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The weapon of truth: an independent observer’s view of a non-election

The debacle of last December's rigged parliamentary elections convinced many people who had previously been politically unaware to sign up and train as election observers. Sunday’s election saw ten times as many observers turn out. A core of them stuck doggedly to their task despite provocations and numerous attempts to thwart them; for some, like Julia Chegodaikina, life can never be the same again.

I’m just a student at the Moscow State Printing University. I work in a publishing office and want to be an editor. Like many of my fellow Russians, I became politically active after the parliamentary election of 4 December 2011.

I wasn’t an observer in December. It was actually my very first election and I was pleasantly excited at the importance of the event. The morning after, when I found out how the election had been run, changed my life completely. I was enraged to read about the violations, the ballot-box stuffing and the carousels; how the process was manipulated by bussing people to one polling station so they could vote for ‘United Russia’, then taking them on elsewhere for a similar purpose; how the results were simply altered by entering the figures needed for Putin’s party to win. I was even more shocked that the thousands of charges brought in connection with election fraud, most of which were simply dismissed, came to nothing and not one of the perpetrators was convicted. Sometimes the observers ended up in the dock themselves.  It was all completely absurd: an observer who prevented the chairman of the electoral commission from stuffing a ballot box by grabbing his hand was convicted by the court of himself trying to stuff the ballot box. I realised that this was completely unacceptable and that I must act.

My optimism and belief in justice led me, as it did many others, to embark on preparations for the presidential election: I enrolled as an observer and started studying the law. But Putin was also preparing, and those preparations seem to have paid off.

The vote

Transparent ballot boxes and video cameras can't
help to legitimise the elections when the ones who count
the votes can record any figure they want. Photo: Yury
Goldenshteyn. All rights reserved.

When the votes were being counted I noticed one ballot paper with the following message: 'I want it recorded that I have not voted of my own free will.' This seems to me to be a striking example of the kind of pressure voters were under during the election.From what I saw on Sunday, I am convinced Putin would not have won were public sector workers not forced to sign off from the polling station where they lived and vote at other stations as ‘absentee voters’. Whole companies voted as one, and one can only assume each employee held several absentee voter certificates to his name. We know that they were made to tick the Putin box and then provide photographs of their completed voting paper.

I was at a very tricky polling station in Moscow's Arbat [street]. After the votes had been counted here last December, the chairman of the electoral commission, Nazarov, didn't give the observers the certified copy of the protocol required by the law: he left the polling station with all the documents and seals. As a result, the 'United Russia' vote returned was 77%, instead of the 23% it should have been. Nazarov is currently being investigated, but that didn't prevent him turning up as chairman of the electoral commission at the presidential election too.

This time round, Putin's henchmen were more discreet: the carousel voters were not bussed in as they were in December, but came in 3s and 4s in private cars. This made it more complicated to catch them redhanded. We saw what was happening, but couldn't do anything about it. We naturally tried to pass the numbers of the suspicious cars on to observers at other polling stations, but there are 3000 stations in Moscow so trying to work out where the carousel voters were going next was impossible. Their presence led to queues forming: people often got fed up and left without having voted. Sometimes people came to vote only to find that their voting papers had already been issued to someone else. We helped them to write complaints, but our system is organised in such a way that complaints about criminals end up on the desks of those same criminals, so everyone gets off scot free.

‘I noticed one ballot paper with the following message: 'I want it recorded that I have not voted of my own free will.' This seems to me to be a striking example of the kind of pressure voters were under during the election.’

Members of the commission tried to provoke rows with observers so that they could then ban them from the polling station, but we didn't allow this to happen because it was our job to stay there until the votes were counted. Fortunately we managed without anyone being forcibly removed from our station and the counting of the votes passed off with almost no violations. The counting was procedurally correct (though the election wasn't!). Putin received 50.7% of the vote, but we realised that this was not the end of the process – the most important was yet to come and it was vital to ensure that all the data on the protocol was accurately recorded in the system without a hike in the percentage.

After the votes were counted...

We got the certified copies of the results and the most persevering observers set off for the district electoral commission (the next stage) so as to be there when the results were handed over. The law clearly states that we are absolutely entitled to be there, but for these people concepts such as entitlement or the law don't exist: they are a law unto themselves and have no fear,  because they know that they can get away with anything.

We were not allowed in to the electoral commission and the people there refused to talk to us. We were told that the chairman, a Mrs Vyalykh, who had chaired the commission for many years, had hidden somewhere in the building and no one could find her. The lawyer present said he couldn't care less and the observers, who were by then tired and disconsolate, started trickling away. There were only three of us left.

‘The policemen looked me in the eye and said calmly 'Surely you realise you're simply wasting your time. Nothing will happen to her. You will achieve nothing.' I didn't even have the strength to cry.’

I was asked to desist and to calm down, because we would anyway be unable to prove anything. They said everything was proceeding naturally and correctly. I couldn't agree that lawlessness is right because I think differently and I'm not prepared to put up with it, so I couldn't just leave it at that. I stood there wondering whether it could be that no one would ever find out what had gone on. We spent three hours standing in the freezing cold defending our right to be present at the meeting and to record the actions of the commission. The journalists with us who were not afraid to be there: they helped us and we were glad of their support.  Twice we summoned the police, but the Russian police protects the state rather than its citizens. At 4 a.m. we were sitting in the police station writing statements about Madame Vyalykh's persistent infringements of the law. The policemen looked me in the eye and said calmly 'Surely you realise you're simply wasting your time. Nothing will happen to her. You will achieve nothing.' I didn't even have the strength to cry.

And now?

So – was that an honest election? Or just the insignificant infringements of the law we heard about on the federal channels of the TV? I think it's simply a mockery and a gross violation of our rights!

I do not recognise our self-proclaimed president, who is unworthy to govern my country. 90% of the prisoners in the prisons voted for Putin, so why doesn't he go and join them? That's where he belongs. He has committed enough crimes to justify life imprisonment, and more than one life too.

I am not prepared to accept the government's lawless behaviour because it goes against everything I think about justice. There are some who say that you should fight thieves using their own methods, but I categorically disagree. I agree with Dickens that truth is the only method one should use to attain any goal. I have no desire to be like these pathetic people. I declare openly that I wish to fight for my rights. I want to put a stop to the hypocrisy and lies in Russia. I shall fight for observance of the law and I feel that I am not alone because a great many young people are also reaching out for the truth. I firmly believe that that we shall win the right to breathe freely.

 

Editor's note: Under the pressure of local media and observers like Julia Chegodaikina, the published results from the Arbat precinct this time correlated with those recorded at the count. 


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