Ballot stuffing. Bribery. Blatant fraud.
Inside the Russian elections
As election fraud allegations spark protests across the
Andrew Bowman reports from Russia on what he
saw on polling day in one fraud hotspot
[A ballot box being emptied at a polling station in
Davlekanovo, Bashkortostan. Photo: Fred Weir]
Galina Ivanovna Kulakova is having a difficult day.
It's 4 December and as citizens across Russia vote in
the Duma elections, the 62 year old Communist Party
secretary for Kumertau, a small town in oil-rich
Bashkortostan in the Southern Urals, is trying to
coordinate her party's local elections monitors.
As they shuffle in and out of the office, dressed
warmly for the deep snow outside, her mobile phone
rings continuously. Complaints of irregularities at the
polling stations are piling up: bribery, ballot
stuffing, and the falsification of data, she tells me,
have already been reported to her today.
During previous legislative elections in 2003 and 2007,
international observers from the Organisation for
Security and Cooperation in Europe described the
electoral process in Bashkortostan as 'blatant fraud'.
This year, Galina says with a sigh, 'evidently there is
more, it has increased'.
How fraud hides
In the metropolitan areas of Western Russia, fraud is
harder to pull off unnoticed. Closer to Moscow the
presence of activists from civil society organisations
and smaller opposition parties is greater, and
irregularities can be rapidly brought to global
attention from smartphone to Youtube through the free
internet in which Russian dissident politics thrives.
Deeper into the provinces, though, the situation is
different. Electoral fraud is commonly at its most
barefaced in the Russian Federation's scattered
Republics. Concerned with reigning in nationalist
sentiment, the Kremlin tends to take a firmer grip on
power in the Republics and during elections uses them
as a means of vote harvesting. In war-torn Chechnya,
for example, the official results this year state that
99.5 per cent of voters backed United Russia, with a
turn-out of 94 per cent.
The task is made easier by the paucity of independent
election observers. Here in Bashkortostan, a
geographical area larger than England with a population
of four million, the OSCE reportedly provided just 10
observers. In towns like Kumertau, 250km from the
capital city of Ufa, monitoring is carried out almost
entirely by volunteers from opposition parties.
Though its effectiveness in the role is questionable at
best, the Communist Party is the main opposition on
both a national and local level, and the only
organisation in the area with the capacity to send
observers to all of the 27 polling stations around the
town. These observers face a difficult task, for while
allegations of fraud are easy to make, they are hard to
Disrupting the process
At a polling station close to the town centre, a
gleaming new government administration office, a
quarrel has been taking place throughout the day. A row
of election officials, the election committee, sit
facing two ballot boxes. Sitting directly opposite
them, five metres from the boxes, are the three
Ms Nazagova, a young and self-assured Communist Party
observer, immediately begins to tell me that she has
witnessed ballot stuffing from voters she believes to
be in the employ of United Russia. She explains that
this has happened with the complicity of the election
committee, who have also forbidden her from using her
camera inside the polling station. Another Communist
Party member, who sits on the election committee,
claims to have been offered bribes to remain silent
about the incidents.
Presently, other committee members and suited men
claiming to be representatives of United Russia gather
around us and begin loudly rebuking the observers for
disrupting the election process, later explaining to me
that they have poor eyesight. If they were to carry out
their observers' role properly, the chairwoman of the
polling station says, they would wait until 8pm, when
voting officially closes, and submit a written
Open intimidation of observers is rare, Galina
explained to me earlier in the day, but those who
create a fuss can still face problems, particularly in
terms of their employment prospects. In Bashkortostan,
as in many other parts of Russia, major employers
strike deals with the ruling party, exchanging the
votes of their employees for favourable treatment.
At the next polling station, observers are unwilling to
talk, refusing to utter a word. The voters are more
forthcoming, however. While it is apparent that many
young people avoid voting altogether though a belief
that the system is too compromised, it is not only
government supporters who go through the process.
One young woman, who declines to be named, explains to
me that she has travelled 130km from the city of
Orenburg, where she is studying, in order to vote
against the government. Clutching a certificate
presented to her by the election committee to
commemorate her first vote, she explains to me that she
wants to vote 'to show that each voice matters', and to
oppose forthcoming education reforms. When we begin to
ask if she has been aware of any irregularities, we are
told it is time to leave.
[A Communist Party observer makes a complaint.
Davlekanovo, Bashkortostan. Photo: Fred Weir]
It is not only the Communist Party activists in
Kumertau who make complaints that day. Other
journalists working in the Republic that day recount
numerous similar incidents. One reporter from the
Moscow Times witnesses a Communist Party observer who
made a complaint being removed for having the wrong
size badge. The reporter was herself ejected from the
polling station on the grounds of disrupting the
Who counts the votes?
To paraphrase a common Russian saying attributed to
Stalin, who is casting the votes matters less than who
is counting them. The most serious, and
hard-to-observe, fraud is carried out at the
Territorial Commissions where the counts from polling
stations are collated before being digitally
transmitted to the Republic's electoral commission in
Ufa. The dividing line between ruling party and state
is blurred, and a common claim from activists is that
compliant local officials manage the counting processes
and produce the right result should the voters not do
The Russian state has tried to maintain close control
of affairs in the Republic of Bashkortostan, which has
been a major centre of oil production since the Soviet
era and today produces over 15 per cent of Russia's
Following the collapse of the USSR, Mutaza Rakhimov
ruled as the elected head of Bashkortostan until 2010.
