By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Less than half of all Russians trust the official results of the election in which Vladimir Putin won a return to the presidency for a six-year term, a state-controlled polling agency said on Thursday.
International monitors have said the election was slanted in favor of Putin, who is now prime minister, and opponents have refused to recognize the results, which gave him more than 63 percent of the vote.
In a poll of 1,600 people conducted on March 10-11, 44 percent said the election result was reliable and in line with the will of the voters, the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM) said.
That was down from 53 percent following both the 2004 election, in which then-president Putin won a second term, and the 2008 vote won by his hand-picked protege Dmitry Medvedev.
In the new poll, 34 percent said fraud may have occurred but it was not extensive enough to affect Putin's victory, while 14 percent believed the results were wholly untrustworthy, up from 10 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2004.
Accusations of fraud in a December 4 parliamentary election led to the biggest street protest movement since Putin first took power 12 years ago, and thousands of Russians registered as vote monitors for this month's presidential poll.
"I actually thought the number (who found the vote reliable) would be lower," VTsIOM director Valery Fedorov said, citing the widespread fraud allegations and protests where "the most important slogan ... was that the elections are dishonest."
"Russians' trust in institutions in general, be it in the police or elections, is less than that of other countries of western Europe or the United States," said Fedorov.
Putin himself has said voting violations occurred during the election but were not substantial enough to account for his victory.
The European Union and the United States have urged Russia to investigate the accusations of voting fraud.
Dozens of Russians have been detained in demonstrations protesting the election result, and large rallies have been held in central Moscow.
An opposition activist began a hunger strike on Thursday after being sentenced to 10 days in jail for disobeying the police after one rally against Putin.