MOSCOW -- Russia's political opposition dispatched a small army of volunteer election observers to keep lookout for voter fraud in Kostroma Oblast, where, having been barred from the ballot everywhere else in the country, the opposition was vying for a small victory in regional elections on September 13.
Russian officials quickly touted the Kostroma voting and thousands of other contests across the country as models of "clean elections."
By 11 p.m. on election night, however, independent election-monitoring NGO Golos had clocked 1,736 allegations of election violations, compared to 901 on Russia's nationwide voting day in 2014 and 747 in 2013.
The opposition's version of events differed sharply from the official version in Kostroma, 350 kilometers northeast of Moscow, where the opposition party Parnas was vying for seats in the regional legislature with activist Ilya Yashin atop its candidate list.
Voting had barely begun in the depressed province when allegations of violations began rolling in from observers like Anastasia Zotova, who posted incriminating photographs on Facebook and noted: "We found filled-out ballot papers in booths at polling station 139 for the head of Kostroma municipal region."
There were several allegations of "carousel" or "cruise" voting, in which voters are shuttled around to cast ballots at multiple polling stations.
Activist Leonid Volkov, a close ally of anticorruption blogger and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, used Twitter to instruct activists to keep their eyes peeled for specific buses and cars thought to be carting people around between polling stations, even providing license-plate numbers: "Cruise voting in Volgorechensk and Krasny-on-Don...is being carried out using cars н966рв44 м870ке44 н508мс44.
Maksim Motin, a municipal politician in Moscow's Pechatniki district and Putin critic who was volunteering as an election observer in Kostroma, appeared to have sighted a possible "cruise" bus: "What do you think, why is there a bus with people in it traveling to what is now already a third [polling station]?"
Roman Rubanov, the director of Navalny's anticorruption foundation, also claimed evidence of multiple voting: "Cruise voting is continuing at polling station 57 in Volgorechensk: voters are being transported en masse with [special] voting documents..."
Election monitors for the RosVybory group http://rosvybory.org/ were among those who complained of allegedly widespread abuse of special absentee documents intended to legally allow voters to cast a ballot at a polling station other than where they are resident: "Polling station 217. Organized groups of five people with [absentee] voting docs are regularly appearing, voting, leaving."
'Does This Need Comment?'
The possibility of foul play involving home voting -- which is designed to allow the disabled or infirm to cast ballots without leaving their homes -- came in for particular scrutiny from activists like Volkov, who was highly suspicious of a tall, remarkably orderly stack of supposed home-vote ballots brought to a polling station: "Polling station 467, the urn has returned from home voting. Does this need commenting?"
Mikhail Konyev, head of the Parnas youth wing, wrote: "In sadly famous polling station 175, the chairman is refusing to show the register for home voting and has run off to their office."
Later, Konyev tweeted, "We've got hold of the polling station 175 register, which contains many violations."
Volkov also weighed in: "At polling station 175 (Kostroma) 200 voters (!) voted from home, without being registered. All the provocateurs who ruined our stump meetings have now arrived there."
There were also suspicions of a more traditional type of fraud: vote-buying.
Konyev tweeted: "Polling station 191 -- a voter has been caught voting for money. He says A Just Russia offered 200 rubles for a vote."
Open Russia Shut Down
By late afternoon, things got weird -- and not all the antics involved voting.
Election monitors from exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia foundation wrote on Twitter that their headquarters in Kostroma had been attacked -- apparently by a man with a gun.
Maria Baronova, a journalist and opposition figure who was working as an election observer for Open Elections, tweeted, "At just the moment when Katya and I were going outside...a guy with a gun burst in."
Another election monitor with Baronova wrote from behind security grates inside the headquarters, looking out onto the street at the man who apparently was wielding the weapon: "These are the people stationed outside. The one in the cap broke in."
Soon, police arrived on the scene. But Parnas suggested they were not there to help. The party wrote on Twitter: "Provocation from the Kostroma police. They have blockaded the Open Russia headquarters coordinating election observers."
Activists on the ground such as Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina wrote on Twitter that police at the scene said they had been informed of a murder on the premises and were looking for the body: "They've broken the door to the election observers headquarters. They're searching for a corpse."
Police later said that they rushed to the scene because of a "conflict between citizens," but Yashin said the incident was a stunt to stymie Open Russia's monitoring activities. "The police have blocked the Open Russia HQ. The goal is obvious: to stop election monitoring because of the falsifications being prepared," he tweeted.
Volkov wrote furiously: "The police have been scratching their heads for two hours already at Open Russia. There's no dead body, but they've already said there is one on TV. And the TV doesn't lie..."
'What Are They So Scared Of?'
After voting had ended and the furor over Open Russia had died down, election monitors like Ksenia Chapkevich said on Twitter that they were not being allowed to monitor the count: "Polling station 198 -- they've cordoned the place off, I'm not being allowed to get near, they've started work on voter lists without my signature."
Preliminary results from election officials soon pointed to a defeat for Parnas, saying the party secured less than 2 percent of the vote -- considerably shy of the 5 percent needed to win just one seat in the regional legislative assembly.
As the preliminary results began to roll in, Yashin remarked that they showed the efficacy of crass spoiler and "mirror" parties. One fake political party was registered as "Parzas" to run in the elections in what the opposition said was a clear attempt to confuse voters and divert the vote from Parnas.
"It's surprising, but spoiler technologies against us really do work. For example, polling station 208. Parnas got 30 votes, ParZas -- 16.
The opposition's detractors, such Konstantin Rykov, a pro-Putin politician prolific on Twitter, were delighted with the opposition's defeat in Kostroma and ridiculed the small opposition vote haul: "The members of Kostroma's Election Commission are counting the votes for RPR-Parnas..."
Pondering a perennial question, journalist Tikhon Dzyadko wondered why the authorities seem to feel the need to deploy so many dirty tricks against the opposition, if indeed the opposition is so weak.
"You can't beat this logic: you have no support, but we will set the police, provocateurs, and falsifiers upon you, and we'll bring along Anti-Maidan," he said on Twitter.