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 prove.
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 election observers.
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 complaint.
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 electoral process.
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 so.
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 petroleum.
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 fail.
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: Fred Weir
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 similarly momentous?
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 Bashkortostan