Vladimir Putin on track for commanding win as Russians head to polls

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Russian President Vladimir Putin looked to be victorious and win a fourth presidential term on Sunday, with the only possible hitch being if large numbers of voters decide to opt out and not vote.

"I voted for Putin", said Lyubov Kachan, a teacher in the settlement of Ust-Djeguta, in southern Russian Federation told Reuters.

The annexation was bitterly contested by Kiev and ratcheted up tensions between Russia and the West. Russians living in Ukraine were unable to take part in Sunday's vote because access to Russian diplomatic missions was blocked by the Kiev government.

"They are using everything: schools, kindergartens, hospitals - the battle for the turnout is unprecedented", said Roizman, one of the rare opposition politicians to hold a significant elected office.

The commission said it is quickly responding to claims of violations in the vote. "This is just a circus show", she said.

One election commission worker in the republic of Dagestan, which traditionally registers extremely high official turnout figures, told AFP around 50 men entered the station where he was working and physically assaulted an observer before stuffing a ballot box.

"Any [percentage] that allows fulfilling presidential duties", Putin said when asked which percentage of votes he would consider as successful.

"There is no question that Mr. Putin in particular is an active threat to US national security interests, as well as those of our North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies", he said.

Turnout-boosting efforts have been the most visible feature of the campaign.

The elections, preliminary results of which will be announced on Monday, will determine who will serve as Russia's president for the next six years. In Moscow, authorities spent $870,000 on balloons and decorations at polling stations. The first polling stations welcomed early voters at 8:00 am local time [20:00 GMT] on Saturday while polling started in Moscow nine hours later, at 5:00 am GMT, and will proceed until the polls close at 8:00 pm [17:00 GMT].

Russia's central election commission says its website was the target of an unsuccessful hacking attempt during Sunday's presidential election.

The only real headache for Putin's campaign was the possibility many voters, including Putin supporters, would not bother to come to the polls because they felt the outcome was already a foregone conclusion.

Putin has pledged to raise wages, pour more funds into the country's crumbling health care and education and modernize dilapidated infrastructure.

Yugene Yarmakov, 23, who was voting for the first time, said there were too many "joke candidates".

When she hadn't voted by midday, "The chief of my unit called me and said I was the only one who hadn't voted", said the doctor, Yekaterina, who spoke on condition her last name not be used because she also feared repercussions.

Sunday marked four years since Putin signed a treaty that declared Crimea part of Russian Federation following its annexation from Ukraine, a move that led to the outbreak of a pro-Kremlin insurgency in the east of the ex-Soviet country, in a conflict that claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Some 145,000 observers are monitoring the voting in the world's largest country, including 1,500 foreigners and representatives from Mr Navalny's political movement. He is calling for a boycott of the election, saying it is an undemocratic farce.

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