Russians have cast ballots in local and regional elections set to confirm the ruling party's dominance, amid reports of mass vote rigging.
A total of 59 million people -- nearly half the population -- were eligible to vote on September 13 in an array of races from the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad to the Russian Far East.
At stake were more than 90,000 legislative seats and 1,300 regional offices, including 21 regional governorships and hundreds of mayoral mandates.
The Russian NGO Golos, which monitors elections nationally, said it had registered more than 1,700 suspected violations, including more than 800 on election day.
The highest number of suspected violations was in the Kostroma region, the only place the main opposition Democratic Coalition secured a spot on the ballot, and where police stormed the office of independent vote monitors.
Results were to be officially announced later on September 14.
The voting is seen as a rehearsal for the 2016 elections to the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, which precedes a 2018 election in which President Vladimir Putin could seek a fourth term.
The elections tested the mood of the Russian electorate after more than a year of economic troubles caused mainly by low oil prices, Western sanctions over Moscow’s interference in Ukraine, and Kremlin countersanctions that have barred imports of many Western foods and increased the country’s isolation.
Putin’s government has whipped up a wave of patriotic and anti-Western sentiment, and the president's public approval ratings are close to all-time highs.
But nearly half the 187,000 candidates in the various contests were from the ruling, Kremlin-controlled United Russia party, and the authorities have limited the choices for voters by keeping a Democratic Coalition that unites some of Putin’s fiercest foes off a number of ballots.
The Democratic Coalition brings together opposition groups including the Parnas party and prominent anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny's Party of Progress, which is not registered, and Democratic Choice.
Electoral authorities barred coalition candidates from legislative contests in the Kaluga, Magadan, and Novosibirsk regions, citing technicalities that the opposition said were politically motivated pretexts for shutting its candidates out.
In the Kostroma region, northeast of Moscow, its campaign has faced hurdles ranging from loutish provocateurs disrupting stump speeches to physical abuse and spoiler parties designed to draw votes away.
Navalny said late on September 13 that his party's exit polls showed Parnas had received 6 percent of the vote, enough to squeeze a candidate into the regional legislature.
He also claimed that lower exit polls figures published by state-controlled pollsters were "complete rubbish."
Activists and observers in Kostroma were quoted as reporting mass violations, including so-called cruise voting where voters are bussed around polling stations, voting at each one, after obtaining absentee ballots.
In the afternoon of September 14, police stormed the Kostroma offices of independent election monitoring group Open Elections, launched by oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Police said they responded to a call about a "conflict between citizens," but activists said the operation was apparently intended to prevent observers from exposing violations.
Police in Kostroma said on September 12 that they had confiscated 2 million rubles ($30,000) from an activist of the Open Russia nongovernmental organization.
A police statement alleged "the money was to be paid out to the activists of radical youth groups who were planning unlawful actions" to disrupt the elections.
Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov said that "outside forces" were interested in seeing the region's elections fail.
In Tatarstan, some officials and voters hope a high turnout will help the regional leader retain the title of president -- which by law can only be used by the president of the country, Putin.
In Kaliningrad, the expected election of the incumbent governor to a new term is likely to lead to the appointment of Vladimir Yakunin, a close Putin ally who left his long-held post as head of the state railway monopoly last month under murky circumstances, as a representative of the region in Russia’s upper parliament house.
With reporting by AFP