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With a portrait of President Vladimir Putin in the background, a woman in Moscow prepares to cast her ballot during early voting in a controversial plebiscite on amendments to the Russian Constitution.

When a Moscow couple turned up to cast their ballots in Russia's nationwide vote on constitutional amendments, they were surprised to learn from election officials that they had already voted.

They hadn't. Yet an election official at Lefortovo voting precinct No. 1403 was showing them that their names, passport information, and signatures were clearly registered in the voting logs indicating they had cast ballots.

The discussion revealed that the couple's daughter and son, who had not yet voted either, were also listed as having cast ballots that would help determine the outcome of a vote that would allow President Vladimir Putin to seek two more terms, potentially keeping him in the Kremlin until 2036.

Whether it was a mistake or a deliberate falsification is unclear. The couple initially was given an apology from the official who showed them the book. But after refusing to accept the apology, and demanding an explanation from a higher-ranking election official who entered the discussion, they were met with defiance.

Tightly holding the closed registration log, the superior asked if they had seen their names in the book. When answered in the affirmative, she said: "Prove it!"

The episode was documented on film, as revealed on Twitter by supporters of anticorruption activist and opposition figure Aleksei Navalny.

The incident has added to scrutiny of the weeklong vote, which has been marked by peculiarities, including it often being cast in the media as a national "referendum" when it is not.

While the vote could be seen as a gauge of popular support for a package of proposed amendments to the Russian Constitution -- including one that would revert the number of terms Putin has served back to zero once his current term ends in 2024, allowing him to run for two more six-year terms -- its passage is not required for the amendments to be adopted.

As it does not meet the requirements for a referendum under federal constitutional law, it has been structured as an "all-Russia vote," drawing criticism from democracy watchdogs at home and abroad.

Power To The Putin: What's In Russia's Constitutional Reforms Package?
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Analysts say Putin hopes the vote will lend legitimacy to the amendment giving him the option of seeking to remain president until 2036 -- a change that opponents say is a travesty. Putin had suggested in the past that he would not alter the constitution to allow for an extension of his rule.

"It is clear, unchanging, and absolutely firm: the updated text of the constitution, all proposed amendments will come into force only with your approval, with your support," Putin said in a televised address to the nation on June 30, on the eve of the last day of voting.

'Open To Falsifications'

Originally slated for April 22, the vote was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and rescheduled for July 1 – but with balloting allowed over a week in what officials said was an effort to avoid crowds at polling stations.

To boost turnout, the government has held raffles and promoted the vote on state-controlled and Kremlin-friendly media. Images of ad hoc voting stations set up in places like a car trunk and park benches have deepened the impression of a bid to get out the vote.

The ballot has also been criticized for only offering voters the option to accept or reject the entire package of amendments in their entirety. And remote, online voting is allowed in Moscow and the Nizhny Novgorod region, another aspect that critics say has laid the vote open to falsifications.

The architects of the system "cannot be trusted to plug the computer into the socket, let alone conduct electronic voting." electoral statistics researcher Sergei Shpilkin, who earlier calculated that Putin may have received up to 10 million fraudulent votes in the 2018 presidential election, wrote in a Facebook post on June 24.

Apparent irregularities and voter turnout figures raised eyebrows early on in the voting process that will finish on July 1.

Kirill Trofimov, a member of the local election commission in Moscow's Ramenki district, wrote on Facebook on June 29 that there had not been vote falsifications the likes of those seen in this vote since Russia's legislative elections in 2011, which the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 were "unfair" and "compromised."

According to Trofimov, the data from polling stations in the district at one point showed that 393 people had voted remotely, whereas only 34 ballots for home voting had been issued.

In another incident that marred the balloting, Russian news outlet Mediazona said that one of its reporters was attacked by a police officer and a vote observer at a polling station in St. Petersburg on June 30, and that his arm was broken by the officer. The incident was captured on video.

That a state-funded opinion polling agency would publish an exit poll in the middle of the vote was also seen by some observers as unorthodox.

