Russians voted on Sunday in a presidential poll seen by critics as rigged to hand almost certain victory to Vladimir Putin's favoured candidate, Dmitry Medvedev.
Voting began on the Pacific coast of the world's biggest country, spreading hours later to eastern and central Siberia in its roll over 12,000 kilometres west to Moscow and on to the Baltic Sea territory of Kaliningrad where it is due to close at 1800 GMT Sunday.
Medvedev faces three challengers, but his overwhelming victory was almost a foregone conclusion after a campaign in which Russia's heavily censored television networks rammed home the message that he is Putin's anointed successor.
Opinion polls predict Medvedev, currently first deputy premier and head of gas monopoly Gazprom, will win at least 60 per cent of the vote.
None of the other candidates -- Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, populist nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the almost unknown Andrei Bogdanov -- presents a serious challenge.
The first voters however did not seem to mind that the contest was lopsided.
"Today is a kind of festival.... All of Russia's people are going to vote for a new president," student and first-time voter Kirill told AFP in the coastal city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where snow lay thick on the ground.
"I liked Putin's policies and hope he will continue them," local fisherman Sergei, 37, said of Medvedev, while stopping at a polling station on the way to his trawler.
Voting in Vladivostok, telecoms engineer Gennady Dultsev complained that "everything is again being decided in a Soviet way" and cited the imposition of price controls on some goods ahead of the election season. But he too said he had voted for Medvedev.
"Of course I don't like everything about the current politics.... Everything has already been decided for us, that Medvedev will become president, but that's not the worst possible outcome," he told AFP.
At 42, Medvedev reflects a new generation of post-Soviet politicians in one of the world's biggest energy exporters and a major nuclear power. Unlike Putin, he has no KGB or other security service background.
However, Medvedev says his main goal is to follow Putin's course and he is set to install his mentor as prime minister.
This suggests that Putin, 55, will continue to dominate well beyond Medvedev's likely inauguration in May.
Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion turned fierce Kremlin critic, on Saturday attacked the polls as a "farce," while democracy groups also lashed out.
Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International and Russian election monitoring agency Golos said the Kremlin had stage-managed the contest through media bias, pressure on regional leaders, and use of state resources.
The vote "can hardly be considered as fair," said the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which deployed 25 observers.
The main European election monitoring body, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), boycotted the vote altogether, citing restrictions on its monitors.
Russian officials have described such criticism as meddling in the national political process.
The authorities have made epic efforts to bring the ballot box to as many people as possible, including reindeer herders and fishermen in some of the country's most far-flung regions and some 700,000 people on suspended sentences and detainees currently under investigation.
Even cosmonaut Yury Malenchenko was to transmit his vote from the orbiting International Space Station.
If confirmed, Medvedev will take the reins of a country of 142 million people that has been transformed since Putin rose from obscurity in 2000 to replace the ailing and unpopular Boris Yeltsin.
Russia is among the world's leading energy exporters and has used soaring gas and oil revenues to rebuild its military and pay off foreign debts.
Economic confidence is also fuelling a bullish foreign policy that puts Moscow at odds with the West.
Putin's few remaining outspoken opponents accuse him of dismantling democratic freedom established in the 1990s -- reducing parliament to a rubber stamp, failing to investigate murders of opposition figures and journalists, and committing massive war crimes in Chechnya.
Putin points to huge popular approval ratings.
Polls open in each of Russia's 11 time zones at 8:00 am local time with final polling stations closing on Sunday in Kaliningrad at 1800 GMT. Around 109 million Russians are eligible to vote.
The police were on heightened alert, with 24,000 personnel patrolling Moscow, and a total of 450,000 police ensuring order all over the country, deputy police chief Vyacheslav Kozlov told ITAR-TASS. (AFP)
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