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Russia: How The Kremlin Manages To Get The Right Results

  • Robert Coalson

Ballot paper in a Moscow polling station (ITAR-TASS) One day after the March 2 presidential ballot in Russia put the final seal of approval on Dmitry Medvedev's carefully orchestrated win, the head of the country's election commission, Vladimir Churov, had warm words of praise for the vote, saying: "There is no more open, more transparent, and more organized election system than the election system of the Russian Federation."


Churov added that perhaps the greatest innovation of the Russian voting system is the complex, multilayered system used for counting votes, a system he claims virtually precludes the possibility of falsification.

But to independent observers of both the presidential poll and the December 2007 Duma elections, the system seems geared for getting the right results for the Kremlin -- rather than for getting the results right.

Election management in Russia, of course, begins long before election day. It involves the massive distortion of public opinion through the control of the media, the abuse of public office at all levels for political ends, the manipulation of election law and the composition of election commissions, and the use of a variety of means to ensure that only approved parties and candidates appear on ballots at all.

Population Shifts?

One of the clearest macro-manipulations is the compilation of the official voter list. “Vedomosti” reported on March 6 that, according to official figures, there were 107.6 million eligible voters in Russia as of June 2007. By the time of the December legislative elections, that figure had risen to 109.15 million.

The hike might be explained by the fact that Unified Russia wanted as many votes as possible because Duma seats are allocated according to the number of votes. In addition, the federal budget provides parties who pick up more than 3 percent of the vote to qualify for annual state funding of 5 rubles ($0.20) for each vote they received.

By the time of the March presidential election, in which the Kremlin was interested in the highest possible voter turnout rather than a particular number of votes, the official voter list was back down to 107 million, “Kommersant" reported. According to official figures, St. Petersburg lost 11 percent of its voting-age population between December 2007 and March 2008.

But these macro-management means alone cannot ensure the kind of precision that Kremlin politicos seem to require of the results. For instance, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev polled 70.2 percent, according to preliminary official results. Interestingly, that was slightly better than the 70.08 percent the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party polled in the December legislative elections, but slightly worse than the 71.3 percent that President Vladimir Putin garnered in his 2004 reelection. Clearly, the Kremlin wants Medvedev to seem popular. To be more popular than his predecessor, however, would be unseemly.

Something Rotten In The Republics

Andrei Buzin, chairman of the Interregional Association of Voters, told gazeta.ru on March 5 that his monitoring group has noticed an increasing trend of election-day falsification. Such violations have long been de rigueur in the so-called ethnic republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and, especially, in the North Caucasus. In Ingushetia, to take one example, officials reported a startling 98-percent turnout for the Duma elections, but in the weeks following the vote, more than 50 percent of the republic's eligible voters signed statements saying they did not vote.

Following that embarrassment, Election Commission Chairman Churov announced that he would order the installation of video cameras at all Ingush polling stations for the presidential election. But the president of the republic and the chairman of its legislature announced that such measures were unnecessary and no cameras appeared. “Novaya gazeta" journalists in the republic on March 2 asked about the cameras and election officials "simply laughed." Official turnout in the republic on March 2 was 92 percent (with 91 percent of them voting for Medvedev), while independent monitors counted 5,742 voters -- putting estimated turnout somewhere closer to 3.5 percent.

Earlier this month, two bloggers -- a chemist named Maksim Pshenichnikov and a person who goes by the online name Podmoskovnik -- published a damning statistical analysis that used Central Election Commission statistics to shed light on the extent of the fraud in the December Duma elections. The two made a graph of the voter-turnout percentage reported by each polling station. Under normal conditions, one would expect a bell-shaped curve, with few or no polling stations reporting 0 percent turnout and few or none reporting 100 percent. The normal curve would peak at the point representing the national average voter turnout, which for these elections was officially put at 63 percent.

What the bloggers found instead was a curve that began normally on the zero side of the graph and ran upward to a peak of 51 percent. On the right side of the graph, the side representing polling stations reporting higher-than-average turnout, the graph meandered in a spiked line and ended with a peak at 100 percent that was higher even than the number of polling stations reporting the apparent national average of 51 percent. Moreover, they found sharp spikes at all the "round" numbers above that average -- 55, 60, 65, 70, etc. For instance, 633 polling stations reported an 89-percent turnout and 770 reported 91 percent, while 927 reported a nice, round 90 percent. "It is a study that explicitly demonstrates that the results were manipulated," economist Konstantin Sonin told "The Moscow Times."

