MOSCOW -- It doesn’t get much more blatant than a group of men and women stuffing a ballot box live on camera.
But that is exactly what happened in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Daghestan thanks to web cameras positioned in polling stations across the country that were streamed online during presidential elections on March 4.
As word spread via a YouTube video
(below) and other social media, the Central Election Commission was forced to annull all results from the polling station in the town of Tarumovka.
The authorities downplayed the incident, calling it an isolated case.
Stanislav Govorukhin, Putin’s campaign manager, called the election the “cleanest in the history of the Russian Federation” and derided the opposition's claims of massive fraud "laughable."
"[Violations are] a mere fraction of 1 percent," Govorukhin said. "In any civilized country, such an election would be considered fair and valid."
But Govorukhin's protestations notwithstanding, videos from different corners of Russia
(below) purported to uncover similar cases of ballot stuffing.
Moreover, local election observers said the most blatant ballot stuffing was just the tip of the iceberg. According to the observers, violations ranged from new and subtler techniques of fraud to tried-and-true methods like “carousel” voting, wherein voters are bused to various polling stations to cast their votes sometimes dozens of times.
'Stone Age Technology'
Lilya Shibanova, head of the independent election monitoring group Golos, cited cases of the heads of major enterprises, who are dependent on the goodwill of the Kremlin, pressuring their employees to vote en masse for Putin.
"There is pressure from bosses of enterprises who have the resources to mobilize their people to vote," Shibanova said.
Golos’s deputy director, Grigory Melkonyants, called ballot stuffing “Stone Age technology.” In remarks reported by AP, he said carousel voters were issued distinctive symbols such as armbands to make it easier for election officials to recognize them and give them ballot papers that otherwise would not be used.
Overall, Golos said it has received over 5,000 complaints of electoral violations. Likewise, the League of Voters, a civic group formed following allegations of mass fraud in the December 4 parliamentary elections, said they have found over 3,000 violations.
The thousands of volunteer citizen election observers posted videos on the Internet throughout the day cataloguing alleged violations.
Sergei Koblov, an election observer in Moscow's Cheryomushki district, told RFE/RL he saw
“a large number of voters brought by bus to our polling station and the neighboring station.”
"When we asked those people where they came from, they refused to give us a clear answer," Koblov said. "Judging by the license plates of the vehicles that brought them, we understand that they came from a region outside Moscow Oblast."
Aleksei Navalny, an opposition leader and prolific anticorruption blogger, said "hundreds" of buses were used in carousel voting at Russia’s 91,000 polling stations. He told the BBC that Putin’s election would be regarded as “illegitimate” by the burgeoning middle class that makes up the backbone of the protest movement, which plans to hold a mass demonstration in downtown Moscow on March 5.
Kremlin critics also alleged that the authorities exerted pressure on election observers.
Oksana Dmitriyeva, a State Duma deputy from the center-left A Just Russia party, wrote on Twitter that her team of observers has documented "numerous cases of observers being expelled from polling stations across St. Petersburg just before the vote count.”
In the Moscow Oblast, pressure on election monitors took on a more menacing form. Gazeta.ru reported that Aleksandr Mavrin, an observer for presidential candidate Sergei Mironov, was told threateningly to leave a polling station before the vote count began. Mavrin was then phoned by his wife who informed him that the door of their house had been set on fire, forcing him to run home. His wife has been taken to the hospital.
Golos head Shibanova said that several of her correspondents were also beaten in the Moscow Oblast.
"There was a conflict with the district election commission, which prohibited observers from moving around the polling station," Shibanova said. "[Golos] correspondents began explaining to the election officials that their demand was illegal, but they were removed from the polling station under the threat of physical violence. They went to the territorial election commission of the town of Zheleznodorozhny, apparently to file a complaint, where a group of plain-clothes people barged in and basically beat our correspondents."