Russia's newly-minted League of Voters, which fielded thousands of observers in last Sunday's presidential polls, said today that conduct of the voting was an "insult to civil society" and it will therefore not recognize Vladimir Putin's victory.
That judgment, coming from a prominent group that was organized in the wake of mass protests against electoral fraud in December, is certain to cast a shadow over Mr. Putin's win and fuel further street protests that are expected this weekend, although Golos, an older electoral monitoring group, said that the most recent election was at least cleaner than December's.
The League, which is led by Russian celebrities such as detective novelist Boris Akunin and rock musician Yury Shevchuk, said it calculated Putin's vote at no more than 53 percent – which would still be a solid first-round win, but is far short of the nearly 64 percent support that official results claim for Putin.
"Due to widespread violations, we consider it impossible to recognize the results of the presidential elections," the League's statement said. "We consider that on March 4 an insult was delivered to civil society. The institution of the Russian presidency, the electoral system and the whole state authority were discredited."
The League suggested that much of Putin's allegedly inflated total was stolen from the dark horse liberal candidate, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, whom it said actually won 16 percent of the votes rather than the 8 percent given to him in official results.
Russia's official Central Electoral Commission said it had checked into the League's claims and found them groundless. "The League of Voters is pursuing some goal set beforehand," deputy commission chief Leonid Ivlev told the independent Interfax news agency. "They had said this repeatedly before the elections results were tallied and have just reiterated their preconceived conclusion now."
Putin's press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was blunter: "All assessments have been made. The question is closed," he told Interfax today.
"The elections were not honest, they were not equal and they were not fair," says Dmitry Oreshkin, a founder of the League and head of the independent Mercator think tank in Moscow. "In my view there is no point in taking complaints to civil courts, or to the Central Electoral Commission," where history shows they will be buried, he says. "This is now a criminal matter, and our League will stand behind anyone who initiates such a procedure."
Russia's older and better-established grassroots electoral monitoring group, Golos, has been far more cautious in its criticism of the election, noting that they were conducted under the fundamentally unfair rules of Putin-era "managed democracy" and their conduct was marred by numerous violations. But Golos also thinks Sunday's presidential voting was cleaner than fraud-tainted December Duma polls and had several positive new features, including the unprecedented numbers of volunteer election monitors and the installations of webcams in all of Russia's 98,000 polling stations.
"In our view, the [presidential elections] were neither free nor fair," says Andrei Buzin, a researcher with Golos. "But we have noted that on election day the process of voting and the counting of votes was better than in past election campaigns. "There were violations, but on the whole it was cleaner than past campaigns."
According to Golos, the main violations they found and documented include voters being required to cast ballots in workplace polling stations – including the army and state institutions – under the eyes of bosses and authorities; the abuse of absentee ballots; "carousel voting," or casting multiple ballots; ballot-box stuffing by electoral officials; and paying citizens to vote a certain way.
The international observer team fielded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concurred that such violations were widespread in Sunday's voting, noting in its report that "there was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt… the process deteriorated during the vote count, which was assessed negatively in almost one-third of polling stations observed."
But the decision by the League of Voters to reject the results out of hand is bound to raise tensions in a post-election atmosphere that's already fraught with uncertainty. About 500 people were arrested on Monday night for protesting against the election results, and opposition leaders have vowed to take to the streets of Moscow next Saturday to keep the pressure on Putin to stand down and allow free and open elections.
"Tens of thousands will be coming out on the streets of Moscow and other cities and refusing to leave," opposition leader Alexei Navalny told journalists after being released from prison – where he spent the night – on Tuesday. "We will keep doing this until our demands are met."