.
The Kremlin needs high voter numbers to give greater legitimacy to a new mandate for Putin as Russia faces increasing isolation over a spy poisoning in Britain and a fresh round of US sanctions.
Putin is running against seven other candidates, but his main challenger Alexei Navalny has been barred for legal reasons and the outcome is in little doubt.
About 107 million Russians are eligible to cast ballots, but some analysts say that after 18 years of Putin's leadership - both as president and prime minister - fatigue may be setting in.
Turnout was nearly 52 per cent by 1400 GMT (10pm Singapore time), electoral officials said.
But Navalny charged that the poll has been staged and voter numbers rigged.
Since first being elected president in 2000, Putin has stamped his total authority on the world's biggest country, muzzling opposition, putting television under state control and reasserting Moscow's standing abroad.
The 65-year-old former KGB officer has sought to use the campaign to emphasise Russia's role as a major world power, boasting of its "invincible" new nuclear weapons in a pre-election speech.
Casting his ballot in Moscow, Putin said he would be pleased with any result giving him the right to continue as president.
"I am sure the programme I am offering is the right one," said the man who is already Russia's longest-serving leader since Stalin.
Most people who spoke to AFP said they voted for Putin, praising him for lifting the country out of the post-Soviet quagmire.
"Of course I'm for Putin, he's a leader," said Olga Matyunina, a 65-year-old retired economist.
"After he brought Crimea back, he became a hero to me."
Sunday marks four years since Putin signed a treaty declaring Crimea to be part of Russia in a move that triggered a pro-Kremlin insurgency in east Ukraine, a conflict that has claimed over 10,000 lives.
At many polling stations the atmosphere was festive, with patriotic songs blasting out of speakers, cheap food available to voters and entertainers organising games for children.
But Navalny, who risks 30 days in jail for organising illegal protests, urged a boycott.
"We do not recognise these elections," he said, claiming turnout was being rigged.
Navalny has deployed more than 33,000 observers, with his team branding the vote "a staged procedure to reappoint Putin".
"Those who said there would be fewer falsifications during these elections because Putin has already won over everyone have made a mistake." Navalny's team and non-government election monitor Golos reported ballot stuffing and multiple voting, with voters also being bussed to polling booths against the law.
"I will not go to vote. What for?" Boris Limarev, a 39-year-old manager, said as he walked his dog near a polling station in Saint Petersburg.
"It's clear to everyone who will be elected."
"And the rest of the candidates are clowns," interjected his wife Anna, 35.
"Another six years of slavery," said a piece of paper made up to look like a ballot which was spotted on a Moscow street - in an apparent reference to Putin's next term.
Litany of problems
Ahead of the poll, a new crisis broke out with the West as Britain implicated Putin in the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal with a Soviet-designed nerve agent.
In response, London expelled 23 Russian diplomats, prompting a tit-for-tat move by Moscow. Also this week, Washington hit Russia with sanctions for trying to influence the 2016 US election.
Putin's previous Kremlin term was marked by a crackdown on the opposition after huge protests, the Ukraine conflict, military intervention in Syria and the introduction of Western sanctions that contributed to a fall in living standards.
But he seems certain to extend his rule to 2024 despite a lacklustre campaign and a litany of domestic problems such as widespread poverty and poor healthcare.
'The guy we trust'
In Saint Petersburg, Antonina Kurchatova, 40, said she voted for Putin but was hoping things would not get worse.
"As far as the economy is concerned, everything is terrible." In the town of Istra some 60 kilometres northwest of Moscow, Valeriya Ivanova, 23, and her husband also voted for Putin.
"How would we live without him? It's scary! He is the guy we trust and he can defend us," she said, echoing a sentiment heard from big cities to small villages.
State-run pollsters predict Putin will take about 70 percent of the vote, with the independent Levada Centre - branded a "foreign agent" - barred from releasing any polls.
Putin's Kremlin-approved challengers include millionaire communist Pavel Grudinin and former reality TV host Ksenia Sobchak, but none was expected to win more than eight percent.
Authorities have pulled out all the stops to ensure a huge turnout, offering food discount vouchers and prizes for the best selfies taken at polling stations after a sexually-charged online campaign.
Election officials flew to far-flung regions to collect votes from indigenous herders, while cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov - the only Russian currently aboard the International Space Station - cast his ballot by proxy.
With the vast country stretching across 11 time zones, polls close in Kaliningrad, the exclave on the EU border, at 1800 GMT, with exit polls due shortly afterwards and official results issued through the night.