Until a few months ago, I didn't consider myself to be particularly "political" - I had a comfortable life and plenty to do looking after three children. But like most of the 28,000 independent election observers that turned out during Russia's presidential election on March 4, I was spurred into action by the popular protests that began in the freezing cold to protest against the blatant vote-rigging during the Duma elections in December.
I don't have any particular party affiliation, although I admire Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the Yabloko opposition party, who was barred from running for president on a technicality. I simply wanted to see for myself how Russia's elections are run. And if my experience is anything to go by - pretty chaotically and fundamentally flawed is the answer.
It is easy to sign up with one of the many grassroots organisation that train observers and get a mandate from one of the presidential candidates to go through the training. I was actually accredited by Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov's camp and received a checklist of potential violations that range from voting procedure abuses to how the ballots are counted. I did not expect to see any violations - I thought the whole process would go smoothly. After all, the polling station was only my local library a couple of blocks away.
My instruction manual told me to be there by 7:30 am, as voting was due to begin at 8:00 am. Shortly after my arrival, before any members of the election committee had arrived, two men came through the front door carrying three shopping bags from a budget supermarket chain. The bags looked very full. "These must be lunches for the committee members," I thought, only later to discover the bags were stuffed full of the official ballots waiting to be cast.
The men dumped the bags on the floor, under the secretary's desk in the middle of the public room that was going to be used for voting. Later on after voting started, I told the head of the library's voting committee to put the ballots in the safe. "Don't worry," he replied. "There is a policeman to keep an eye on them." Eventually, he compromised and moved the bags of ballots from under the secretary's desk to the floor in the corner of the room behind the secretary's desk. No one bothered to count the ballots after they arrived to check how many votes could be cast at this station.
By the time the doors officially opened at 8:00 am, the first members of the library's electoral committee were drifting in and I was joined by another six observers aged from 19 to 50. Our lists detailed a long list of checks to be carried out before the voting began, but here we ran into our next problem.
One item was to see the list of voters to make sure it had no prior signatures or even minor pencil marks except for the signatures of those voters who voted earlier or received permits to vote outside their voting district. We were also supposed to examine voting boxes and smaller boxes for voting outside the premises to make sure that they were empty and they had to be sealed in front of us. The committee also had to announce to us the total number of voters registered at the library. But it seemed that no one on the committee was aware of what the official procedures were.
The secretary of the committee, a young woman wearing a mini-skirt, turned up 10 minutes before voting should start. The other observers, all inexperienced first-timers like me, surrounded her, showing their mandates and demanding the committee run through the pre-voting checks. "Her skirt is too short," complained one of the older observers, prompting the secretary to keep tugging it down, only for it to ride up again. "It's not proper."
The secretary happily signed our registration papers, but refused to go ahead with the checking procedures in the absence of both the head and the deputy head of the election committee (the latter of whom never actually showed up).
By 8:00 am most of the committee were there, but the head of the committee was still missing. An argument broke out with the observers angrily insisting the voting couldn't start until the pre-vote checks were completed. The first few voters who arrived grew impatient as the argument became more heated and they eventually left. Finally, 20 minutes after the official start of voting, the chairman showed up smelling faintly of alcohol (probably from the night before), but he turned out to be an amiable enough chap.
I filed an official complaint that he was late. He signed my complaint with a smile and later attached it to the final protocol of the elections. It was obvious that all the observers' complaints carried no weight and would not be considered by anybody. And we never did learn how many voters were officially registered, or how many actually voted (although we kept our own count).
Day wears on
Voters came and went throughout the day, but there were several people floating about who were neither part of the committee nor observers. I approached each one of them and asked for their credentials. One man standing in the corner at first said he was a representative from the local municipality, but when I pointed out that this is illegal, he quickly changed his story, claiming he was an observer sent by a municipal candidate in the elections. The chairman said the same man was simply a driver from the municipality.
One of the observers had spotted a woman giving out ballots whose details did not match those of the member of the committee posted on the wall. The observer approached the chairman and asked if this was Vera Ivanovna, who was a member of the committee. The chairman looked the observer straight in the eye and said, "Yes."
"That's strange," replied the observer, "because I hear everyone calling her Katya".
"Oh, you know how some people are," the chairman shot back, "they have one name, but prefer to be called something completely different."
"That may be," agreed the observer, "but there is her date of birth on the board, and she should be 58 whereas this women is not even in her 40s."
Without missing a beat, the chairman simply turned to Vera/Katya and said: "Okay, Katya, please leave the room now."
Finally, voting drew to a close and the committee members began checking the number of ballots to see if they tallied with the number they received. But one had gone missing. "Why not just write in the protocol that we are missing a ballot," I suggested. But in some Soviet-style throw back the chairman was aghast at the suggestion. "No! This line in the protocol always has to be zero," he replied and ordered a search of the library. The missing ballot finally turned up lying on top of the piano in the election room." Later, when we checked on the election website not a single ballot had gone missing from our polling station - or from a single polling station in the entire district for that matter.
By the end of the day, the chairman had become quite chatty and admitted to me that he was not much liked at the territorial committee, which counts the votes for the whole district, because his results usually were one of the lowest in the district. He explained that he had no personal interest in the outcome of the presidential elections and was only there because a friend of his was running in the municipal election.
The last task was to deliver the ballots to the territorial committee and file complaints about any violations we had observed at the polling station. It was 5:00 am the following day and Putin's victory had already been announced, despite the fact our votes were yet to be counted.
The members of the territorial committee tried to kick us out because they did not want any outsiders to witness the count. But they finally relented. The atmosphere was extremely hostile, with the observers standing on one side of the room and the territorial committee people huddled together on the other side, openly sniggering or throwing us looks as if we were a group of crazies that had escaped the local psychiatric hospital. They acted as if they believed elections were their own private fiefdom to which no outsiders should be allowed to enter. And this is exactly how elections in Russia are: they are the internal affair of one group in society who stand in them, organise them and oversee the results. Russian federal law does not clearly forbid that elections can be organised and run by the government or the ruling party, and so they are clearly biased towards an already existing power. So the way the system runs, it ensures that on any level, municipal or presidential, it replenishes itself.
Russians are debating whether the recent Duma and presidential elections were fair. My answer is regardless of how many votes were stolen or ballot boxes stuffed, the elections are unfair by definition. They are neither independent nor free, and they are run with numerous procedural, legal and even common sense violations. The observers have no real rights to monitor or interfere in violations, since they have to complain to the very same people who perpetrate these violations. Since elections are run with little or no outside checks and balances, those in charge of the process act not in the interests of the people, but in the interests of their immediate bosses.
The gulf in the room between the observers and vote counters was enormous. They can't comprehend the motives of people who are prepared to spend 24 hours watching the voting process, who are not even paid to do it, nor are there to protect anybody's interests except that of society at large. We are totally alien to them.
Despite all my sadness after having seen how so many people are willing to trade their integrity for the interests of their bosses, I feel the future is ours. There is a strong and growing grassroots interest in all levels of elections and how they are run. People want substantial reforms in Russia's legal and judicial systems. People want a moral reform of our society. These people are now active and know their rights. They are now demanding more than the illusion of stability and they won't just disappear.
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