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Fixing Russian elections: manipulation (voters) and massage (results)

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Russia will hold a general election in December. ‘United Russia’, the party in power, has to win and will do all it can to ensure that it does. There are many tricks in the book, lawful and unlawful, but the recent Putin-Medvedev announcement has raised levels of discontent and the voter is always unpredictable, says Mikhail Loginov in his probing investigative report.

Mikhail Loginov
22 November 2011

In September 2011 statements from inhabitants of Chelyabinsk, Novokuznetsk and Izhevsk appeared in the internet to the effect that the authorities of these cities had received instructions to guarantee ‘United Russia’ victory in the election. The predetermined success rate they had to achieve was 65% of votes. The city mayor, or an official to whom he delegated the task, recommended various techniques to his subordinates, from financial remuneration to photographing the correctly filled-in ballot paper slip on a mobile phone.

‘United Russia’ hurriedly declared that this was impossible. Internet readers were outraged at the cynicism of the officials.

Only a minority (those who understand the realities of Russian elections) were unsurprised. What the officials said to their subordinates is but the tip of the iceberg of well-honed techniques, enabling us to forecast the percentage, to within 1%, by which ‘United Russia’ will win.

Voters – dead and alive

The Kremlin has fewest problems with the national republics. There may be periodic disagreements with the local elites, but they have never scared Moscow with the hypothetical possibility that any party other than ‘United Russia’ will win at the election. Republics of the North Caucasus and the Volga Region frequently record turnout figures of close to 100% for that reason.

In 2010 President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov of Ingushetia promised to ban falsification of ‘United Russia’ results, ‘because at the next election we could well have more than 195%.’ Local officials probably took this promise seriously, as a requirement not to record figures of more than 100%.

The special features of voting in the Caucasus are quite simple. Everyone who is able to get to the polling station goes and votes. Thousand of young Caucasus men living in Russia’s big cities are unable to vote, so the electoral commission ‘votes’ for them: fills in their ballot paper slips and the records. Theoretically this could be prevented by observers, but the appearance of an independent observer at a polling station in North Caucasus or the Volga Region is as impossible as a foreign human rights delegation visiting a prison in Chechnya.

Edinaya_Rossiya_congress

Founded in 2001, 'United Russia' chiefly represents the ruling Russian bureaucracy. Its critics though have described it as the 'party of crooks and thieves'.  It controls the Russian parliament, openly demonstrating total loyalty to the Kremlin.

This loyalty does not go unrewarded by the federal centre. It’s not only direct subsidies to North Caucasus; in many auls [villages] family members preserve the documents of their dead relatives and draw their pensions for several years. It goes without saying that the ghostly pensioners ‘vote’ at elections and the Pension Fund closes its eyes to this practice.

The big false start

In the majority of Russian regions, however, this primitive kind of technique is impossible. Of course, every region and big city, even with liberal and opposition-minded inhabitants, has its ‘Caucasian’ areas. These are hospitals (particularly psychiatric), old people’s homes and military units. But they are a minority. The rest of the voters have to be hunted out.

The hunt begins 6 to 8 months before the election campaign is officially announced and is initiated by the regional leadership of ‘United Russia’ or Duma deputies hoping to get on the party list for that region. The party doesn’t have much money, so it either finds sponsors or gets money from a rich deputy. After the Khodorkovsky saga refusals from potential sponsors are few and far between.

The voter has to be reminded of the existence of ‘United Russia’, because he will have forgotten about it since the last election. Special projects are set up. One example is the ‘city of childhood’ – during the summer holiday young animateurs teach children active games in the courtyards of the apartment blocks.

‘Time passes and ‘United Russia’ regularly announces that it has learnt how to manage elections without spin doctors. But before every election campaign they are hired once more, as they were at the end of the 90s.’

There are ‘youth work brigades’ who pick up rubbish in public places. The animateurs and workers in the labour brigades are usually members of youth organisations, who are loyal to the Kremlin, such as ‘Young Guard’ or ‘Nashi’. But they still get paid for doing it.

