(photo credit: Reuters)
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - Vladimir Putin is almost certain to win a third presidential term in an election that began on Sunday in Russia's far east, though opponents have challenged the legitimacy of a vote they say is skewed in his favor.
Putin's aides hope a strong win will take the sting out of an urban protest movement that casts the former KGB spy as an authoritarian leader who rules by allowing a corrupt elite to siphon off the wealth from the world's biggest energy producer.
In interviews from the Arctic to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Russians gave a mixed picture: some expressed anger at being offered no real choice while others said Putin had proved he was a leader who could rule Russia.
"I shall of course vote for Putin. Who else is there?," said Mikhail, a student at the State University of Economics and Service in Vladivostok, a port city of 600,000 people on the Pacific and the biggest city in Russia's Far East.
"Only Putin is able to rule Russia," said Mikhail, who refused to give second name.
The last major opinion polls before the election showed Putin, who ruled as president from 2000 to 2008 and then as prime minister, was likely to win 59-66 percent of the vote, thus avoiding a runoff that would dent his authority.
Polls opened at 2000 GMT on Saturday in the icy tundra and sparsely-populated swathes of Russia's far east and close at 1700 GMT on Sunday in Russia's Western exclave of Kaliningrad, which is wedged between Poland and the Baltic Sea.
Victory is almost certain for Putin, a ruler lionized by state television and running against a cast of four politicians who, apart from tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, have all made their careers by losing elections to the Kremlin.
But growing voter fatigue with Putin has unsettled Russia's elite of officials, former spies and billionaire businessmen: Putin's self-portrayal as the anchor of Russian stability hinges on his popularity.