Lithuanians began voting Sunday to elect their president, with incumbent "Iron Lady" Dalia Grybauskaite an apparent shoo-in as fears in the EU Baltic state soar over a resurgent Russia.
The karate black belt, nicknamed for her Thatcheresque resolve, is poised to win a second term as many here who remember Soviet times see her as a their best hope amid Europe's worst standoff with Moscow since the Cold War.
A former EU budget chief, the 58-year-old Grybauskaite is likely to score over 50 percent of the vote, recent opinion surveys showed, but low turnout could trigger a May 25 run-off in this NATO member country.
Six other candidates have all polled around 10 percent and are not regarded as serious rivals.
"If turnout exceeds 50 percent, she has quite a good chance of scoring a first round victory," Ramunas Vilpisauskas, a political scientist at Vilnius University, told AFP.
A candidate must win half of the votes cast with a turnout of at least 50 percent to win in round one.
In 2009, Grybauskaite captured a resounding 69.04 percent of the vote in the seven-candidate first round with turnout at 51.67 percent.
This election comes as Russia's annexation of Ukraine's former Crimean peninsula and sabre rattling in the neighboring Russian exclave of Kaliningrad have sparked fear in Lithuania, a country of three million.
Elvyra Vaicaityte, a student living a stone's throw from Kaliningrad, is spooked by rumblings of military might in the Russian exclave, sandwiched between Lithuania and fellow NATO member Poland.
"I can hear explosions during exercises, and windows often rattle -- I don't feel very secure," the 23-year-old told AFP in the border town of Vilkaviskis.
Grybauskaite first urged and then welcomed the arrival of American troops last month as NATO stepped up its presence in the Baltic states, which spent five decades under Soviet occupation until 1991.
Lithuania along with Baltic minnows Latvia and Estonia all are keen to see more alliance "boots on the ground" amid the Ukraine crisis.
Grybauskaite has sworn to take up arms herself in case of Russian aggression.
"If there's a problem, I'll never flee abroad. I'll take a gun myself to defend the country if that what's needed for national security," she said as campaigning wound down Thursday.
- Iron will vs. soft touch -
"The situation with Russia isn't going in a good direction and we're not calm about it," Vilnius pensioner Melduana Dailydiene told AFP after she cast her ballot for Grybauskaite.
"I like her determination," she added.
Grybauskaite has backed the country's first liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal intended to boost energy security by easing total dependence for gas on Russia's Gazprom.
She also sees eurozone entry in 2015 as an economic buffer against Moscow.
In contrast to her firm line, Grybauskaite's center-left and populist rivals insist dialogue with Russia is crucial, and have focused more on social issues.
"We'll have to seek dialogue with Russia. Any kind of peace is better than a war," Social Democrat Zigmantas Balcytis said.
Balcytis, a member of the European Parliament, and populist Labour party MP Arturas Paulauskas are her most likely rivals in a possible run-off.
Saying he is alienated by Grybauskaite's hard-line approach, civil servant Mantvydas Vitenas, 59, voted for Vilnius mayor Arturas Zuokas.
"Her rhethoric reminds me of (Belarus President Alexander) Lukashenko. She pretends to know everything and governs unilaterally," he told AFP Sunday outside a Vilnius polling station.
Professor Algis Krupavicius, a lecturer in Lithuania's second city of Kaunas, insists the impact of the Ukraine crisis on Sunday's vote should not be underestimated.
"The Ukraine crisis is an important mobilising factor, and Grybauskaite's stern rhetoric is likely to appeal to centre-right voters," he told AFP.
Augustinas Vizbaras, a 29-year-old Vilnius entrepreneur, says she has his vote. He has also volunteered in a paramilitary unit that was part of Lithuania's WWII-era anti-Soviet resistance.
"We feel a Russian threat and I felt a civic duty to join the unit so that we prevent a repeat of a Ukraine scenario here," Vizbaras told AFP.
Voting began Sunday at 0400 GMT and was due to end at 1700 GMT with no exit polls scheduled. (AFP)