An ethnic Bashkir, Rakhimov turned it into something of
a personal fiefdom. While resisting the drive towards a
unified legal system for the Russian Federation and
attempting for a while to monopolise control of the
territories' oil, he nonetheless provided Putin with
votes at election time. In the 2007 Duma elections,
United Russia won 82 percent of the vote, and all 35 of
the seats in the Republican parliament in 2009.
Rakhimov's successor is Rustem Khamitov. A former
manager of the energy company RusHydro, Khamitov
follows in a line of technocrats appointed as regional
leaders since powers of nomination were passed to the
Kremlin in another of the Putin era political reforms.
Amid rumors of bureaucratic ruptures caused by the
transition between leaders, delivering a favorable
election result without the controversy of previous
years was to be his first major challenge. He did not
The first ten protocols announced at the Territorial
Commission for Kumertau showed United Russia winning
close to 90 per cent of the vote at each polling
station. In the official results for Bashkiria produced
the following day, United Russia win 70 per cent of the
vote - a startling figure in itself, but more so when
placed alongside the national results. Overall, United
Russia managed to win just under 50 per cent of the
vote nationwide, a fall of nearly 15 per cent from
2007, allowing them to maintain control of the Duma by
only the narrowest of margins as they lose 77 seats.
Doors glued shut
Speaking to Fred Weir from the Christian Science
Monitor, the leader of the Communist Party for
Bashkortostan, Rifgat Gordanov, claimed that exit polls
on the evening of the elections showed United Russia to
have won 46 per cent of the vote in the Republic, with
the Communist Party on 21 per cent. The following
morning the official results put United Russia on 70.6
per cent, and the Communist Party on 15.6 per cent.
Gordanov described the result as 'a complete fraud. Our
observers were everywhere, they saw what was happening
... There were unbelievable violations of the rules'.
As results across the country were produced, a similar
picture began to emerge. Countless accusations of
fraud, intimidation and various other infringements of
the democratic process pour in from opposition party
branches and civil society organisations across Russia.
They range from the sinister to the bizarre.
In some areas, turnout is listed as above 100 per cent
of the voting population. Numerous eyewitnesses report
ballot stuffing, and opposition observers claim to have
been expelled from polling stations. Some claimed to
have had the doors of their homes glued shut.
Alongside several other organisations critical of the
election process, the US-funded election watchdog Golos
reports that its website has crashed following a
distributed denial of service attack. 'The attack was
an attempt to close down our reporting on violations,
because the violations we have shown reflect very
poorly on the people who are in power,' Golos deputy
director Grigory Melkonyants was quoted as saying. The
evening before polling day, their Director Lila
Shibanova, was detained at the airport while police
seized her laptop.
[Counting the votes. Davlekanovo, Bashkortostan. Photo:
On December 5, as fraud allegations begin to be
reported in the international media, the OSCE released
a damning preliminary statement. Noting that 'the
elections were marked by the convergence of the State
and the governing party', they say that the vote count
was 'characterised by frequent procedural violations
and instances of apparent manipulation, including
several serious indications of ballot box stuffing',
alongside curtailment of freedom of assembly and
interference with election monitors.
The three largest exit polls all show United Russia
receiving between 2 and 12 per cent less of the vote
than their final total. Several opposition leaders and
election monitoring NGOs claimed a fair result would
have lowered United Russia's total by 20-25 per cent.
The return of defiance
That evening, several thousand people take to the
streets of Moscow to protest against the fraud,
demanding a re-run of the elections. Many are linked to
the liberal opposition party Yabloko - which failed to
reach the 7 per cent threshold which would have
afforded it representation in the Duma - but the rally
pulls in a range of malcontents ranging from
nationalists to democratic socialists.
Demonstrations in Russia are infrequent, and small. An
intimidating style of policing and the regular use of
mass arrests mean that most dissent in Russia is
channelled through the internet, which remains largely
free from restrictions. Even 500 people coming out in
defiance is considered a major event.
Despite the predictable arbitrary arrests, people come
back out on Tuesday night, and by Saturday 10 December,
an estimated 50,000 people take to the streets of
Moscow, with protests spreading to 50 other towns
around the country.
It has become the largest outbreak of civil unrest
since the constitutional crisis of 1993, when tens of
thousands marched in the capital in defence of
parliament after Boris Yeltsin sought to have it
dissolved by military force. Could the implications be
For Putin it represents the most serious challenge of
his political career. Although the protesters' demands
centre around the election fraud, the energy which
drives them is dissatisfaction with more deep-rooted
problems in Russian society. Continued economic malaise
will mean the Kremlin will not be able to rely on the
apathy induced by rising prosperity to cool the anger.
The cracks in the image of Russian democracy have
become gaping fissures, and although it is too early to
talk of a Russian Spring in the offing, all of a sudden
Putin's re-election looks far less certain than it did
on 3 December.
Andrew Bowman was part of a delegation of journalists
sent by the Moscow based Institute of Globalization and
Social Movements to observe the election process in
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