By Alissa de Carbonnel
YESINKA, Russia (Reuters) - Russians from the Bering Strait to the Baltic voted in regional elections on Sunday, testing Vladimir Putin's ruling party before December parliamentary polls and a presidential vote next March.
Opponents accused United Russia, its support sagging, of cheating to avoid poor results that would point to growing anger over economic troubles and dissatisfaction with the party Putin uses as an instrument of power across the sprawling nation.
President from 2000-2008, Putin has suggested he will return to the Kremlin in the March 2012 vote or endorse incumbent Dmitry Medvedev, his protégé, for a second term.
With critics accusing Putin of rolling back democracy and muzzling opponents, and past elections marred by fraud claims, analysts said a cleaner vote would bolster his legitimacy.
But opponents said the dominant party used its grip on the levers of power to get out the vote in its favor.
"United Russia officials are using all the powers at their disposal to get the desired results," said Alexei Chepa, a rival Just Russia party candidate for the legislature in the Tver region, centered 170 km (105 miles) northwest of Moscow.
"This was a very crude and dirty campaign," he said.
Golos, an independent monitoring group, said it had received 400 reports of voting violations hours before polls closed.
United Russia countered the accusations on Sunday, accusing opponents of violations from vote-buying to illegal campaigning.
United Russia's main challenger is the Communist Party. The other parties in the national parliament, flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR and Just Russia, compete with United Russia but are largely loyal to the Kremlin.
At a nursing home in Rzhev, a small city in the Tver region, a dozen patients interviewed by Reuters all said they voted for United Russia.
"They brought me the box and I voted for United Russia," said Anna Soboleva, 73, lying in bed. "That's the wish of the personnel here and I am grateful to them so I will vote for their party."
A nurse who identified herself as Natalya said, "We don't force them, but we explain to them who the parties are and who to vote for."
Some 20 million people were eligible to vote in regional and municipal contests scattered across the nation of 142 million.
United Russia was expected to maintain majorities in the 12 regional legislatures at stake, but unemployment and inflation are sapping support. Provincial voters resent the concentration of resource-rich Russia's wealth, and jobs, in Moscow.
"There is no future here for young families," said Maria, 24, with her husband and their 3-year-old son outside the single polling station in Yesinka, a town of 1,100 in the Tver region.
"We'd like to ask all the deputies to try living on 5,000 roubles ($175) a month, see how they like it," she said.
Maria, who gave only her first name, said she would vote for Just Russia, a smaller pro-Kremlin party. But she added: "It doesn't matter who you vote for now, United Russia wins anyway."
As pop music played from a boom box in Yesinka's polling station, a school lobby, a dozen teenage soldiers lined up to vote along with their commanding officer.
Kremlin opponents say soldiers, students and state workers are often forced or encouraged to vote for United Russia.
After an increase in rates for household electricity, gas and other utilities at the New Year, a poll by the independent Levada-Center put United Russia's popularity in January at its lowest level in more than a year.
"We're tired of United Russia," said Maxim, an auto mechanic, 26, in Yesinka.
He said he was voting for a Communist because there was no longer an option to vote "against all" -- one of the changes that Putin's critics say has curtailed democracy while bolstering United Russia's dominance.
A sharp decline in the party's support would dent Putin's image but would not hurt his chances of winning the presidency because he is far more popular than the party itself.
Sergei, 32, who travels from Yesinka to Moscow for construction jobs, said he would vote for United Russia "because Putin is there."
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Boyle)