'Violations' In Russia's Presidential Vote
2:52pm UK, Sunday March 04, 2012
There have been reports of widespread voting violations in Russia's presidential election, including allegations people were being bussed around to cast their ballots several times.
The claims of so-called "carousel voting" were being received by independent monitoring group Golos, according to spokeswoman Lilia Shibanova.
Golos said it had already registered 2,030 reports of violations nationwide - but an interior ministry spokesman said there had been no major violations.
The country's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who was president between 2000 and 2008, is widely expected to win this election.
Mr Putin is competing against the Communist Party's Gennady Zyuganov, A Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov - but there is little doubt over who will reign supreme.
Despite the best efforts of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in recent weeks, the latest Levada Centre poll predicts Mr Putin will win 66% of the vote.
In an attempt to allay fears of vote-rigging, Mr Putin ordered the installation of 182,000 web cameras at 91,000 polling stations to stream footage of ballot boxes and vote-counting onto a website during the election.
He voted with his wife Lyudmila at a polling station in the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
Minutes afterwards, a group of topless Ukrainian protesters tried to steal the ballot box with his vote in it.
The three women revealed slogans painted on their chests and backs including "I steal for Putin" and "Kremlin rats", and shouted "Putin is a thief!"
They tried to take the box before being detained by police, said the Femen group, which is known for its topless protests against trafficking of women and prostitution in several countries.
Moscow police described the demonstration as a "provocation", saying the women were taken to a police station and officers were deciding whether they should face charges.
Mr Putin, who needs 50% of the vote to win the first round, has faced the biggest challenge of his political career. His victory is inevitable, but he is not unscathed.
Liberal, young, iPad-toting Muscovites have formed a big part of the protest movement.
In one coffee shop you can show support for a candidate by getting their image dusted on top of a latte.
Some customers argue it is the only vote that will not be fraudulent.
Oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov's face has adorned the most lattes, making him the coffee-drinkers' favourite.
But he holds little appeal for working-class Russians, for whom Mr Putin remains the only choice.
One woman told Sky News: "I will vote for Putin because he brings stability to me and to Russia."
In the world's biggest country, voting is a lengthy process involving 11 time zones, where polling stations will be open from 8am to 8pm local time.
On the Pacific coast, stations opened on Saturday at 8pm UK time.
Next to vote were far eastern cities like Vladivostok and Yakutsk, then Siberia, central Russia and the metropolis of St Petersburg and the capital Moscow.
The last stations were due to close at 5pm UK time on Sunday in Kaliningrad, Russia's westernmost outpost.
Almost 110 million people are eligible to vote.
While few doubt Mr Putin's victory, political analyst Lilia Shevtsova says there is a chance that he will not stay the course of the new six-year presidency term.
"I do believe that in the next two, three, maybe five years, Putin will face a very dramatic dilemma - either to leave the Kremlin in a peaceful way - or try to preserve power in a violent way and we don't know which solution he will choose," she said.
The opposition has vowed to come out fighting after the election, but the tents they planned to hand out as a symbol of a more permanent protest did not even make it out of the car they arrived in, which was towed away by police.
How protesters react to a Putin victory will be a test of their strength.
How he responds in turn will be a test of how he intends to run his country when votes no longer matter.