President Vladimir Putin on Thursday urged Russians to vote in parliamentary polls this week in which most vocal Kremlin critics have been barred from running in an unprecedented crackdown.
The run-up to the State Duma ballot has been marred by a sweep of dissenting voices and pressure on independent media, beginning in January with the arrest of Putin's most prominent critic Alexei Navalny.
Putin's United Russia party is expected to retain its majority in the lower house of parliament but has been struggling with low polling figures ahead of the vote.
"I'm counting on your responsible, balanced and patriotic civic position," Putin said in a video address, calling on voters to back deputies who will work towards the interests of "every citizen".
The Russian leader is currently isolating after the Kremlin announced this week an outbreak of cases among his inner circle. He said Thursday "dozens" had tested positive.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters the president had registered to vote online, but did not give details of how or when he would participate.
"I do not exclude that it will be online," Peskov said.
The vote is being held both online and in person over three days, with the polls opening Friday in a move elections officials explained was aimed at limiting voters' potential exposure to the coronavirus.
Polls open Friday morning in the Far Eastern regions of Kamchatka and Chukotka at 08:00 am local time.
- 'Secure' online vote -
In a video published by the Kremlin overnight, Putin urged Russians to vote when convenient at polling stations or on the internet.
Modern technologies would guarantee the "security and reliability" of the online ballot, he said.
Analysts and Kremlin critics however have warned of low-levels of oversight during the vote, with international observers not participating.
Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Moscow of violating international law by holding the vote on the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russian in 2014.
Serious Kremlin critics -- including allies of Navalny -- have been barred from running in the vote.
Navalny, Putin's best-known domestic opponent, is behind bars on old fraud charges and his organisations were banned earlier this year.
Ahead of the vote, Navalny's team had promoted a "Smart Voting" campaign that tells supporters which candidate they should back to vote out Kremlin-aligned politicians.
A majority of the candidates named by Navalny's allies on Wednesday are running on the Communist Party's list.
On Thursday, a doctor and head of an opposition-leaning medical union, Anastasia Vasilyeva, accused Navalny's allies in exile of abandoning activists remaining in Russia.
"They are now in Europe, while others are in prison," Vasilyeva wrote on Facebook.
Navalny's allies said they believe she wrote the post under pressure from authorities.
- Tech giants under fire -
The authorities have also amped up pressure on foreign tech giants in the run-up to the vote, accusing US-based companies of interfering in the polls.
Last week, the state media watchdog said it blocked the website dedicated to Navalny's tactical voting and it has pressured Google and Apple to delete "Smart Voting" apps from their marketplaces.
Representatives of Google and Apple were summoned Thursday to a meeting of Russia's upper house of parliament the Federation Council.
A house member working on international issues, Andrei Klimov, repeated allegations that the tech companies were "interfering" in Russia's domestic affairs.
Prosecutors meanwhile said they had opened a probe into a group of 11 people suspected of using the Telegram messaging app to coordinate illegal rallies during the vote. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.
Navalny's allies complained Thursday morning of complications gaining access to their voting lists hosted on Google.
The vote will see lawmakers elected to the 450-member lower house State Duma, where United Russia currently holds 334 seats.