Spy scandal unlikely to harm Putin's fourth Russian presidential bid
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Russians are voting in presidential elections Sunday and are likely to hand President Vladimir Putin his fourth term. The vote comes as the country is embroiled in a crisis with Britain over the poisoning of a former spy. Washington has also slapped sanctions on Moscow over alleged election meddling in the US.
Casting his ballot in Moscow, Putin said he would be pleased with any result that gave him the right to continue serving as president.
"I am sure the programme I am offering is the right one," Putin was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Official polls give him around 70 percent of intentions to vote.
There are seven other candidates, but none are polling more than eight percent.
Two that stand out are millionaire communist Pavel Grudinin and former reality TV host Ksenia Sobchak.
"Many people have turned out because they feel that it is their responsiblility to vote, a message which has been promoted widely on social media", says RFI Moscow correspondent Thomas Lowe.
Putin's most vocal opponent, the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, has been barred from standing for legal reasons and has called on followers to boycott the election.
Turnout important to Kremlin
"Although we know Putin will win, we don't know how many people will turn out at the elections and that's very important for the Kremlin because for them it reflects the credibility of these elections, the credibility of Vladimir Putin's assured victory," Lowe says.
Authorities appeared to go all out with a range of expensive frills, offering food discount vouchers and prizes for the best selfies taken at polling stations in the hope of wooing voters.
Lowe says local initiatives included 1,500 markets setting up voting centres in Moscow alone. And to entice the youth to vote, Lowe says free tickets were being given out to students to attend a massive concert.
Reports of pressure on voters have also emerged. According to liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, students in several cities have been warned they may face problems in examinations or even expulsion if they do not turn out to vote.
Backdrop of spies and sanctions
Russia has become somewhat isolated on the international scene, due to the unfolding spy scandal, which has now turned in to a large-scale diplomatic row.
Britain and its allies have pointed the finger at Russia for its involvement in the poisoning on 4 March of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, using a Soviet-designed military grade nerve agent.
Both remain in critical condition as the investigation continues.
While Britain has yet to prove Russia is behind the poisoning, Prime Minister Theresa May referred to "an act of Russian agression" in a speech to her Conservative Party on Saturday.
The spat further escalated on Saturday when Russia announced it would expel 23 British diplomats and close a British consulate in Saint Petersburg and the British council.
But Putin may well benefit from the spy scandal and the threats of retaliation, according to British political scientist Paul Rogers.
"There's no doubt President Putin will be reelected," he says. "For him and his followers it's extremely important that there is a high poll. So I think this is probably partly an orchestration of a deliberate provocation and I think he's calculated that the British, with a very weak prime minister, always very keen to play on the patriotic side, would respond extremely forcefully.
"Therefore, that would go down well at home, because once again it would be the perfidious West which would be doing Russia down. So I think it's really quite strongly bound up with domestic politics."
Close to 109 million registered voters will have the right to cast their ballot in close to 100,000 voting stations across the 85 regions and republics of the Russian Federation. Russian citizens will also be able to cast their ballots in 145 countries.
Ukraine has said, however, that Russians living in Ukraine will not be able to vote as access to Moscow's diplomatic missions will be blocked in retaliation for Russia's annexation of Crimea, which was signed off in a treaty by Putin exactly four years ago. The action led to the war in the east of the former Soviet state.
Polls close at 1800 GMT on Sunday with results expected to start trickling in by Sunday evening.