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Russians shrug off stolen votes

After a series of crises, new evidence of fraud in the March presidential vote sparks concern, little ire.

By Scott Peterson and Fred WeirStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 18, 2000



MOSCOW

Suppose a crusading US newspaper were to dig up evidence that an American presidential election had been stolen by means of ballot-stuffing, misreported returns, armies of fake voters, and systematic intimidation. And suppose most major US papers refused to follow up on the story.

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Sound farfetched? Not in today's Russia, where the near-silence from the mass media to just such an expos reflects the exhaustion, if not outright failure, of the post-Soviet democracy-building project. Nearly a decade after the collapse of Communism, impoverished and disaster-plagued Russians appear to no longer care if their new electoral system is working honestly or effectively.

President Clinton hailed the results of the March 26 presidential election - in which Vladimir Putin seized a first-round victory with 52.94 percent of the vote - as a big step for Russian democracy. An array of international observers, too, gave their seal of approval.

But last week, the Moscow Times, an English-language daily owned jointly by a Dutch company and several big Russian corporations, published an eight-page study detailing extensive fraud. For the investigative piece, a team of reporters traveled around Russia for six months, pulling together disparate strains of evidence. "Given how close the vote was," the Times concluded, "fraud and abuse of state power appear to have been decisive."

Few deny the likelihood of cheating, or that Putin would have won in a second-round runoff, if one were held. But in a nation reeling from a recent spate of crises, the often-feisty Russian-language press has given the story a miss.

"I have no doubt there was fraud," says Vladimir Andreyenkov, director of the independent Center for Comparative Social Research in Moscow. "We're all well acquainted with the scale and methods of pressure employed by the president's team during the elections, both direct and indirect. What happened in the election went well beyond all moral boundaries."

But, he adds with a very Russian shrug, so what? "In Russia, fraud is seen as a natural part of the process. Maybe democracy is the privilege of a rich country. When three-quarters of the population are as poor as beggars, what democracy can you talk about?"

That may be news to voters in India - the world's largest and possibly poorest democracy - but analysts say that overcoming the old Soviet system's vertical power structure has made democratic thinking rare indeed.

Despite its detail, the Times report said it was unable to make any direct link between the allegations of fraud and Putin himself. Among the newspaper's findings, however, were large discrepancies between votes recorded at polling stations in some regions, and the results reported to Moscow by local authorities. A comparison of the returns from 16 percent of the polling stations in Dagestan, one of Russia's 89 regions, for example, appears to document the theft of 88,000 votes in Putin's favor.