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Russia: Opposition Concerned About Vote Rigging Ahead Of 7 December Elections

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russians worried about the integrity of Sunday's (7 December) Duma elections are generally more concerned about Kremlin influence peddling than simpler tactics like ballot-box stuffing. But some are leaving nothing to chance. The democratic opposition is joining forces with the Communists to ensure the vote is closely monitored, and experts are urging election observers to be "extra attentive."

Moscow, 5 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Members of Russia's political opposition say they fear there is a high risk of pro-Kremlin vote rigging in the 7 December Duma elections. To prevent it, they are joining forces with rival Communists to monitor all of the nearly 95,000 polling stations in Sunday's vote.

Sergei Mitrokhin, a candidate with the liberal Yabloko party, told RFE/RL's Russian Service what prompted the decision: "If we can't completely eliminate falsifications, we can at least reduce them to a minimum. With this goal in mind, we've signed an agreement with SPS, [the Union of Rightist Forces], and the KPRF, [Communist Party], to organize a joint monitoring of elections."

The unusual deal comes amid fears that pro-Kremlin parties -- including Unified Russia, the party endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin -- are using pressure and other dubious methods to manipulate public opinion ahead of the vote. Communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov has been especially vocal, sending an open letter to the authorities complaining about media bias against his party.

Aleksandr Ivanchenko, the former head of Russia's Central Election Commission, says the elections should generally be free and fair, despite the possibility of what he called "significant" abuse.

"I don't think the issue will be about open falsifications, with ballot-box stuffing and tampering with protocols at polling stations or district commissions. The main dangers lie in the advantages given to the main party, Unified Russia," Ivanchenko said.

Ivanchenko said the security of the ballots on election day is as reliable as "foreign currency." But some local media disagree. Journalists in the republic of Bashkortostan, which is holding both presidential and State Duma elections, reported that law-enforcement agents discovered a cache of fake ballots.

The Kremlin has urged Sunday's vote to be free and fair. But the current head of the Russian Election Commission, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, did not entirely rule out the possibility of vote rigging. Speaking last week, the election official warned that "any attempt at falsifying the vote -- whether by five ballots or 10 -- will be seen as attempt of usurpation of power."

Yevgenia Borisova, an investigative reporter for the English-language daily "The Moscow Times," reported on numerous instances of apparent fraud in the March 2000 presidential election, in which Vladimir Putin won a sweeping victory. She says much of what she saw in the course of that six-month investigation leads her to believe that the 7 December vote will be no different.

"I had a clear impression of massive [abuse], especially in regions where authorities' control is stronger. I think you have it less in Moscow and St. Petersburg, in the center. But in villages, in faraway regions, it does happen and I don't see why this would change," she said.

Borisova describes one instance she witnessed in Daghestan: "[Election officials] go around to apartments with ballot boxes, in theory to let elderly people vote. They then take the boxes away to an empty spot somewhere, burn them, and come back with completely different ballots marked for the 'right' [candidate]."

Borisova says she found a number of half-burnt ballots with the names of candidates still visible. Another technique she mentions consists in adding ghost voters to the voting list. "One person sent a letter [of complaint] because he discovered some extra apartments on the voting list. He said, 'In our building, there are a lot fewer apartments than it says here.' He said that in his building and in the neighboring one, apartments were added. Tens of [voters] were added in this manner," she said.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) monitoring mission, which participated in the 2000 presidential vote, did not acknowledge Borisova's allegations about massive fraud in that vote. The OSCE did note instances of ballot-box stuffing and other irregularities, but qualified the violations as "minor" and "episodic," concluding that they "did not appear sufficient to alter the outcome."

Regions with a proven record of voter fraud include the North Caucasus -- especially Chechnya -- as well as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Prisons, military bases, and absentee-ballot stations abroad are also considered vulnerable to vote manipulation.

Most analysts say careful vote monitoring will be key as Russians go to the polls on Sunday. About 1,150 non-party observers are expected to participate, including monitors from the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the CIS, and Russia.

Still, some critics say such observers are not always close enough to the "action" to be certain of how fairly voter registration, ballot counting and the filling of protocols are conducted.

An OSCE interim report issued this week warns that the rights of domestic nonpartisan observers to monitor the election process are "insufficiently protected or guaranteed." The organization notes that the absence of any accreditation requirement for monitors may make it easy for local authorities to bar their presence in polling stations.

Ivanchenko, who now runs training sessions for election monitors, says the voting process is most vulnerable to abuse towards the evening, when false ballots may be cast for those voters who failed to show up to cast votes. "If 10 people walked in during that time, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., then [pay attention] that there are exactly 10 signatures of people saying they received a ballot," he said. "This time frame, when everyone's tired, is the most tempting for falsifications, and all the more so at night when elections are over. So in short, observers shouldn't slumber, shouldn't sleep, they have to be active."

Ivanchenko says observers need to pay particular attention to assure that the number of actual voters remains consistent throughout voting day and the counting that follows. The OSCE has also urged its monitors to be careful in observing when protocols results are entered into computers.

Veshnyakov has promised that results from all polling stations will be posted on the election commission's website within 24 hours.