What is most important about these activities is not how many children have been taught to use a hoola hoop, or how many fences have been painted. The first thing that happens is that posters, leaflets and other forms of external promotion appear in the streets, proclaiming that such and such a courtyard has been tidied on the initiative of ‘United Russia’. Secondly, newspapers, TV and the internet will carry reports (which have been paid for) to the effect that only ‘United Russia’ has a care for children and clean courtyards. It often happens that, when a labour brigade is tidying up a courtyard, there are more people with cameras (hand and TV) and microphones than there are with brooms and paint brushes.

Some events are bigger and more expensive. Cities introduce special discount cards, for instance: the city leaders compels local businessmen, owners of commercial outlets, hairdressers, cinemas etc. to sell their goods and services to pensioners at a discount of 5–10%. The plastic cards are designed to chime with the ‘United Russia’ logo, even the name (‘United card’) reminds people of the party name. Pensioners buy the discounted goods six months before the election campaign starts and while it’s running: with every purchase they are reminded who they should vote for.

As well as all this, some of the most active deputies keep themselves in the public eye by handing out small presents: they might pay for medical treatment for disabled people or present sports equipment to junior sports clubs etc. As a rule the local TV channel publicises these acts of charity in great detail; it’s as if a world class pop star had come to visit the city.

If the regional branch of the party has sufficient funds, it publishes a newspaper, as a means of indirect promotion. The main proviso is that the words ‘United Russia’ should not appear on the front page. The paper is an additional bonus: during the campaign its contents are announced on radio and TV and these announcement are effectively pre-election publicity, though they do not come under the electoral law.

Just look, it’s better here than in America!

4 months before the election a new feature makes its appearance: the primary.‘United Russia’ held internal elections for the first time in 2007, though not in all Russian regions – the party leadership was rather embarrassed by the ‘American’ term. In 2011 ‘United Russia’ decided to run primaries throughout the country and to publicise them as much as possible.

Primaries turned out to be linked to the establishment of the National Front, an unwieldy structure nominally uniting the majority of Russia’s civic organisations, from trade unions to clubs for cat lovers. Party ideology ordains that the primary should unite all Russians, rather than being an internal party event, so the lists of candidates contained people outside the party as well as inside it.  

In addition, ‘United Russia’ held ‘street primaries’ in some regions. Party activists formed pickets who stood at crossroads. They were paid by the hour to hand passers by forms with the candidates’ names and a blank space for writing in the name of the recipient’s own candidate. It was thought that these forms would influence the composition of party candidate lists.

In most regions, however, the primaries were actually boring meetings with predictable results. But every meeting spawned a huge information trail on TV news and in the papers. ‘United Russia’ was on radio and TV all the time so people could hear and remember it.

Who’s doing the counting?

There’s a popular aphorism in Russian politics, attributed to Stalin: it’s not who’s voting that matters, but who’s counting the votes. The current regime is less interested in the origin of this saying than it is in its meaning. Votes are counted by the electoral commissions, so the nomination process is more important than the campaign itself. According to the law, the executive nominates half the members of the electoral commission and the deputies the other half. Officially only a third of its members may be civil servants, but in actual fact they totally control it.

The Central Electoral Commission should control the operations of the regional electoral commissions, but this mainly falls on the shoulders of the governor: he has to deliver the exact percentage of votes cast for ‘United Russia’. The head of a region is always demanding that his subordinate heads of districts within the region keep their electoral commissions under control, as it’s they who sign the final protocol. After that, trying to change any of the regional data is virtually impossible.

The figure of Vladimir Putin is one of the chief resources. His portrait appears next to the portrait of the candidates and all the campaign materials stress that catastrophe can only be averted if people support Putin’s policies and vote for ‘United Russia.’

The voter has contact with the territorial electoral commissions: polling stations are in schools and are staffed, therefore, mainly by teachers. They are all pretty loyal and will agree to essential falsifications without a second thought.

The governor has to tread a very delicate line and not fall out with the heads of the districts so as to avoid the ‘treachery of the elites.’ In the days when governors were elected in Russia, district electoral commissions could well refuse to rig the results in the governor’s favour. They might, on the other hand, falsify the records in his rival’s favour.

Now there is a simpler way of sabotaging a governor, though it is risky: a minimum of falsification in favour of ‘United Russia’ will inevitably produce a lower percentage for the region by comparison with its neighbours. The danger lies in the possibility that the governor will get his own back on his attackers before he is sacked for delivering such a low result.

Asphalt, gas and flats

3-4 months before the election it becomes difficult to drive along streets or walk across courtyards in most Russian cities.  This is because the authorities embark on repair work in places where they’ve done nothing for 10-15 years. There is a party-state project called ‘New roads in cities throughout a united Russia.’ The project ideology consists of the ‘United Russia’ Duma deputies forcing the miserly Ministry of Finance to allocate funds for repairs to roads and courtyards.

All the street furniture is decorated with posters and ‘United Russia’ banners. Even the workmen in the roads have jackets bearing the party symbols. The propaganda effect relies directly on a conscientious sub-contractor. Sometimes they stick to the routine tricks, but more often they are in a hurry, so they lay the asphalt without having made the proper preparations, even asphalting over the lids of the sewage manholes. The discontent this causes is predictable.

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Road repairs are being financed from the 'United Russia' budget according to this stand in the town of Luga (Leningradskaya Oblast). Russians complain endlessly about their roads, which is probably why the party has demonstrated its concern for the condition of the roads at every regional and national election campaign since 2001.

Some months before the election the gas monopoly ‘Gazprom’ demonstrates heightened activity.  Gas pipelines are laid to villages. According to party ideology, installing gas boilers in place of the coal and oil boilers is part of the ‘United Russia’ programme.

On top of all this, some citizens of Russia suddenly find they own free flats just before the election, usually residents of condemned buildings – wooden sheds built after the war. Plans to resettle these people already exist, but it’s during the election campaign that the new houses are finished and the new residents move in.

It hardly needs saying that every street which has been repaired, every new gas pipeline and finished home is trumpeted by the radio and TV as headline news.

The governor wants to know

So the regional party authorities hand out small presents to voters, but, in so doing, they hint that they would like to make the presents much bigger. To this end a so-called ‘Programme of the people’ is set up or, if the governor is popular enough, it’s called ‘The governor wants to know.’

Party workers visit flats and houses to give out forms on which people can write suggestions to the local authorities. They can make any proposals, from building a new airport in the chief city of the region to getting rid of the rats in apartment blocks.

'There’s a popular aphorism in Russian politics, attributed to Stalin: it’s not who’s voting that matters, but who’s counting the votes. The current regime is less interested in the origin of this saying than it is in its meaning.'

Officially, after the elections ‘United Russia’ will combine all these suggestions into a general programme and carry it out. The real aim of the programme of the people is actually quite simple. People who have accepted the rules of the game, taken the forms, filled them in and handed them back to the party workers are considered the most loyal voters.  If they don’t show up at the polling station on election day, they get a telephone call at about midday to ask if they want their wishes to be realised, or are they happy for the rats to stroll about the entrance to the apartment block to their heart’s content. To get rid of the rats, you have to turn out and vote.

Mercenaries go on and on

Professional spin doctors as organisers of election campaigns first appeared in Russia in the mid-90s. In a mere 5 years, however, analysts were foretelling that this profession would soon disappear, especially after the 2004 election, when Putin abolished the election of governors and Duma deputies on tickets from single-mandate constituencies. Then Yanukovych lost in Ukraine and the spin doctors were accused of that too.

Time passes and ‘United Russia’ regularly announces that it has learnt how to manage elections without spin doctors. But before every election campaign they are hired once more, as they were at the end of the 90s.

The main reason for this is a surface one: spin doctors who have been brought in from Moscow – they always seem to come from Moscow – can always be blamed for a defeat, thus shielding the local party workers from punishment.

But there’s another reason. The Central Electoral commission may send ‘United Russia’ instructions on how the campaign should be organised, but the regions prefer to call in the professionals who know the techniques and how to use them. 

Commission_Churov

It’s not who’s voting that matters, but who’s counting the votes – this popular saying attributed to Stalin has not lost its importance in today's Russia. The Central Election Commission, headed by Vladimir Churov, makes sure Putin and Medevdev don't have to worry about the results of any election.

‘Why are we still needed?’ asks one of the spin doctors. ‘I’ll give you a simple example.  We work at the regional headquarters of ‘United Russia’ and local party workers work with us on the election campaign. But at 6pm on the nail they lock their offices and go home. We are paid good money because we only go to bed when all the necessary work has been done.’

There are usually three stages during an election campaign: party workers go round to people’s flats and hand out information leaflets and campaign newspapers. The imported spin doctors think up various approaches for them, for instance forms to fill in with requests for the governor. What the spin doctors chiefly do, however, is to check that the campaign stays on the rails. They organise monitoring: telephone calls to flats the party workers say they have visited to establish whether the visit actually took place, or the workers simply ticked the box, without bothering to cross the threshold. Without this monitoring, party leaders would put their relatives in charge of the campaign workers, who in their turn would get their friends to do the supervising, while the footsloggers would simply write false reports without having visited a single flat.

The spin doctors are also able to prevent anything which would harm the campaign. They often dissuade local party bosses from initiatives that might turn out to be dangerous.  They also countermand any instructions sent from the party centre in Moscow, if they consider them inappropriate in existing regional conditions.

Spin doctors carry out social surveys and give the party leadership a real picture of what people in a region actually want. This allows the regional government to form an opinion as to how much direct falsification is going to be needed.

Another spin doctor function is to ensure that campaign activities stay within the law. The electoral commissions may be loyal enough to ‘United Russia’, but flagrant flouting of the law undermines the reputation of the party, so the lawyers keeps tabs on the campaign to make sure this doesn’t happen. They also catch any rivals out if they break the law. In 2008 the candidate for the post of mayor of Vologda was disqualified from standing in the election because he had used the music from Pirates of the Caribbean in his campaign video without permission from the copyright holder. But disqualifying the whole of the opposition list in a Duma election is fairly unlikely.

Football in Auschwitz

Meanwhile, what about the opposition? Or rather any party other than ‘United Russia’ which has qualified to stand in the election? For obvious reasons, these parties are not in a position to boast of the roads they’ve repaired, pipelines laid, and flats. But they can, if they want, also go round households handing out campaign literature, publish their advertisements on TV and in the newspapers, and hang out their slogans.

The Communist Party, ‘Just Russia,’ Yabloko and other parties are indeed entitled to engage in campaign activities, but their participation is not unlike a football match between prisoners and guards in Auschwitz. While the guards are confidently winning the game is played quite fairly and all the rules observed. But as soon as the prisoners start playing more or less successfully, the atmosphere changes and at half-time the prisoners in their dressing rooms are told that if they don’t toe the line, this match will be their last.

In 2007, for example, ‘Just Russia’ was a new party, which seriously considered itself as the ‘second Kremlin party’ and tried to be real competition for ‘United Russia.’ But in October 2007, 6 weeks before the election, regional authorities received strict instructions from the Kremlin to stop any campaigning for ‘Just Russia.’ In Vologda all ‘Just Russia’ banners were knocked down with hooked fishing poles during the course of one night.

‘The Communist Party, ‘Just Russia,’ Yabloko and other parties are indeed entitled to engage in campaign activities, but their participation is not unlike a football match between prisoners and guards in Auschwitz.’

Opposition parties are not only prevented from developing their campaigns; they are forbidden to include in their lists any people whose names could in themselves act as silent electioneering. Evgeny Roizman, for instance, who set up a strong movement to do battle with drug dealers in Yekaterinburg, was banned from running for ‘Just Russia’ in 2007 and when he tried to stand for ‘Right Cause’ in 2011, he was expelled by the leader of the party, Mikhail Prokhorov, himself.

The only party unafraid of repression is Zhirinovsky’s LDPR. For 20 years it has been portraying itself as a national-patriotic party, though it never criticises the Kremlin, and its deputies always vote alongside ‘United Russia.’ LDPR decorates with the streets with pompous slogans, but people have had enough of them. 4 years ago, for instance, its election slogan was ‘We’re fighting for the poor and for the Russians!’ but now only half the slogan is left: ‘For the Russians!’

Support Putin, avert catastrophe

The nearer we get to the elections, the more stressed the situation becomes throughout Russia. There’s no evidence of any campaigning, other than for ‘United Russia’: any leaflets or posters stuck up in the night before disappear before sunrise, like snow in Egypt, a process called ‘cleaning up.’ Special brigades are paid per leaflet or poster (for the opponent) torn down.

During the last stage, the campaigners bring letters from the governor addressed to residents. Sometimes to everyone in the household, but more often to those who have signed up for the governor. He addresses people by name in the letters and reminds them to vote ‘in their own interest.’ For ‘United Russia,’ of course.

KIndergarten_Khakassiya

Party and local officials open a new day care centre for preschool age children in the village of Tverskoye i(Khakassiya republic in Siberia).  Like the roads, educational facilities for children always feature in 'United Russia' regional and national election campaigns.

The figure of Vladimir Putin is one of the chief resources. His portrait appears next to the portrait of the candidates and all the campaign materials stress that catastrophe can only be averted if people support Putin’s policies and vote for ‘United Russia.’

The catastrophe is described by TV commentators and in the newspapers (usually LDPR papers). Crimes reminiscent of the Moscow show trials under Stalin are attributed to the opposition, especially the communists and ‘Just Russia,’ sometimes even going as far as implying that Poland and China have aspirations to divide up Russia.

At about this time the early voting starts, if it’s been allowed. Officially it’s for voters who will be away on business trips, but actually 5-10% of voters avail themselves of the opportunity to vote early. They’re frequently the ‘unreliable’ voters e.g. students or factory workers, who don’t have to go to the polling station because they’re bussed there, being reminded on the way who they’re to vote for. No prizes for guessing who that is!

Just before the election, the members of the territorial electoral commissions are briefed.  They already know which party they’re rigging the votes for and how to do it, so all they need to be told is what percentage of support for ‘United Russia’ has to be achieved at their particular polling station.

A solemn day…

Voting day dawns. Given the fashion for Soviet nostalgia, the school administration (polling stations are usually in schools) and the members of the territorial commission try to make the process as solemn as possible. There’s a buffet in the entrance hall with sandwiches, pies, drinks (usually non-alcoholic), where everything is priced considerably cheaper than in the neighbouring cafes. Soviet songs and marches blare from loud-speakers, or sometimes modern pop songs.

‘There are observers at the election, of course. They're usually representatives of government-organised NGOs, pseudo-independent organisations loyal to the government.’

Girls and boys who are of voting age receive small presents – notepads or badges – and are given free tickets for dance clubs or for a concert of a popular musical group. This programme is called 'vote and dance.'

In the morning there's a degree of commotion at the polling stations. This is usually the elderly voters. They're not voting out of political conviction, but because they consider it their duty to turn out for what is a mandatory state occasion. Many of them have plans for their Sunday and want to get their duty out of the way as early as possible.

Sometimes elderly people have difficulty reading the ballot paper and ask for help. If the help they ask for is to find 'United Russia', the staff of the electoral commission will put no obstacles in their way and affect not to notice that they have voted without going into the booth. If, on the other hand, the voter wants to vote for any other party, then any infringement of the rules will be stamped on.

There are observers at the election, of course. They're usually representatives of government-organised NGOs, pseudo-independent organisations loyal to the government. They collect data on all infringements of the rules by any party, except 'United Russia,' but what they are chiefly doing is filling the quota of independent observers.

The only truly independent observers are – sometimes – journalists. They are tolerated until they start pointing out particularly flagrant infringements, when the police remove them from the polling station. So there is no one to interfere with the electoral commission members reminding voters how they should fill in their ballot papers.