Moreover, the bloggers created a second graph showing the number of votes reported by each polling station as being cast for each party. The second graph shows nearly normal bell-curves for all of the minor parties in the election, but the curve for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party nearly precisely follows the curve for overall voter turnout. This seems to indicate conclusively that all the "additional" votes that appeared in contravention of statistical logic were cast for Unified Russia. According to their analysis, Unified Russia should have been given 277 seats in the Duma, instead of the 315 (more than the constitutional majority of 300) that the party was awarded.

'Brazen' Falsifications

Independent monitor Buzin told gazeta.ru that there are increasing signs that brazen election-day manipulation is on the rise across the country, including in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. He noted that polling station No. 1257 in Moscow reported a 100-percent turnout (2,400 registered voters). "Such results have been seen in Karachayevo-Cherkesia and other Caucasian republics, but in the capital -- this is a first," he said. "Reports of such statistics are coming in from cities nationally."

On the evening of March 2, St. Petersburg Yabloko official Maksim Reznik appeared on a small local television station and told of an experiment that he carried out during the presidential vote. He reported that he and six other activists visited seven St. Petersburg polling stations. At each one, they told officials that they were residents of Murmansk without identification or absentee ballots and in each case they were admitted to vote in violation of election rules.

The next day, Reznik was arrested in the middle of the night for allegedly assaulting a police officer and a St. Petersburg court ordered him held without bond pending trial because his previous involvement with opposition protests supposedly demonstrated contempt for the law. He could face up to six years in prison.

Election commission head Vladimir Churov (ITAR-TASS)

Buzin told gazeta.ru that on election day, he was at Moscow polling station No. 1513. He said that independent monitors there discovered a fully stuffed ballot box and were guarding it. For a long time, election officials on the site discussed the situation. After a while, a civil-defense alarm sounded and police appeared, ordering the evacuation of the polling station. The monitors were ushered out of the building, although according to election law, in such situations monitors are supposed to be evacuated together with all the ballot boxes. Buzin said that during the evacuation, he spoke personally with the chairman of the Moscow municipal election commission. After the alarm was ended, representatives of the Prosecutor-General's Office appeared and confiscated the suspicious ballot box. Nothing was heard about it again.

"This story once again confirms how all these organs act as one," Buzin concluded. "They have a single leadership, and this combination of all branches of power and state organs enables them to perpetrate rather brazen direct falsifications."

Not Adding Up

“Novaya gazeta" reported this week on the election-day experience of Olga Pokrovskaya, a well-known St. Petersburg lawyer and liberal activist who has served on election commissions in the past. Pokrovskaya told the paper she spent election day monitoring polling station No. 488. She reported spending the entire day there and waiting after polls closed while officials filled out the station's voting protocol. She then asked for and received an officially signed copy of the protocol and accompanied polling-station officials to the territorial election commission, where they were to submit the documents. Pokrovskaya said that she noticed one of the officials was carrying a blank election protocol that had been signed and stamped, in addition to the document that had been shown to Pokrovskaya earlier.

Pokrovskaya later compared the document she had with the official Central Election Commission data for polling station No. 488. Both sets of figures showed 23 votes for Democratic Party leader Andrei Bogdanov, 68 votes for Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and 188 votes for Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. Pokrovskaya's document also shows 620 votes for Dmitry Medvedev, while the official tally for Medvedev for that polling station was 1,412. Pokrovskaya showed total turnout (including spoiled ballots and others) as 965, while the official figure is registered as 1,641.

"I suppose similar methods were used at other polling stations as well," Pokrovskaya said. "There were very few observers. At my polling station, for example, there was no one but me."

Lilia Shibanova, who is executive director of the independent NGO Golos, also monitored the elections and noticed the same trend of more brazen falsification and officials from all levels of government and all agencies working in tandem.

"Administrative resources have always been used," she told “Novaya gazeta," "but when there was political competition in earlier elections, control over the elections was incomparably greater. The commission under [former Central Election Commission head Aleksandr] Veshnyakov came to help at least during local elections, but the current [Central Election Commission] is deaf, blind, and dumb. It does not react to anything; it doesn't want to see or hear anything."

RFE/RL Russia Report


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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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