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The Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and his wife, Lyudmila Putina, leave a polling station in Moscow. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russians went to the polls on Sunday in a tense election that is expected to confirm Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency.
Independent election monitors and opposition activists said they had documented many cases of electoral violations and fraud. Some 370,000 Russians were deployed as election monitors around the country, an unprecedented show of civic activism born of a growing protest movement against Putin's rule.
Tensions ran high as protesters prepared to gather on Monday. Many have already decried the election as illegitimate, accusing Putin of unfairly using administrative resources to advance his candidacy and refusing to register candidates such as the liberal Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky. The police presence was stepped up in the capital on Sunday.
Putin voted alongside his rarely seen wife, Lyudmila Putina. When asked if he expected to win in the first round, Putin answered: "Everything depends on the voters." Yet a stage due to host the Kremlin's victory party was already being erected on Sunday morning.
Fifteen minutes after Putin left the central Moscow polling site, three women tore off their shirts and began shouting "Putin is a thief!" They were dragged away by police.
The central elections commission said 30% of eligible Russians had voted by 1pm Moscow time (9am GMT). Reports of violations were widespread and uploaded by the hundreds to social networking sites. Particularly common appeared to be the so-called "carousel", when voters were bussed to several polling sites in order to cast numerous votes. The practice was widespread in December's parliamentary vote, the contested results of which launched the unprecedented wave of protests seen in Moscow over the past three months.
Alexey Navalny, a protest movement leader, said on Sunday that the presidential election was even "dirtier" than the December vote.
The Kremlin set up webcams in polling sites around the country, ostensibly as a means of combatting fraud. One camera caught Ramzan Kadyrov, the thuggish leader of Chechnya, arriving at a polling site to an outbreak of applause. The Caucasus republics regularly bring in nearly 100% of votes for Putin and his party.
Putin is hoping to return to the Kremlin following a four-year stint as prime minister. His camp has framed his campaign as a vote for "stability", warning of the disaster and chaos that would come to the country were he to lose. In the same vein, Putin has repeatedly blamed the protests against him on western forces seeking to destabilise the situation in the country.
Russia's protesting opposition is hoping to highlight electoral fraud as a means of shining a light on Putin's fading popularity and what they say is his illegitimate claim to power.
The Kremlin is deploying its youth groups to counter the opposition protests, a potentially explosive calculation. Tens of thousands of activists from Nashi – the Kremlin's youth organisation – are due to gather at the Kremlin on Sunday night, and at a nearby square on Monday as the opposition gathers nearby.
Results are expected after the polls close in Russia's westernmost region, Kaliningrad, at 8pm (5pm GMT).