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Communist Party candidate Andrei Ishchenko speaks to supporters during a rally in Vladivostok on September 17.

Less than a week before the gubernatorial runoff in Russia's Far East Primorye region, President Vladimir Putin met with the Kremlin-backed candidate, who had failed to secure the required majority to defeat his Communist Party runner-up outright in the first round.

"I know you have a runoff coming up," Putin told Andrei Tarasenko -- the candidate with the ruling United Russia party whom he appointed acting governor last year -- during the September 11 meeting in Vladivostok. "I think everything will be alright."

Things were not looking good for Tarasenko, who trailed Communist Party challenger Andrei Ishchenko for most of the day as votes were counted in the September 16 second-round ballot.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Ishchenko's seemingly assured victory: A last-second surge of votes tallied for Tarasenko pushed the acting governor ahead toward what one election analyst called a "mathematically impossible" victory, thanks to what Ishchenko denounced as blatant fraud.

"My friends, they are stealing our votes. We will defend our victory now!" Ishchenko wrote on his Facebook page.

Supporters of Ishchenko, who declared a hunger strike in response to the results, rallied in protest outside the regional administration's headquarters in Vladivostok, holding banners denouncing election officials as "scam artists" and reading "Ishchenko is our governor."

Acting Primorye Governor Andrei Tarasenko during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok on September 11.
Acting Primorye Governor Andrei Tarasenko during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok on September 11.

The Vladivostok headquarters of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny called on people to join the protests.

Here's what you need to know about one of the strangest Russian elections in recent years.

What Happened?

With 95 percent of the voting precincts having reported on September 16, Ishchenko was leading with 51.61 percent of the votes, compared to 45.79 for Tarasenko, whose appointment by Putin in October 2017 came amid what the Kremlin has portrayed as an effort to inject fresh administrative blood into Russia's regions.

But as more precincts began reporting, Tarasenko began closing in on Ishchenko, who represents the Communist Party in the regional parliament. With 98.77 percent of voting precincts reporting, Ishchenko had 49.91 percent of the votes compared to 47.61 for Tarasenko.

By the time 99.1 percent of precincts had reported, official tallies showed the acting governor ahead of his challenger by a total of 7,644 votes.

A broadsheet with information about gubernatorial candidates Andrei Ischenko (left) and Andrei Tarasenko at a polling station in Vladivostok.
A broadsheet with information about gubernatorial candidates Andrei Ischenko (left) and Andrei Tarasenko at a polling station in Vladivostok.

Aleksandr Kireyev, a Russian electoral geography expert, wrote on his blog that Tarasenko's comeback after trailing by nearly 6 percentage points with 95 percent of precincts reporting was "mathematically impossible."

"I had a solid lead of 5 percent, but in the morning the magic of numbers spelled defeat for me," Ishchenko wrote on Facebook.

His fellow regional Communist lawmaker, Artyom Samsonov, alleged that Ishchenko had been robbed of more than 20,000 votes in the city of Ussuriisk, where official results showed Tarasenko defeating Ishchenko 74.27 percent to 24.42 percent.

Two precincts in Ussuriisk reported that Ishchenko received zero votes compared to 540 and 112, respectively, for the acting governor, according to results posted by the regional election commission.

The situation in the region is "very important for Russia," Boris Nadezhdin, a liberal former federal lawmaker, wrote on Facebook.

"Falsifications have happened before, but for the first time falsifications truly changed the outcome of a gubernatorial election; [and] the scope and audacity of the falsifiers is unprecedented," Nadezhdin wrote.

What Is United Russia Saying?

Tarasenko's election headquarters, meanwhile, is accusing the Communists of illegally buying votes for Ishchenko, who finished in second place in first-round voting with 24.6 percent compared to 46.6 percent for Tarasenko.

"Primorye region has seen a direct falsification attempt through vote buying," Igor Khrushchyov, a top United Russia official in the region, told Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

Khrushchyov alleged that Tarasenko's campaign has audio, photographic, and video evidence to support the allegations.

The official website of United Russia had made no mention of the dispute surrounding the runoff vote as of midday on September 17.

What Are Election Officials Saying?

Russian Central Election Commission (TsIK) chief Ella Pamfilova, a former human rights ombudswoman whom Kremlin opponents accuse of lending a veneer of legitimacy to an electoral system they call rigged, said on September 17 that her commission would "thoroughly deal with everything" before announcing the final results of the election.

"I think everything will be alright," Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) told Tarasenko in Vladivostok on September 11.
"I think everything will be alright," Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) told Tarasenko in Vladivostok on September 11.

She said her commission would "eagerly await" any possible evidence that "voting reports were rewritten or there were some kind of violations in the final stage while tabulating the results."

