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.

Alexei Druzhinin/Government Press Service/RIA Novosti/AP
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during his meeting with the Ministry of Health and Social Development of Russia in Moscow, Friday.

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. 

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.

“Putin had promised us that these elections would be fair, but that was not the case,” she says.

The president-elect's promise to install web cameras at every polling station to ensure transparency likely did little to prevent fraud; in Nizhneye Myachkovo the camera filmed only the voters' backs and would not be able to record any ballot stuffing that did occur. But ballot stuffing wasn’t the culprit, at least not there. 

At 10 a.m., just two hours after polls opened, Zakharov said he noticed something suspicious. Several construction workers who arrived together in a Mitsubishi pickup truck piled into the polling station, each with an absentee ballot in hand. They looked grim, and turned away when observers asked where they where they were from.

Zakharov, who works as a consultant for a construction firm, recognized what he said looked like a forced-voting scheme and turned on his camera to film the truck waiting outside.

As the seven workers got back into the truck, their driver noticed Zakharov was filming. “Who do you represent?” he asked Zakharov and this reporter. The driver refused to give his name, but insisted that the seven construction workers were “nephews” from a neighboring region who worked in his firm. “I’m just a working, Russian man,” he insisted. “I just want for us to make the right choice.”

The incident presented no outright violations, but it looked exactly like a scheme that Zakharov had heard his coworkers in the construction industry describe.

“On orders from local administration officials, construction workers at one firm were given absentee ballots, rounded up, and sent to vote at several stations,” he said, citing a construction worker who was forced to participate in the scheme. By law, however, a voter could only obtain an absentee ballot in person. 

Five hours later, Zakharov witnessed an incident of ballot stuffing, adding to a slew of technical violations that up until that point he thought were minor. As Dugin, the polling station chairman, distracted the rest of the observers, Zakharov caught a woman stuffing a pack of 10 ballots into the box.

“This is not just an administrative offense, this is an attempted crime!” Zakharov cried out as he turned on his camera. But Dugin remained unperturbed as Zakharov tried to point out a clearly visible folded stack of papers. “Well, yes,” he said, “It’s a ballot box, and there are lots of ballots in it. So what?”

According to Golos and other monitoring groups, ballot stuffing and other flagrant violations added little to Putin’s final result – what really mattered was the widespread forced voting.

“Ballot stuffing constituted just a handful of cases. Most of the violations were attributed to abusing absentee ballots, carousel voting, and registering whole companies to vote,” Shibanova of Golos says. The practice, according to her estimates, created an additional 600,000 voters across the country. For local officials involved in the tallying, it was far more important to keep their jobs than abide by the law, she says.

“The whole principle of free voting is violated,” she says. “Even if people are not directly told who they have to vote for.”

While much of the focus since the December election's has been on the Moscow-based protest movement and the rising, reform-minded middle class, for Zakharov and many like him, the experience was an impetus to try to do something at the local level – an unusual turn in a country where young people rarely care about local politics.

"I want to get together with friends who want to change things, and go run for local council together,” Zakharov says.

According to Shibanova, many of the observers were indeed disappointed – but she says that was all the more reason to act. “Just going to a polling station is too easy,” she said. “They should be continuing their struggle on the legal level.”

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