Future generations of Russians may hear their elders say “I was an election monitor in 2011.” It will be an exaggeration for most of them – the small army of citizen election monitors represent only a fraction of Russia’s 139 million people. But after a vote where Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party was caught seemingly rigging the votes in its favor, election monitors are now seen as the thing to be.
Some of the vote counters came out on their own, armed with cellphones to record potential violations. Others showed up at the behest of the election monitoring organization GOLOS (in Russian, ‘vote’ or ‘voice’) or fair elections projects such as Grazhdanin Nabludatel (‘Citizen Observer’). But collectively, they were supporting an idea, first put forth by Russian political analyst Dmitri Oreshkin, that tracking a small percentage of polling stations would yield a statistically valid sample of the vote to contrast with the Kremlin’s official count. The hope was to shame United Russia into keeping the vote counts close to reality.
Listen to Moscow protesters chanting “Russia without Putin!” and “Freedom!”
United Russia puffs up the vote
Instead, citizen vote monitors reported countless examples of United Russia shamefully inflating its votes. United Russia claimed nearly 50 percent of the return, but Grazhdanin Nabludatel estimates it got 29 percent of the vote in Moscow and slightly more than 31 percent outside the city. Hence the cries in the street of “Putin is a thief!”
One outraged observer is Dmitri Surnin, an editor with the Moscow weekly My Rayon Moskva. Surnin volunteered as an election observer at polling station 1701, in southeast Moscow. He says he wanted to watch the process and perhaps write about it.
At first, Surnin was impressed. “I was there until the end of the vote count. If there was any ballot stuffing, it was minimal,” he says. Surnin’s station results, signed and sealed that night by electoral commission representatives on hand, showed that for this polling station, the Communist party, which had only 11 percent of the seats in the Duma before the elections, finished ahead of Putin’s United Russia.
But the next morning, when Surnin checked the official election commission website, he was shocked. According to official results, United Russia held a commanding majority at polling booth 1701, with 50 percent of the votes, most taken from A Just Russia and the liberal Yabloko. The Communists were second, and had gained 10 votes.
A furious Surnin posted to his Facebook account offering to tell his story to any interested media outlet. He vowed that “Every resident in every one of those buildings will know who stole their vote. They’ll know their names and their telephone numbers. And if they toss our newspaper out of the mailbox, I’ll print out my own fliers and give them out by hand….That’s the least I can do.”
Surnin told me his and other stories of election fraud have mobilized many Russians. “You know, most of my friends used to laugh at me for wasting my time following politics. But after reading my (Facebook) post, they say they all want to be election monitors for the presidential race in March.”
The Young and the Protests
This past Saturday, Bolotnaya Square near the Kremlin was packed — officially, 25,000 people came, but 50,000 people seems a conservative estimate – for a rally demanding new elections. It was a joyful day, not least because the police and the nationalists were both on their best behavior.
While there, I ran into Alexander Malakhov, 21, and Arteom Sladkov, 20, law students at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
“Nobody paid us to come. We’re not with any party or organization, and we’re not on the CIA payroll,” they announced, when I asked what had brought them here.
Neither had been to a rally before. Both served as election monitors on December 4th. “You grow up hearing you live in a democracy, where they talk about rule of law. I guess you could say we went to see it in practice,” said Malakhov.
His election monitoring experience left him deeply angry. “I kept pointing out violations, but it was me against 12 people. They just ignored me.”
“It’s the same old ladies working together every time,” added Sladkov. “Everyone knows each other. They’ll never turn each other in. I guess I just kind of boiled over after that. That’s why I’m here.”
It’s also why they plan to monitor the presidential vote – only next time, they say they’ll bring their friends along.
The good old days give way to PR stunts
Sladkov had come to Moscow four years ago from Novorossisyk, a cement producing port town in southern Russia. Growing up in the 1990’s he experienced the economic chaos of the Yeltsin years. Putin seemed a salve. “I wouldn’t say I was a fanatic, but I liked Putin,” he says. “The results were obvious: pensions started getting paid, salaries went up…”
As a student in Moscow, with better Internet access, he came to feel differently. He says if Yeltsin or some other leader had benefited from the high oil prices common during Putin’s reign, they would be popular too.
But what about Putin’s PR stunts?, I ask. “The hunting tigers? The deep sea diving? Barechested riding on horses?”
“We all just laugh at that stuff,” he said. “You know, I bet in 10 years, if you even mention United Russia to someone on the street, you’ll get it in the face.”
Llila Ivanovna, a pensioner lingering nearby, leaned in to announce she’d been protesting back when there were 200 people and fewer. “Where were you five years ago?,” she asked. “Maybe all this nonsense wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
“We were just kids,” said Sladkov.
And they’re here now.