On June 29, the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) announced that 76 percent of voters who were surveyed and agreed to reveal which way they voted cast ballots in favor of the amendment package, a figure that was roughly in line with a previous prognosis from VTsIOM.

The release of the exit poll drew criticism from election-monitoring watchdogs such as Golos.

In comments to the AFP news agency, Golos member Vitaly Averin said that the data "can influence the will of voters," and should be seen as part of the government's campaign to promote the vote.

VTsIOM, for its part, said it published the data due to "high demand," and Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov argued that there was nothing wrong with releasing the figures because the vote is not an election involving multiple candidates.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and his family have been tied to an undeclared Moscow apartment in the same building where the head of a group of Chechen terrorists lived and planned the deadly "Nord-Ost" hostage-taking at a Moscow theater in October 2002, an opposition-backed media outlet has reported.

Open Media, an online investigative resource funded by Kremlin foe and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, reported on June 29 that Moscow property records show the Kadyrov family owns a 153-square-meter apartment on Veyernaya Street, in a leafy section of Moscow, with an estimated market value of about 50 million rubles ($713,000).

Movsar Barayev, the leader of a Chechen militant group that seized some 850 hostages at Moscow's Dubrovka theater that was showing a production of the musical Nord-Ost in October 2002, lived in the same building in the days ahead of the attack, using a fake passport with the name Shamil Akhmatkhanov. All 40 of the attackers and around 200 of the hostages were killed when federal forces pumped a chemical anesthetic into the building and stormed it.

In addition, Ruslan Geremeyev, who is a suspected organizer of the 2015 killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, stayed in two other buildings that are part of the same complex. According to a statement by Nemtsov family lawyer Olga Mikhailova in 2016, when she asked a court to summon Geremeyev to testify in the trial of the five defendants who were ultimately convicted in his killing, "It was precisely in these apartments that the defendants regularly met, where they lived temporarily, contacted one another, planned, and carried out Nemtsov's murder."

One of the apartments was purchased by Geremeyev's relative, Artur Geremeyev, just two months before Nemtsov's killing.

Geremeyev was a unit commander in the Russian Interior Ministry's Chechnya-based Sever (North) battalion. He is a nephew of Suleiman Geremeyev, who represents the executive branch of Chechnya's government in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian legislature. He is also related to State Duma Deputy Adam Delimkhanov of the ruling United Russia party, who has been named by Kadyrov as his possible successor.

During the investigation into Nemtsov's slaying, Zaur Dadayev, who was later convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, reportedly confessed that a man identified as "Ruslik" paid him 5 million rubles and provided a car and a gun. Investigators have said they believe "Ruslik" was Ruslan Geremeyev, who commanded the Sever unit in which Dadayev served. Geremeyev disappeared and is believed to be in hiding in the United Arab Emirates or in Turkey. Dadayev later retracted his confession and said it was made under duress.

In an April 2015 report, the newspaper Kommersant cited unnamed investigators as saying Nemtsov's killers may have hid out in the apartment on Veyernaya Street immediately after the murder.

All three of the Moscow apartment buildings that figure in the Open Media investigation are part of a complex that was controlled by the Russian presidential administration.

In the early 2000s, the administration of President Vladimir Putin distributed apartments in the complex to politicians, officials, and military officers. In June 2000, one apartment was given to Kadyrov's father, Akhmed Kadyrov, a former Chechen rebel and mufti who was named by Putin to head the restive North Caucasus republic. Kadyrov and his family privatized the apartment in January 2002 and the entire family, including Ramzan, was officially registered there.

Akhmed Kadyrov was assassinated in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, in 2004, but the Kadyrov family retained the apartment. Nonetheless, the property never appeared in Ramzan Kadyrov's property declarations even after he became head of Chechnya in 2007. In 2010, the apartment was reregistered as the property of Kadyrov's mother, Aimani.

Kadyrov has long been accused of human rights abuses, including torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. Many of his political rivals and critics, including investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Nemtsov, have been killed and many believe that either Kadyrov himself or Russian security agencies were involved.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service

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