MOSCOW (AP) — A presidential election expected to return Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin produced reports of widespread violations Sunday, including "carousel voting" in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.
Putin, who was president in 2000-2008, is all but certain to easily defeat his four challengers. But if credible evidence of vote manipulation emerges, it would call into question the legitimacy of his win and bolster the determination of opposition forces to continue the unprecedented wave of protests that arose in December.
"There have been many people voting more than once, driven around in buses in large numbers" in Moscow, said Lilia Shibanova, head of the independent elections watchdog agency Golos. She said similar reports had been received from Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city, and the city of Barnaul in southern Siberia.
Alexei Navalny, one of the opposition's most charismatic leaders, said observers trained by his organization also reported seeing extensive use of carousel voting.
"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. "Honest elections should be our constant motto for years to come."
Oksana Dmitriyeva, a Duma deputy from Just Russia party, tweeted that they were witnessing "numerous cases of observers being expelled from polling stations" across St. Petersburg just before the vote count.
Ivan Melnikov, a deputy chief of the Communist Party, said the vote was neither free nor fair. He claimed that the authorities set up numerous additional polling stations and alleged that hundreds of thousands of voters cast ballots there in Moscow alone in an apparent attempt to rig the vote.
Evidence of widespread vote fraud in a December parliamentary election set off the protests against Putin, who has remained Russia's paramount leader after moving into the prime minister's office four years ago because of term limits. They were the largest public show of anger in post-Soviet Russia and demonstrated growing frustration with corruption and political ossification under Putin.
Some polling stations in Moscow that had been instructed to rig the vote in December were told to make sure Sunday's election was held "in full accordance with the law," an election official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. He said the instructions were handed down at a meeting attended by the heads of about 50 polling stations.
The election official described how in December he had manipulated the vote at his polling station to give Putin's party the desired 65 percent, when in fact it had won no more than 25 percent.
At another Moscow polling station, where observer Kirill Raikov said he had witnessed a lot of ballot stuffing in December, the voting was orderly on Sunday. "Compared to the previous election, everything here is calm and quiet," Raikov said. "We still cannot understand why this is happening."
The aim appears to be to take some of the steam out of the protest movement, which is centered in Moscow. Tens of thousands of Russians, most of them politically active for the first time, had volunteered to be election observers, receiving training on how to recognize vote-rigging and record and report violations.
Golos said monitors have recorded fewer obvious violations than during the December election, but they still believe that violations are extensive. This time, election officials are using more complicated and subtle methods, said Golos deputy director Grigory Melkonyants.
For instance,the people who are bused to polling stations either wear ribbons around their arms or have special marks in their passports when they present them as identification, he said. Election officials recognize them as carousel voters and give them the ballots of voters who have been known not to vote in the past.
"These violations are numerous and this is a very worrying signal," Melkonyants said.
Golos' website has recorded about 2,000 complaints of irregularities, including voter lists of questionable validity and nonfunctioning cameras in voting stations.
Web cameras were installed in Russia's more than 90,000 polling stations, a move initiated by Putin in response to complaints of ballot stuffing and fraudulent counts in December. Those elections saw his United Russia party retain its majority in parliament, though substantially reduced from its previous overwhelming control.
It was unclear Sunday to what extent the cameras would be effective in recording voting irregularities or questionable counts. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted skepticism in a report on election preparations.
"This is not an election ... it is an imitation," said Boris Nemtsov, another prominent opposition leader.
But despite the increased dismay, opinions polls have shown Putin positioned to win easily. He presided over significant economic growth and gave Russians a sense of stability that contrasted with the disorder and anxiety of the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin led Russia's emergence from the wreckage of the Soviet Union.
"Under Boris Nikolayevich, life was simply a nightmare, but, you know, now it's OK. Now it's good, I'm happy with the current situation," said 51-year-old Alexander Pshennikov, who cast his ballot for Putin at a Moscow polling station.
But other voters were tired of the heavy-handed ways of the one-time KGB agent. Natalya Yulskaya, 73, said she voted for billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov as a protest gesture against Putin.
"I know the KGB will be in power ... but I gave it a try," she said.
Putin has dismissed the protesters' complaints, portraying them as a coddled minority of urban elitists and as dupes of Western countries that he claims want to undermine Russia.
Putin's disdain for the protesters became more marked in the last week of campaigning, as he publicly suggested the opposition was willing to kill one of its own figures in order to stoke outrage against him. That claim came on the heels of state television reports that a plot by Chechen rebels to kill Putin right after the election had been foiled. Some of Putin's election rivals dismissed the report as a campaign trick to boost support for him.
Protests after the election appear certain.
"These elections are not free ... that's why we'll have protests tomorrow. We will not recognize the president as legitimate," said Mikhail Kasyanov, who was Putin's first prime minister before going into opposition.
The police presence was heavy throughout the city on Sunday. There were no immediate reports of trouble, although police arrested three young women who stripped to the waist at the polling station where Putin cast his ballot; one of them had the word "thief" written on her bare back.
None of the other candidates has been able to marshal a serious challenge to Putin.
A mid-February survey by the independent Levada Center polling agency found Putin getting more than 60 percent support — well above the 50 percent needed for a first-round win. The Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, got the support of about 15 percent, according to the survey, which claimed accuracy within 3.4 percentage points. The others — nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Sergei Mironov of A Just Russia and Prokhorov — were in single digits.
Maria Danilova, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.