Russian Elections: Is Vladimir Putin Rigging the Vote Again?

Vladimir Putin coasted to a win in today’s presidential elections, grabbing almost 60 percent of the vote. But opposition groups say he’s up to his old tricks again. Anna Nemtsova reports.

Ivan Sekretarev / AP Photo

Early on the morning of Russia’s presidential elections, all approaches to the Kremlin were barricaded with fences and surrounded by police. Workers were assembling metal constructions for tribunes and stages and installing giant plasma screens featuring wavy three-color flags. The poll had only just opened, but preparations for Vladimir Putin’s victory were already well underway.

Groups of lost pedestrians trying to find a way to Red Square looked up at an enormous Russian red, white, and blue flag stretched over the Hotel Moskva, overlooking the Kremlin. Meanwhile more than 30,000 police, many drafted in from nearby cities, gathered to ensure peace and order on Moscow’s streets.

After a brief setback, when city hall actually refused Putin supporters permission to march in central Moscow, Putin’s backers have agreed with Moscow to run as many as 15 demonstrations in alternate venues on the afternoon of Election Day. Activists from four pro-Putin youth organizations—Young Russia, New People, Locals, and the Group for Changes—gathered in the park outside the Lubyanka, headquarters of the KGB and now the Federal Security Service, for an eight-hour marathon of celebratory concerts and speeches. The real purpose, of course, was to prevent the other side from staking out this highly symbolic piece of ground, one of the focal points of the mass demonstrations that brought down the U.S.S.R. in August 1991.

At noon, when only 12 percent of the country’s 108 million citizens had voted, a speaker for youth organizations, Mikhail Dukhovich, said he was “endlessly happy” to have Vladimir Putin return to Russia’s presidency. (Putin served two terms from 2000 to 2008 and has spent the past four years as prime minister.) “Putin spends his time on real business and not on populist activities like other candidates,” Dukhovich said. “Everybody I know trusts Putin.”

Meanwhile, Internet news and radio stations quoted volunteer observers reporting mass falsifications at polling stations in Nizhny Novgorod, Khabarovsk, Orel, and other regions of Russia. In Tula observers say they raced with polling-station employees illegally bringing a mobile ballot box to collect ballots from more than 300 voters outside the polling place—reportedly 30 percent of all voters in that region.

“False voting on so called ‘additional lists’ is what makes our work close to impossible” said Grigory Melkonyants of the partly U.S.-funded vote-fraud watchdog group Golos. “Hundreds of people voting several times a day will seriously distort the results.”

This year’s movement of volunteer observers and watchdog organizations is a new phenomenon, proving that Russia is not yet ready give up on democracy. It spread last December, when tens of thousands of angry citizens gathered across the country to protest widely documented and crude election fraud by Putin’s United Russia party in parliamentary elections. “Putin made a huge mistake by not turning his face to show sympathy to the protesters, nonmembers of his party but still members of Russian society,” said Igor Yurgens, a leading economist from the Moscow-based Institute of Contemporary Development, current President Dmitry Medvedev’s favorite think tank. “Instead of embracing the angry and disagreeing part of the Russian population, Putin accused his foes of destabilizing political life.”

Putin has also repeatedly accused the United States—and specifically Hillary Clinton—of fomenting the opposition and called for voters to “defend their motherland” by voting for him. Putin’s attitude, though, has only galvanized the growth of civil society.

In Moscow originally Internet-based groups including the League of Voters, Kamikadze-d, and Citizen Observers teamed with opposition parties and accumulated an army of 83,000 independent observers trained to monitor and report violations of election results. They are bound to turn up convincing evidence of fraud, made more vivid by cellphone-camera footage that could bear on the post-election politics, including the size of protests.

At the Gagarinsky municipal polling station in Moscow, voters seemed optimistic about having a chance to control the situation. Alexander Raskin, a former staff reporter at Newsweek’s defunct Russian edition and now a member of his local election commission, said every polling station in his district had between five and 20 independent election observers taking photographs and videos and keeping an eye on violations, what Raskin said was “a positive sign of community democracy in action.”

This morning Oleg Mitvol’s mobile group of controlling enthusiasts arrived at polling station No. 3383 in the Northern Tushino district of Moscow to find four buses full of “mobile voters” parked outside. The passengers were reportedly openly discussing how each of them had voted at three other polling stations already that day. Within hours, independent observers like Mitvol registered hundreds of what they called “carousel voters” traveling from precinct to precinct. “Each of them might have voted for Putin a dozen times today,” Mitvol said. “More horrible was that both police and the head of the district supported the violators and not us, the people who tried to stop them.”

By midday dozens of buses packed with the so-called carousel voters had arrived at Bolotnaya Square, the venue for two major peaceful opposition demonstrations in the past two months. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told Dozhd TV that elections should be “presumed legitimate until proved otherwise” and called plans for mass anti-Putin protests even before the results are in “paradoxical” and “stupid.”

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“I believe that Putin will win in the first round and that the election is going to be fair, unless the court decides otherwise,” Peskov said.

Despite a marked effort by authorities to soften their initial confrontational stance over the past two months and allow sanctioned protests to continue unmolested, isolated incidents of police harassment continued. On Saturday night police detained and beat Nikolai Kuznetsov, an activist of the Yabloko opposition party and member of a territorial election commission in Losinoostrovsky region of Moscow. Within minutes, opposition Facebook pages filled with “help” posts about the detained activist. Three more municipal candidates from opposition were beaten by police this morning. Anton Malevsky, an opposition candidate running at today’s municipal Parliament elections in Moscow, said he had spent the night at police station trying to release his supporter Kuznetsov from jail. “The authorities, who have huge money to hire youth organizations to support Putin, command police to beat and arrest our supporters,” Malevsky alleged. “Russians are fed up with listening to their commands.”

Early exit polls show Putin, whose base of support among blue-collar workers and in the provinces remains strong, winning the election with a margin of more than 60 percent.