VILNIUS: Lithuanians began voting Sunday in a presidential runoff with incumbent "Iron Lady" Dalia Grybauskaite the frontrunner in this EU and NATO state dominated by security concerns over a resurgent Russia.
Nicknamed for her Thatcheresque-resolve, Grybauskaite is tipped by most analysts to win a second five-year 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 tough talking 58-year-old won round one two weeks ago, scoring 46 percent of the vote, while rival Zigmantas Balcytis, an MEP with the governing Social Democrats, took just over 13 percent.
While Grybauskaite, who is running as an independent, has focussed largely on national security, Baclytis has campaigned on bread and butter issues as Lithuania gears up to join the eurozone in January.
No opinion polls were issued ahead of round two, which coincides with elections to the European parliament. Turnout is expected to be around fifty percent.
Analysts say Balcytis would gain ground by absorbing the electorates of the five candidates eliminated in round one, but a majority still predict a Grybauskaite victory.
The annexation by Russia of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and Moscow's sabre rattling in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad have sparked palpable fear in neighbouring Lithuania, a country of three million.
Remigijus Paplauskas, a prison warden who lives near Kaliningrad, is worried Moscow could try to destabilise the Baltic states, which shook off five decades under the Soviet yoke in 1990-91 before joining NATO and the EU in 2004.
"My 90-year-old aunt who the Soviets deported to Siberia believes something bad will happen," he told AFP, reflecting the widespread apprehension in the region.
Grybauskaite urged and then welcomed the arrival of American troops last month as NATO stepped up its Baltic presence.
The karate black belt also vowed to "take a gun myself to defend the country if that what's needed for national security".
Having eschewed party politics, she still won backing from the main opposition parties -- including conservatives and liberals -- which lost the 2012 general election to the governing Social Democrats.
She went "rock 'n' roll" to woo younger voters this week inviting Aerosmith's star frontman Steve Tyler for an impromptu tour of the presidential palace as he visited Vilnius ahead of a concert.
On Sunday she rallied voters to turn up for the tandem presidential and European polls "irrespective of the weather", as temperatures soared to an unusually high 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).
"Grybauskaite is the only one seriously prepared for presidency," Vilnius civil servant Jurate Kiserauske told AFP as she emerged from a Vilnius polling station.
"She has a clear position, opinion and morality. Balcytis has no backbone. And now, when we see strong winds blowing from Russia, it's worrying."
Advocating dialogue with Moscow in difficult times, Balcytis has taken a more cautious approach on Russia, focusing instead on bread and butter issues.
The 60-year-old who previously served as transport and finance minister in leftwing governments has vowed to "boost people's incomes and narrow the gap between rich and poor."
He also slammed Grybauskaite for having backed biting austerity measures when the global financial crisis hit Lithuania hard in 2009.
Promises of fighting poverty, supporting poorer regions and a consensus-oriented approach with Russia have won him popularity, mostly in small towns and rural areas.
"I believe I'll win... by one or two percent," Balcytis said Sunday in Vilnius.
Faulting Grybauskaite for "not talking to Russia at all" and approving pension cuts, Vilnius engineer Gintaras Jackevicius, 57, told AFP he voted for Balcytis.
Both candidates back eurozone membership next January and a liquefied natural gas terminal intended to end the natural gas monopoly exercised by Russia's Gazprom.
Joblessness here stands at 9.8 percent with the economy set to grow by 3.4 percent this year, one of the fastest rates of expansion in the 28-member EU.
Voting ends at 1700 GMT with no exit polls scheduled.