Webcams watch as Russians give verdict on Putin

Watched over by webcams and gaggles of election observers, Russians voted in elections that exposed vastly different opinions about the merits of Vladimir Putin ahead of his expected Kremlin return.

Some voting for Putin said they saw no alternative to their strongman leader, but others gave starkly different verdicts on the man who has dominated Russian politics for over a decade.

"For whom, except Putin? Because he is a real leader. I believe him," said pensioner Victoria Semyonova at a polling station in central Moscow.

But retired librarian Elvira Fedina whispered that she had voted "against" Putin. "He's too rich," she said, gesturing in disgust.

Putin is expected to win in the first round with at least 50 percent of the vote, a dismaying prospect to his critics. "I hope there will be a second round. Otherwise everything will just stay as it is," said Igor Rappoport, 60.

In Putin's hometown Saint Petersburg many were happy to admit they were not voting for their famous son. "Putin has been in power a long time," Antonina Arefiyeva, 50, a museum worker, told an AFP correspondent.

"He no longer has potential as head of state and we do not have the confidence in him like we did before," she added.

But others said there was still no other option to Putin running Russia. "I voted for Putin despite everything because in my opinion it is the lesser evil," said Mikhail Kartachov, 39, an engineer.

Younger, more prosperous voters in Moscow seemed more likely to back billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who polls say could squeeze into third place after veteran Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

"I'm for Prokhorov. For the new guy. I like his programme," said Gennady Boyev, 42, a small business owner.

"Prokhorov, because there are no other choices for normal people. I like his programme. It's reasonable, clear and understandable. It's concrete steps," said Natalya Chaikurova, 49, an English teacher wrapped in a fur jacket.

The protest movement that drew huge rallies after December's parliamentary polls and Putin's decision to run again as president has encouraged its supporters to register as observers in a bid to clean up the polls.

Facing public anger at apparent vote-rigging after the victory of the ruling United Russia party, Putin ordered that polling stations be fitted with webcams, whose feeds can be viewed online.

In one Moscow polling station, six observers watched the vote, while wires trailed from an unobtrusive webcam mounted on a column opposite the ballot boxes.

"I want to be sure that everything is lawful and I'm going to keep watch to make sure it is. It's an experience," said observer Irina Shvetsova, who took photographs as the ballot boxes were prepared for the vote.

"I am making my contribution, to make these elections more honest. It disciplines those who are organising the elections," said journalist Ksenia, who had opted to observe the elections rather than work.

Another observer, Alexander Machnev, a 26-year-old property lawyer, said he had joined the protest movement only this winter in anger over the alleged vote fraud in December.

"I was outraged by the quantity of vote-rigging in the Duma elections," he said.

"I don't believe that more than half of the voters backed United Russia. I just can't believe it."

He said he became an observer through Rosvybory, or Russian Elections, a website set up by protest leader Alexei Navalny to make it as simple as possible to become an observer.

Russia only allows international observers and those accredited through political parties or candidates.

Machnev said he had already noticed something suspicious -- a bus with a route in the Moscow region parked outside the polling station. It drove off as soon as he got out his camera, he said.

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