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Independent vote monitor says Russian elections are 'most secret' ever

By Mark Trevelyan and Gleb Stolyarov

LONDON (Reuters) - The head of an independent vote-monitoring group that Russia has labelled a "foreign agent" says the presidential election that began on Friday and is widely expected to re-elect Vladimir Putin is the least transparent the country has seen.

Stanislav Andreichuk, co-chairman of Golos (Voice), said the use of electronic voting for the first time in a presidential election, and the fact that voting is spread over three days, both serve to make the process more opaque.

"These are the most closed, most secret elections in Russian history," Andreichuk told Reuters in a telephone interview, referring to the 33 years since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin says the election, which began on Friday, is a proper democratic process and predicts that Putin will win on the basis of overwhelming popular support. Election authorities say it will be scrutinised by 706 foreign observers and as many as a third of a million Russian observers nominated by candidates, political parties and social organisations.

Andreichuk said high turnout figures on day one of the election reflected pressure on people by managers in the workplace to make sure they voted.

"People are going and voting first thing in the morning because their bosses make them. It's very convenient to keep track of them because it's a working day," he said.

Reuters has requested comment from the electoral commission on whether workers are under instructions from bosses to vote.

Six sources told Reuters on the eve of the election that managers of state companies and organisations were exerting pressure on staff to vote. Four of these said people had been instructed to provide evidence of casting their ballots.

"At our factory, everyone was told to vote on March 15 and send a selfie to the boss," said one employee at a state-owned company.

A high turnout is important to the Kremlin as Putin, two years into the war in Ukraine, seeks to show the country is behind him.

Supporters of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who died in an Arctic penal colony last month, have urged people to protest by turning out en masse to vote at noon on Sunday.

Official data showed turnout on Friday was over 33% for the country as a whole but higher than 60% in parts of Siberia and the far east. It was just under 70% in Donetsk and Kherson, two Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine. The government in Kyiv has called voting there illegal and void.

ELECTRONIC VOTING

Andreichuk said electronic voting - available for the first time in a presidential election to people in about a third of the country - was a particular concern because it was open to manipulation and the results were impossible to check.

The spread of voting across three days raised the possibility that ballot boxes could be tampered with overnight, he said.

Andreichuk also noted there were only three alternative candidates to Putin, the fewest he has faced in any of his five elections, and said no open public discussion of the country's problems had been allowed to take place.

"Censorship has been introduced, there's repression in the country, part of the opposition is behind bars. So these elections are just unfree and undemocratic from the start."

Golos is not allowed to send observers. It was first labelled a "foreign agent" in 2013, having angered the authorities by publishing evidence of fraud in a 2011 parliamentary vote and a 2012 presidential election won by Putin.

Another of the organisation's leaders, Grigory Melkonyants, was arrested last August and accused of involvement with an "undesirable" organisation. He is still in prison, awaiting trial.

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan and Gleb Stolyarov; Editing by Frances Kerry)