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Russian regional vote delivers strong result for Putin amid claims of rigging

FILE PHOTO: A man leaves a voting booth during mayor election at a polling station in Moscow

(Reuters) - Russia on Sunday wrapped up widely denounced regional and municipal elections, including in regions annexed from Ukraine, delivering strong support for President Vladimir Putin amidst criticism of vote rigging and Kyiv's push to reclaim its land.

The Council of Europe, Europe's leading rights group, called the week-long vote a flagrant violation of international law, and Kyiv and its allies say it was an illegal attempt to tighten Moscow's grip over regions in Ukraine's south and east.

The overwhelming vote across Russia and in the annexed regions for the dominance of Putin's United Russia party has delivered on the Kremlin's long-repeated domestic message that Putin is by far the strongest guarantor of stability.

But in the regions voting, electoral competition was limited, as strong candidates, including some from Russia's main opposition Communist Party, were blocked from running by authorities.

Stanislav Andreychuk, co-chair of Golos, a voter rights' group designated a "foreign agent" by the Russian government, said instances of vote rigging in many parts of the country showed that "these are not real elections".

Andreychuk said his organisation had received reports of opposition candidates being detained, having their cars vandalised, and, in one case, military draft papers being served to election observers.

"They are doing some absolutely unthinkable things", he said.

The Kremlin says opinion polls and numerous election wins show that Putin is by far the most popular politician in Russia and that elections are free and fair.

MAJOR PARTIES LOYAL TO PUTIN

All significant, legal political forces in Russia, including the patchwork of opposition parties that provide a semblance of competition at the polls, are broadly loyal to Putin and his 18-month-old war in Ukraine.

Across the country, United Russia won every provincial governor's race it contested.

Among the regional chiefs re-elected was powerful Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a close Putin ally. With virtually no opposition, early results showed that Sobyanin took more than 75% of the vote in the Russian capital, considered among the most opposition-leaning parts of the country.

Kremlin critics have said that elections in Moscow are easily rigged due to the capital's system of electronic voting, which they say is impossible to audit. Similar systems have been rolled out in many other Russian regions.

Kremlin-backed candidates were also winning in four war-ravaged Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, which Moscow declared its territory last year in an annexation denounced by Kyiv and its allies as illegal.

"It is ... totally unacceptable for Russia to conduct such 'elections' in these regions on the basis of such an illegal 'annexation'," Japan's foreign minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, said in statement over the weekend.

All but a handful of Russia's allies recognise the regions as part of Ukraine.

According to Russian officials, United Russia received large majorities in the regions, taking at least 70% of the vote in each. Detailed voting figures were not immediately released.

The results mean that Moscow's handpicked governors in the territories, a mixture of veteran separatist bosses and small-time local pro-Russian politicians, win full terms in office. None of the four regions are fully controlled by the Russian army.

Ukraine, which in June began a gruelling counteroffensive to liberate the lands, has been slowly regaining territory in the Zaporizhzhia region and has also claimed some advances in Donetsk around the city of Bakhmut.

(Reporting by Felix Light in Tbilisi; Additional reporting and writing by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by Leslie Adler)