"Whether we'll recognize the results or not -- either overall or from particular precincts -- or punish someone or declare someone the winner, that is an open question until all facts are thoroughly studied by us," Pamfilova was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying.

What Is The Kremlin Saying?

The Kremlin took a largely neutral stance on September 17 -- publicly at least.

"Right now, one should look primarily to all of the announcements made by the TsIK," Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.

He claimed that while there were "statements, there is not yet a single official complaint."

Peskov declined to comment on Ishchenko's allegation that he was robbed of victory in the election, Russia's state-run TASS news agency reported.

What Impact Could The Election Have?

The September 16 ballot was one of four gubernatorial runoffs following nationwide elections in Russia earlier this month that were the first electoral test for Putin's government since it launched its unpopular plan to raise the retirement age.

Aleksandr Kynev, a political scientist at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, told the Russian-language news outlet Meduza that Ishchenko's performance in the Primorye region election would "undoubtedly" affect the September 23 gubernatorial runoffs in the Far Eastern Khabarovsk region, the Siberian region of Khakasia, and the central Vladimir region.

Incumbents from United Russia are facing challengers in all three regions.

"It's a very strong psychological effect -- that there are actual elections," Kynev said to Meduza when results still showed Ishchenko winning. "It will increase turnout. The effect of solidarity and, if you will, political fashion will have a very strong influence."

After results showed Tarasenko moving ahead of his challenger, Meduza asked Kynev if he had ever seen anything like it in Russian politics.

Kynev said that while there were analogous situations in mayoral ballots, "in gubernatorial elections, there's never been anything like this."

Activist Pyotr Verzilov arrives on a special medical transport plane at Schoenefeld airport in Berlin on September 15.

Russian activist Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot and the dissident art troupe Voina, is doing better since he arrived in Berlin for treatment following a suspected poisoning, friends say.

Before his arrival in the German capital late on September 15 on a medical flight from Moscow, family members said Verzilov's sight, speech and mobility were impaired.

Pyotr Verzilov
Pyotr Verzilov

​"He's better," Veronika Nikulshina, a Pussy Riot member and Verzilov’s partner, told the Reuters news agency from the activist’s room at the Charite clinic in Berlin on September 16.

"Everything is OK," Nikulshina said, but she did not provide details about his condition.

"The doctors here are great," she added.

Reuters quoted Jaka Bizilj, the managing director of the Berlin-based Cinema for Peace human rights group, as saying clinic officials will on September 17 update the public on the condition of Verzilov.

​Bizilj said his group had paid for Verzilov’s flight to Berlin and that Russia had been "cooperative."

He also said that the 30-year-old had fallen ill on September 11 after attending a court hearing in the Russian capital. He later suffered seizures while traveling to a Moscow hospital in an ambulance, he added.

The Bild newspaper paper said Verzilov's former wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, was waiting for Verzilov at Berlin’s Schoenefeld Airport when he arrived.

“I believe that he was poisoned intentionally, and that it was an attempt to intimidate him or kill him," the paper quoted her as saying.

Footage posted by Tolokonnikova showed Verzilov sitting up in the plane on the tarmac in Berlin. He appeared to be alert.

​Nikulshina told the BBC that a friend of Verzilov's father would treat him in the Berlin facility.

Verzilov has both Russian and Canadian citizenship.

Canada’s government said it was monitoring the situation and that it was "concerned” by Verzilov’s situation.

"Our officials have been in contact with Mr. Verzilov's family, and stand ready to provide further consular assistance," a spokesperson said.

The German Foreign Ministry said it could not comment, citing privacy laws.

Verzilov, a co-founder of the Mediazona website, which reports on the trials of Russian activists, was being treated in the toxicology section of Moscow's Bakhrushin City Clinical Hospital before his transfer.

Earlier this year, Verzilov was sentenced along with other Pussy Riot members to 15 days in jail for briefly interrupting the July 15 World Cup final in Moscow between France and Croatia by running onto the field wearing fake police uniforms.

Verzilov became known as a member of the Voina (War) art troupe in the late 2000s.

He performed with then-wife Tolokonnikova, who went on to form punk protest band Pussy Riot with Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova founded Mediazona in 2014, with Verzilov becoming publisher.

Kremlin critics accuse the Russian authorities of poisoning several journalists, Kremlin foes, and others who have died or fallen mysteriously ill since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.

Verzilov's sudden illness came against the backdrop of outrage over what British authorities say was the poisoning by Russian military intelligence officers of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent in England in March, and the death of a woman police say was exposed to the substance after the alleged attackers discarded it.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Reuters, Bild, and Meduza

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