Russians are voting in a presidential poll that is likely to return Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin for a record third term amid a tide of protests unseen since the Soviet era and mounting tensions with the West.
Voters in the far east of the world's largest country began casting their ballots at 20:00 GMT in a marathon election straddling nine time zones, which will close in the western exclave of Kaliningrad 21 hours later at 17:00 GMT.
"The polling stations opened as scheduled. Everything is calm," Oksana Balynina, deputy head of the election commission in the resource-rich Chukotka region, told the AFP news agency on Sunday.
By 14:00 GMT, 56.3 per cent of voters had cast their ballots, according to figures from the Russian Central Election Commission.
Live video images streamed by an official election website showed crowds of people queueing to vote at a polling station in the city of Anadyr just after its early morning opening.
Al Jazeera's Christopher True, reporting from Moscow, said: "Voting is now underway here in the Russian capital, with a high turnout already reported from earlier voting in the east of the country.
"Following December's disputed parliamentary poll, thousands of people have volunteered to be election observers, receiving training from activist groups on how to spot any violations and record and report them.
"In a bid to counteract fraud, two web cameras have been intalled in each of the country's 90,000 polling stations, one showing the ballot box, the second showing election officials.
"Putin is widely expected to win the vote in the first round and all eyes are on whether he will continue with business as usual or bow to some of the protesters' demands."
In comments made after he voted in Moscow, Prime Minister Putin said that he was "counting on" a high voter turnout.
Alexei Navalny, an opposition protest organiser and well-known blogger, meanwhile, alleged that "obvious and irrefutable" violations were taking place at polling stations, and that vote counting was "neither fair nor truthful".
"These are not going to be honest elections, but we must not relent,'' Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who has grown increasingly critical of Putin, said as he cast his ballot.
Golos, an independent monitoring group, said it had already registered 2,283 reports of violations nationwide.
Lilia Shibanova, the executive director of the group, told Al Jazeera there had been "a lot of abuses" in Moscow, central Russia and Baskortostan.
"On the positive side, the web cameras and transparent ballot boxes have surely helped and it is the first time we have been able to monitor the elections in Chechnya, Dagestan and the Caucasus," she said.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said there had been no major violations.
Putin victory forecast
Victory for 59-year-old ex-KGB spy Putin appeared inevitable, with state pollsters forecasting a first-round win with 60 per cent of the vote.
His Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov - a dour but seasoned lawmaker who is running for the fourth time - is expected to come second with about 15 per cent of the vote.
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The tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov and the flamboyant but ultimately pro-Kremlin populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky are expected to battle for third place while the former upper house speaker Sergey Mironov is looking to finish last.
But Putin's landslide victory may only mask an era of political uncertainty that has descended on Russia and contrasts sharply with the current prime minister's commanding first two terms as president between 2000 and 2008.
The emotional street protests that erupted in response to a fraud-tainted December parliamentary ballot have since swelled into a broader opposition movement whose reliance on social media echoes the Arab Spring revolts.
The largest demonstrations have thus far been confined to Russia's main cities and the authorities point to polls showing the anti-Putin cause is backed by only a marginal fraction of the nation.
"There are some police gathered around the Kremlin but there are no large deployments of security visible on the streets in Moscow," Al Jazeera's True reported before voting began.
'Process of deterioration'
Yet Moscow's role in Russia's recent political history has been overwhelming and the city is drawing an extra 6,300 police from the surrounding regions to make sure that Monday's post-election rallies do not spill over to Red Square.
Putin himself has put a brave face on the sudden show of public displeasure by telling Western media executives he was "very happy about this situation".
"I think this is a very good experience for Russia," he said this week.
But Putin has never before ruled from anything less than an impregnable position of power and few dare to predict how he might respond now.
"The system needs comprehensive political and economic reform. But [Putin] has neither the financial nor the political capital to accomplish this," Mark Urnov, of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said.
The London-based Chatham House policy institute called Putin's return "the latest stage in a continuing process of deterioration, not the start of a renewal, as some in the West might hope".
The entire campaign has been driven by an undercurrent of anti-Western rhetoric whose indignant tone now threatens to set back the "reset" US President Barack Obama tried pressing with Russia in 2009.
"The days when Russia could be lectured or preached to are over," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned this week.
The campaign also saw Putin's almost imperial refusal to debate his opponents - a feature of past elections that aims to paint him as a man of action who is too busy to engage in polemics with rivals.
The four rank outsiders have all admitted to only having the ambition of finishing second and possibly joining a runoff should Putin fail to pick up 50 per cent of the vote.
"I really want to make it into the second round," the metals magnate Prokhorov remarked before attending a Friday night campaign concert that featured a special performance by the Russia pop empress Alla Pugacheva.
Putin for his part looked relaxed as he leaned back against the table and addressed the nation one last time before the vote.
"We must consolidate all facets of society to the greatest degree possible," Putin said in the brief Friday night address. "We must work smoothly and constructively, without shocks or revolutions," Putin said.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies