How Fair Was Russia's Election?

The World

Protester in Moscow's Pushkin Square (Photo: Laura Lynch)

A day after Putin's victory, those who marched in the streets before the election came out once again. They believe the vote was not fair and many are rejecting the legitimacy of the outcome. Don't try to tell the thousands of hardy souls that gathered in frigid downtown Moscow on Monday that Vladimir Putin won fair and square. Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, his voice dripping with derision lead the chant, shouting, "Russia, yes, Putin no!" They say they want fresh elections and clean campaigning. And in the crowd here was Dmitri Surnin — one of the men who coordinated a grassroots effort to ensure a fraud-free vote in one district — the district of Danilovsky. All day on Sunday Surnin drove to polling stations like this one where voters were serenaded by elevator music as they cast their ballots. In the afternoon, Surnin arrived at a concert hall housing four separate polls after a call from one of his team warning him of a potential problem. Surnin said it turned out to be a minor issue — a woman had a problem with her ballot but it was easily fixed. By late afternoon, he said his monitors had seen only a few cases of potential abuse. "There were some cases that looked suspicious. Like for example, at two polling stations too many people voted with absentee ballots like one fifth of voters, or maybe more even," Surnin said. Up the stairs, at poll number 1706, volunteer monitor Masha Eisen said she hadn't seen any problems either — but she was keeping a close watch on this particular poll. That's because last December, the results of the parliamentary election showed 90 percent of voters chose the party loyal to Putin. "This is incredible, I don't believe in it," Eisen said. "This is Moscow, this is not Chechen village, okay? So 90 percent, 50, 60 could be arguable because this is a district not very liberal in the way that we see people. But 90 percent? That's ridiculous." Eisen and Dmitry Surnin would have to wait and watch many more hours to find out whether anyone fiddled with the results. In fact, they had to wait until about 8:00 a.m. on Monday. After just a few hours of sleep, Surnin sits down with a large mug of coffee at a café in the Danilovsky district. His eyes are red-rimmed with fatigue, but he's still staring at poll reports, and crunching the numbers. And, he said, he does feel like he made a difference. The final results for the district show Putin winning 46 percent, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov pulling 22 percent of the vote and Communist Gennady Zyuganov with 19 percent. The others finished in single digits. Surnin knows there were problems with absentee ballots but he believes his group halted any attempts at stuffing ballot boxes or altering poll numbers. "Maybe we cannot prevent all the fraud because we cannot change the laws and rules and instructions but at least we can prevent most of it or at least make sure that the most blatant fraud does not happen," Surnin said. And in poll 1706? It showed about 45 percent support for Putin, way down from 90. So for Surnin and his band of election brothers and sisters, a small but significant achievement. Now, what do they do next? Surnin said he isn't quite sure. "It's just…it's been a couple of hours since I woke up… so I don't really know we have really given any big thought to it." It's the same question facing thousands of others who stood with Surnin in the freezing cold, condemning Putin and demanding fair elections. The last few months have created a new generation of activists who gave voice to a desire for change. But Putin will become president again in May, with the backing of many across Russia. Now the activists need to decide whether they will transform their ad hoc protests into a permanent part of the Russian political scene.
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