At a recent meeting of polling station heads in a Moscow suburb, a woman who has been identified as a local administration official is heard explaining how the upcoming elections for the State Duma should be conducted.
"The most important thing is to be cold-blooded and calm," the woman says, according to the leaked audio recording published by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta on September 3.
In the explosive recording, the woman -- provisionally identified to the newspaper by several independent sources as Korolyov municipal administration adviser Zhanna Prokopyeva -- offers the election workers concrete instructions on how to falsify the voting results to secure a victory for "a certain party," a clear reference to the ruling United Russia party.
"We are interested in seeing a certain figure and a certain party -- 42 to 45 percent on the party-list voting," she told the meeting. She also instructed the poll workers to provide regular data on voter turnout not only to the regional election commission, but also directly to United Russia.
And she also ordered them to back United Russia’s candidate for the Duma, as well as for the Moscow regional legislature in their races in the suburb’s single-mandate district, saying the percentage they won was not important as long as they beat all rivals.
Russians go to the polls on September 17-19 to vote for a new State Duma, the lower house of parliament. Many regions and cities are also holding local elections.
The vote comes at a time when United Russia, which has controlled all levels of legislative and executive power across Russia for most of the 20-year rule of President Vladimir Putin, is polling at record-low levels of support of around 25 percent.
Run-Up To The Election
The government has cracked down hard on what appears to be the biggest threat to Putin’s Kremlin: opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. After poisoning him last year, authorities then imprisoned him, forced his regional offices and other organizations to shut down, and barred many of the most prominent opposition figures from running for the Duma.
In the audio obtained by Novaya Gazeta, the woman at the Korolyov election meeting can be heard passing on a request from Mayor Aleksandr Khodyrev that "everything goes off perfectly -- clean, without comments, without statements, without complaints, without violations of election law."
Nonetheless, the woman said the necessary result for United Russia would be achieved both through at-home voting, which would account for 20 percent of the total turnout, and the use of duplicate voter lists -- "one for the voters" to sign and "another for election monitors."
Although she didn't say so directly, the implication seemed to be that the voter list for election monitors would have been filled out in advance with sufficient turnout to ensure the 42-45 percent result.
"The list that will be submitted will turn out to be rather long, 45 percent," she is heard saying. "I'd advise you to start preparing it immediately after you get the voter list." She then promises the officials that they will get the voter lists for their polling station at least 10 days ahead of the voting.
Voter List Inspections
Another way that Russian authorities have sought to restrict outside scrutiny of the pre-election campaign is designating independent nongovernmental organizations, and media outlets, as “foreign agents”-- a label with ominous Soviet-era associations.
Among those recently designated: Golos, a well-known election monitoring organization that has documented fraud and voting manipulation in past polls.
In the leaked audio from Korolyov, the woman can be heard stressing that it "is impossible to allow" the voter lists to be examined by anyone during the voting.
"That is nonsense," she said, instructing officials to cite election law or anti-pandemic restrictions to block observers from examining the documents.
"At 8 p.m. on September 19, after the last voter leaves, you begin to work," she said. "Someone cancels the unused ballots, and those who are sitting with the lists start working with the lists. And you stay with them until the moment they are switched. You sit as long as necessary."
The Korolyov city administration has not commented on the audio, which Novaya Gazeta said it forwarded to the country’s top election official, Ella Pamfilova, for investigation.
Prokopyeva has a colorful electoral history in Korolyov. She served as chairwoman of the city's election commission during the 2016 Duma elections.
But she resigned in January 2017 amid numerous official complaints about the conduct of the elections in the city. Pamfilova publicly criticized the Korolyov voting several times.
However, Prokopyeva later returned as an adviser to the mayor and continues to oversee elections in the city.
A Telegram Chat
During local elections in September 2019, a user named "Zhanna Prokopyeva" hosted a closed channel on the Telegram messaging app in which Korolyov election officials discussed falsifying the city council races.
She was called before the Moscow regional election commission in 2019 following publication of the allegations, including charges that the packets of documents photographed at local polling stations by election monitors were markedly different from the documents on file at the municipal election commission.
The commission took no public action on the allegations; Prokopyeva did not appear to have been punished or reprimanded.
Under Putin, elections have been regularly criticized as noncompetitive by international observers.
This year's elections will not be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe "due to limitations imposed by Russian Federation authorities," according to a statement by the Vienna-based organization.