Putin's Russia: What I saw as an election observer
A volunteer election observer for Russia's presidential election, which Putin won, shares her insights on ballot-stuffing, absentee ballots, and civic-minded citizens.
Nizhneye Myachkovo, Russia
Moscow-based journalist Anna Arutunyan was a volunteer election observer for Russia's March 4 presidential election. This is her account of the events at a polling station in the town of Nizhneye Myachkovo.Skip to next paragraph
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It was past midnight on election night in a snow-covered village polling station 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) southeast of Moscow, and five local officials were trying to ignore the protests of five election observers as the officials tallied up the ballots for Russia’s paramount leader of 12 years, Vladimir Putin.
The complaint was minor: The officials weren’t letting the observers see each ballot they counted. But combined with the other violations noticed at this polling station, the process left observers with a sense that the very legitimacy of the vote had been compromised.
Anton Dugin, a tall, young local official who was in charge of the polling station, called for a vote among the poll workers: Should they change the way they were counting the ballots at the observers' insistence they follow the law?
“We will work just as we have worked in the past,” election official Yelena Kiselyova replied, and resumed counting. She has worked in polling stations for 20 years, and in the past, before observers got in the way, people voted “correctly,” she said over tea hours later.
Observers had repeatedly demanded to see the lists of registered voters to ensure that the number of ballots handed out did not exceed the number of people who came to vote. But after the observers exposed at least one incident of ballot stuffing, Dugin was done cooperating with them – even though federal law stipulates that he had to show observers how the lists were tallied up.
“We’ll do it later,” he said. “The workers are drinking tea.” But Mr. Dugin was later overheard telling the other officials to try to wait until the observers left because the poll workers would never manage to “hide” discrepancies in the lists. At 3 a.m., Dugin told observers that the lists had already been counted without them – and sat down with two other women over a calculator to come up with the right number to pencil into the protocol.
Anatoly Zakharov, one of five volunteer observers (including this reporter) who spent nearly 24 hours at this polling station, watched as harried local administrative officials used ballot stuffing, absentee ballots, and even algebra to reach the 67 percent they reported Mr. Putin received at that station. He said the experience made him feel powerless about federal politics, but spurred him to get involved at the local level.
“I did not learn anything new. But I understood that we cannot impact what happens at the top,” Mr. Zakharov, a 28-year-old engineering consultant with a construction firm, said a week after Putin declared victory in a presidential election that the Communist Party and a host of watchdog groups refused to recognize as legitimate. “Even if Putin leaves, [the Kremlin] will appoint whatever successor they like."
In response to the widespread accusations of fraud in December 2011 parliamentary elections, tens of thousands of average citizens volunteered to monitor elections, as Zakharov did.
He said he was determined to prevent the ballot fraud that marred the parliamentary elections and brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets for the largest rallies seen in Moscow in 20 years. But what he got in Nizhneye Myachkovo, a sleepy village with 800 registered voters, was a deep look into an electoral process that Kremlin critics have called more a coronation than an election.
“There was a powerful civic drive to keep these elections from being falsified,” says Lilia Shibanova, the director of electoral monitoring organization Golos, one of a handful of Russia's fraud watchdog groups. According to Golos's estimates, at least 20,000 individuals from various groups – about five for each polling station – volunteered as observers, but the number may be as high as 40,000.