During the day there is a fall-off in activity, because anyone who wants to vote has usually done so by midday. That's the beginning of the most fraught part of the day for the election workers. They are provided with turnout data and it always becomes clear that considerably fewer people have voted and that those who have not showed up are just the people who would vote for 'United Russia.' Then the calls to the supervisors of the campaign networks start: they in turn ring the team leaders, who ring the workers themselves. They start going round the flats with their lists of potential voters for 'United Russia,' asking people why they haven't yet voted. It often ends up with voters being taken to the polling station in the campaign workers' cars.

Primitive bribery is often in operation at regional, and sometimes at general, elections. Payment for the 'right' vote is between 200 and 1000 roubles. To get a chronic alcoholic to vote for the right candidate, or for 'United Russia,' without putting the cross in the wrong box, the electoral commission members have recourse to the 'merry go round.'  Someone brings an empty ballot paper out of a booth and gives it to the merry go round organiser, who is usually sitting in his car. He fills in the ballot paper and gives it to the alcoholic, who is told to put it in the box and bring back a clean ballot paper in return.

If the merry go round is for a party other than 'United Russia' it can be broken up by the police or a film crew. But infringements in favour of the ruling party can go on for a long time. Mobile voting goes on simultaneously: the ballot box is brought to a bedridden sick person at home and it always turns out that there are many more of these than are registered invalids. When the mobile ballot boxes are opened up, it is immediately clear that all the sick people have voted for 'United Russia.'

The frenetic activity at the polling stations comes to a stop after two hours. The sandwiches have been eaten and everyone has voted, whether they came of their own accord or were brought in cars. The electoral commission members are now facing the most responsible part of their duties: the opening of the ballot boxes.

…and a nerve-racking night

The ballot boxes that are the quickest to count are those that come from 'closed polling stations' i.e. hospitals, military units and old people's homes. Turnout here is 100%, and support for 'United Russia' likewise.

Counting from ordinary polling stations always produces disappointment for the regional leadership. The turnout is always lower than expected and there are fewer votes for 'United Russia' than anticipated.

Primaries_Altay

Altai Republic, the day of the United Russia primaries. Officially, they are organized to identify the best candidates for the party ballot lists. In actual fact the primaries are organized several months before the election: a simple PR trick to refresh voters’ memory about the party’s existence.

This is when 'correcting the voters' mistakes' begins. If the 'United Russia' vote count needs to be upped by 2-3% all that has to be done is to add in some ready-prepared ballot papers. At the same time it will be essential to 'kill off' some of the other parties, so they don't get past the 7% electoral barrier. In 2007, for instance, Yabloko and 'Right Cause' were killed off in this fashion. It's quite simple: a correctly filled in ballot paper simply has another cross added to it, so that it has to go in the pile of spoiled papers. That party doesn't get through and its votes are distributed between the fortunate, first and foremost 'United Russia.'

More often, however, the vote count has to be upped by 5-10%, sometimes even more. That's when the large-scale fraud kicks in: the substitution of ballot boxes and completed record sheets. Independent observers could easily put a stop to it, but if this is going to happen during the count, the police will not permit an observer to stand anywhere near and record the fraud.

Ballot papers are counted and the final protocols have been sent to the regional electoral commissions. Sometimes they're rewritten there, but on the whole this is not popular, as there is always a risk that someone might keep a copy of the original protocol and publish it.  However, if there's a 5-7% shortfall in votes for 'United Russia,' then they take the risk of large-scale falsification.

Sometimes the fraud is flagrant, sometimes minimal – if, for example, the region is considered borderline and its governor is not a 'United Russia' member. In the March 2011 Kirov regional election, Moscow accepted that 'United Russia' had not won even 50% of the vote. The argument was that the figures were an improvement, because in 2007 the party had won less than 30%.

Morning dawns. Churov, chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, a flamboyant Putin supporter, declares that the provisional results from all the republics and regions show that 'United Russia' has won. Observers from the former USSR Asian republics and Belarus, as well as from the organisations that support the president, confirm that the election was free and fair and that it was organised in such an exemplary way it could well serve as a model for EU, and more especially, US elections.

This has been the situation at all regional and general elections in Russia during the past 8 years and is in all probability how it will be on 4 December 2011. But the Russian government is still awaiting election day with trepidation.  Techniques may be well-honed, but the voter is always unpredictable.

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