/ 1 March 2008

Kremlin accused of fixing presidential poll

The Kremlin is planning to falsify the results of Sunday’s presidential election by compelling millions of public-sector workers to vote and by fraudulently boosting the official turnout, the Guardian has been told by independent sources.

Governors, regional officials and even headteachers have been instructed to deliver a landslide majority for Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister, whom President Vladimir Putin has endorsed as his successor.

Officials have been told they need to secure a 68% to 70% turnout in this weekend’s poll, with about 72% voting for Medvedev. Independent analysts believe the real turnout will be much lower, with 25% to 50% of the electorate taking part.

The Kremlin is planning to bridge the gap through widespread fraud, diplomats and other independent sources have told the Guardian. Local election officials are preparing to stuff ballot boxes once polls have closed, they believe, with regional officials giving inflated tallies to Russia’s central election commission.

Additionally, public-sector workers including teachers, students and doctors have been told to vote on Sunday or risk serious consequences. Parents have even been warned that if they fail to turn up their children might suffer at school.

Marina Dashenkova, of the Golos independent poll monitoring organisation, said complaints to its hotline were following a similar pattern to those made during the parliamentary poll in December. Forced use of absentee ballots, pressure on state workers and the illegal use of state resources to promote Medvedev were the most common complaints, she said.

Renat Suleymanov, secretary of the Communist party in Novosibirsk region, said state workers in schools, libraries, nurseries and doctors’ clinics as well as employees of private companies were ”coming under intense pressure” to vote in tightly controlled conditions at their place of work using absentee ballots.

In Vladivostok, Vladimir Bespalov, a member of the local Parliament, said he had acquired a document showing that bureaucrats were told to ensure a 65% turnout and a vote of more than 65% for Medvedev. The document laid out precise figures for certain districts, he said, with some expected to deliver 88% for the Kremlin candidate. ”Clearly, we are talking about instructions to bureaucrats who are expected to deliver a victory for Medvedev that corresponds to pre-planned results,” he said. ”According to my information, if these figures are not reached then the people responsible can expect punishment right up to being sacked.”

In Niznhny Novgorod, there were reports of students being told to vote for Medvedev or face being thrown out of dormitories. Vladimir Primachyok, a campaign official with presidential candidate and Communist veteran Gennady Zyuganov, the chief rival to Medvedev, claimed students in Irkutsk were being forced to vote under the supervision of college officials. ”All of this is a blatant violation of electoral laws,” he said.

The purpose of the falsification is to boost the legitimacy of Medvedev (42) who takes over from Putin in May. Analysts concede that Medvedev would have won the election anyway, but on a much smaller turnout.

”In some places they will put in extra ballots. In other places election officials will give data that just doesn’t exist,” said Mikhail Delyagin, an economist and the director of Moscow’s Institute of Globalisation Problems.

”Everybody knows what to do,” said the political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky. ”The technology has been proved over the past four years. Once the polls close unused ballot papers are taken, filled in for Medvedev of course, and thrown into the box. The boxes are then stamped, and reopened a second later. Then they start to count.”

Asked why the Kremlin elite felt the need to fix the election, Belkovsky said: ”They can’t be Saddam Hussein or the Chinese leadership. The idea is to gain legitimacy in the west.”

One Western diplomat said that the administration was involved in a complicated ”numbers game” designed to ensure that Medvedev won a clear first round victory in Sunday’s vote, but didn’t exceed the 71,3% won by Putin in 2004. There would be little ”systematic overt rigging” during voting, the diplomat said. Instead the figures would be ”massaged” during the accounting and tabulation process, he suggested. ”In a country of this size how do you monitor that?” he asked.

The Kremlin has shrugged off accusations that it manipulated last December’s poll — despite the fact that in several areas, including Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus, 99% of the population ”voted” for Putin’s United Russia party. The turnout in Chechnya was 99,6%. Putin said the result was ”perfectly objective”.

This week the leading Soviet dissident Sergei Kovalev wrote an open letter to Putin, describing Russia’s elections as nothing more than a ”tasteless farce being played out by untalented directors on the entire boundless Russian stage”. ”Not even Stalin could have dreamed of the Chechen record,” he added.

Medvedev is competing against Zyuganov, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Andrey Bogdanov, a Kremlin-supporting independent. The Kremlin prevented Mikhail Kasyanov, the only genuinely democratic challenger, from taking part.

The Communists have repeatedly complained of overwhelming media bias in the run-up to the poll. State TV has lavishly covered Medvedev’s daily activities and his tour of Russia’s far east.

In a televised address on Friday Putin urged Russians to vote. ”The voice of each one of you will be important,” he said, adding that they needed to turn out so that the next president could be ”effective and confident”.

‘I want to vote the way I want’

Schoolteacher, Novosibirsk

”They got us teachers together in the school a couple of weeks ago and told us to take absentee ballots and vote at work. They told us election day will be a working day. A few young teachers asked, ‘What about freedom of expression?’ They were told, ‘If you want freedom, go and look for work in a different place.’

”I have a colleague who works in a different school in the city and she says the same thing happened to them. She took an absentee ballot and showed it to her boss and they ticked her off the list.

”They want people to vote at work because it will be easier for them to control the process there. Since the meeting in our school they have constantly been coming to us and asking if we have taken our absentee ballots. I refused to take one. I’m going to vote in the place where I live. I want to vote the way I want and not how somebody tells me.

”I’ve heard that the same thing is going on in kindergartens all across the city. They’re being told to take absentee ballots and vote in a particular place, all together.

”If they found out I had been talking to you they would sack me.” – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008