SARANSK, Russia -- During Russian regional elections earlier this month, pro-Kremlin candidates handily won all 15 of the gubernatorial elections that were held. In the western region of Mordovia, incumbent Governor Vladimir Volkov was among them, taking 89 percent of the vote according to official results.
Local lawmaker Valentina Zaitseva, of the Communist Party, says she knows a key ingredient in Volkov's recipe for success -- election fraud.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, Zaitseva described what she and her assistant, Vadim Piksaikin, saw on election day when they were monitoring voting at polling station No. 527 in the Mordovian capital of Saransk.
"As soon as I arrived at the polling station, I noticed a bus and a rather large crowd of people out in front," she said. After going inside the polling station and speaking briefly with Communist Party monitors there, Zaitseva left the building and noticed that the bus and the people were still there.
"I sat down on a bench not far from them and noticed that they weren't the same people [that I'd seen before]," she said. "I tried to speak to them, but no one would say anything. Then I noticed the group started to move, so I decided to go with them."
Zaitseva said the group entered the building through an unmarked side entrance and went to a room on the second floor.
"I went into the room with them," Zaitseva said. "There were three women sitting there. One of them was Natalya Bogachyova, head of polling station No. 527. Later I found out that she was a librarian [at the school where the polling station was set up]. The second woman was Tatyana Chalykina, a member of the polling-station committee representing Governor Vladimir Volkov. She works in the Saransk city administration. I don't recall the name of the third woman, but she was also a member of the polling-station committee."
Bogachyova's mobile phone was turned off and could not be reached for comment. The number provided by election officials for Chalykina "does not exist."
According to Zaitseva's account, Bogachyova took a stack of ballots out of a cupboard and Chalykina distributed them to the group. After they filled them out, the third woman made sure they were all marked for Volkov.
Bogachyova then issued oral instructions to the group, Zaitseva alleged, telling them to go down to the polling station and that a particular member of the staff would help them get their ballots into the sealed ballot boxes. Zaitseva said she and Piksaikin were both given an additional pile of some 50 ballots, all marked for Volkov.
"Everyone hid their ballots and moved toward the exit," she said. "At that moment, I loudly announced that an election-law violation was taking place. Everyone froze and I told them to sit down. A few people actually did for about a minute. But after the shock passed, I saw Chalykina telephone someone. She said that the Communist Zaitseva had caught them. This means that they had some sort of falsification headquarters."
After a few more seconds, someone managed to open the door and everyone fled. Zaitseva went down to the polling station and returned with police officers. Searching the room together, they found 68 ballots all filled out for Volkov. In the face of such evidence and in the presence of Zaitseva, a member of the Mordovia legislature, election officials had no choice but to dismiss Bogachyova and annul the voting results from the polling station.
The official statement from prosecutors, however, said "during the course of a polling-station inspection on September 10, 2017, authorities established that unknown persons carried out the falsification of election documents...."
According to a new law adopted for this election, any election official involved in repeat voting or allowing people to cast ballots for other voters can be punished by a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($8,700) or imprisonment up to four years.
Law enforcement officials refused to respond to an RFE/RL enquiry asking whether anyone has been charged in connection with Zaitseva's allegations.
Moscow political scientist Konstantin Kalachev told RFE/RL that Mordovia is a "zone of electoral anomalies" and that the landslide result for Volkov could cause him problems during the presidential election scheduled for March 2018.
"What kind of result is [President Vladimir] Putin supposed to get if the governor gets 89 percent?" he asked. "That means that Putin will have to poll nearly 100 percent and the turnout will have to be nearly 100 percent. Maybe some people will think that result is a sign of hard work, but for residents of other regions and of the two capitals [Moscow and St. Petersburg], it will be evidence discrediting the election."