Russians went to the polls Sunday in an election that looks likely to return Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister and former president, to the country's top job.
Voting was already under way in Russia's Far East, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Opinion polls ahead of the vote showed Putin on track to win the presidency outright, with more than 50% of the vote. If he falls short, a runoff will be held in the coming weeks.
The 59-year-old former KGB agent and law student has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade. Putin served two terms as president from 2000 to 2008, and currently serves as prime minister under President Dmitry Medvedev.
Russian law prevents presidents serving more that two consecutive terms so he was obliged to stand down in 2008.
Putin faces four other candidates in Sunday's election, including Russia's third-richest man, New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. The billionaire businessman is the only fresh face in the pack.
Putin's closest electoral competitor is the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov -- a serial election loser. This would be his fourth defeat. Two other candidates, right-wing Vladimir Zhirinovsky and left-leaning Sergey Mironov have also run and lost in the past.
On paper, Prokhorov 's manifesto of democratic and economic reforms should appeal to many of Moscow's voters. But he's struggled to shake a reputation of being too close to the regime. Cynics call him a Kremlin project, a candidate designed to credibly attract the middle-class vote without posing a genuine threat, and his numbers have remained in single digits.
While the result of Sunday's election looks all but certain, the political environment surrounding it is more different than any other in recent Russian history.
Parliamentary elections in December triggered an opposition protest movement, regularly bringing tens of thousands of people to the streets to protest allegations of electoral fraud, challenge Putin's leadership and demand reform.
In that election, Putin's ruling United Russia Party received 49.5% of the vote -- down from 64% four years prior -- but enough to keep his party in power.
The demonstrations in the election's wake were considered, among analysts and political observers, the largest in Russia in the past two decades. Protests are expected again on Monday if Putin is declared Russia's next president.