Accessibility links

Breaking News

A Blow To Fair Elections: Russian Police Stand Idly By As Election Observer Is Sucker Punched

Election Observer Sucker Punched In St. Petersburg
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:03:16 0:00

WATCH: Election Observer Sucker Punched In St. Petersburg

Based on the reaction of police and election officials inside St. Petersburg polling station 1619, the event that unfolded before them on election day last week was nothing out of the ordinary.

Vasily Dyachenko, a 30-year-old election observer, was monitoring the polling on September 8 and had been trying for an hour to get the officials managing the process to address what he believed were deficiencies with the voter-registration book.

When they balked, he filed a formal complaint.

Not long after, Dyachenko was standing in the precinct hall, looking down at his phone, as he typed a message to other observers about how to proceed.

That was when he was punched in the stomach by a man -- in full view of two police officers who were providing security for the vote.

The incident, which was caught on a surveillance camera in the voting hall, has generated outrage among Russians who are increasingly cynical about how elections are carried out -- from the presidency down to the local level.

And it's not just the attack on Dyachenko that has touched a nerve, but the fact that police present in the polling station did nothing in response.

The September 8 vote in St. Petersburg was one of dozens held around the country, for regional governors and administrative heads and for local legislatures. They were already shaping up to be tougher than usual for the Kremlin, which is increasingly worried by economic stagnation that has sapped support for the ruling United Russia party and President Vladimir Putin as well.

In Moscow, election officials blocked independent, liberal candidates from running for the Moscow city council, prompting the opposition to organize near weekly protests -- some of which saw hundreds of people arrested, at times violently.

In St. Petersburg, the city's governor, Aleksandr Beglov, who is close to Putin, potentially faced a second-round vote, something the Kremlin wanted to avoid. He went on to win enough votes to avoid a runoff.

'Merry-Go-Round' Voting

As Dyachenko observed the vote at the polling station around 2:25 p.m., dozens of people arrived at the same time to cast ballots, he said in an interview with Current Time. He said he noticed election officials had been writing in their names on unnumbered pages in the back of the voting-registration book.

It had the markings of a well-known Russian voting scheme that involves busing groups of people from polling station to polling station to cast ballots for the government's candidates -- known colloquially as "merry-go-round voting."

Dyachenko demanded the head of the polling station put "a few numbers on the page corners of the voter list," Observers of St. Petersburg, an election monitoring group, said in a post on social media. "Instead of doing that, unidentified muscular guys, who were constantly present in the voting station, began putting pressure on Dyachenko."

In the surveillance video, Dyachenko lets out a yell as he hunches over from the punch, then stumbles forward 10 steps.

The assailant left the scene. Commission officials later described him as another observer, like Dyachenko.

Inside the room, the response to the punch was as strange as the sucker punch itself.

Three polling officials sitting just a few meters away merely turned their heads to watch Dyachenko lurch forward as he tried to catch his breath. Another appeared to continue registering a voter.

One of the two police officers stationed nearby stood up from her seat; the other did not. Neither officer offered help nor chased the assailant.

In a video shot on his phone shortly after the incident, Dyachenko asked the two officers to do something. Neither answers his questions, and they appear to turn away in silence.

The local election commission's chairwoman, Irina Yanikovskaya, later told a Kremlin-loyal website that "there was no fight" and that Dyachenko behaved "unacceptably." The news outlet also warned readers that the opposition was spreading fake videos.

Beglov won 68 percent of the vote at polling station 1619, a noticeably lower percentage than he received at the nearest two polling stations, where there were no representatives from Observers of St. Petersburg.

The attack on Dyachenko was the second on an observer at that same station that day, according to Observers of St. Petersburg. Another man was punched several times in the face as he walked to the station in the morning, leaving him with bruises. The assailants ran away.

Dyachenko told RFE/RL that he will wait to pass judgment on the attack based on how the police and courts handle the situation. He said he planned to file a criminal complaint.

He also said the attack will not stop him from being an observer again.

"Of course, I will take part," he said. "Fair elections are a very important thing for the future of our country, my homeland."

With reporting by Current Time
  • 16x9 Image

    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.