And the Winner Is?
Abdulla Magomedov, a 42-year-old police officer and a father of three, was on duty guarding the entrance to a government building in Dagestan when two Volgas pulled up - one black, the other white. Three men and a woman got out, flashed government ID cards to enter the building, and then reemerged carrying large sacks.
It was 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 16 - three weeks after the March 26 election that had confirmed Vladimir Putin in office with 52.94 percent of the vote.
In the aftermath of that vote, two leading national opposition parties - the Communists and Yabloko - had alleged widespread elections fraud. Dagestan had been fingered for such fraud often enough that a commission from the State Duma had come to Makhachkala to investigate. And officer Magomedov had evidence of a deadly serious federal crime.
"I got very angry, and tried to take one of the bags from the woman, one of the four. But she told me, 'Do you really need to get involved in this?' And the men also told me not to interfere."
The four carried their bags of ballots a little ways off, with an uncertain Magomedov following. They took out the ballots and began to tear them up and then to burn them.
"I know ballots must not be destroyed. I protested, but they only threatened to have me sacked," Magomedov recounted in an interview on April 19, three days after the fact. He assumed they were destroying evidence to foil the Duma commission's investigation.
"I told them I would not leave it like this, that I was not going to shut up because I am a Communist and I voted for Zyuganov," Magomedov said.
The next day, he filed a complaint with the local Communist Party. The complaint was forwarded to the headquarters of Makhachkala's Kirovsky district - the building Magomedov had been guarding - but there has been no reply.
April was dry in Makhachkala, and on a visit later that month to the site of the fire indicated by Magomedov, The Moscow Times was able to collect the ashes of the ballots. The names of the candidates in the March 26 elections can be clearly seen.
"This is not right, what they did," said Magomedov. "They are just a mafia structure prepared to do whatever they want."
Magomedov says he is ready to testify in court to what he has seen. But he also worries: His colleagues have been telling him to shut up or risk losing his job - and his monthly salary of 800 rubles ($28) is the only pay coming in to support his family of five.
But fraud was far from insignificant. Given how close the vote was - Putin won with just 52.94 percent, or by a slim margin of 2.2 million votes - fraud and abuse of state power appear to have been decisive.
In Dagestan alone, it is possible to definitively document about 88,000 votes stolen from other candidates and given to candidate Putin - simply by comparing documentation at about 16 percent of the local precincts, or polling stations, to documentation at the national level. The cheating leaps out immediately.
And that is only in the minority of Dagestani voting precincts that were willing to provide election-day documentation. Other precincts - where observers were kicked out or otherwise snubbed - seem to have been engaged in, if anything, more extensive fraud.
A State Duma commission investigating Dagestan under Communist Deputy Alexander Saly has extrapolated from documented fraud to assert that about 700,000 votes in Dagestan must have been wrongly awarded to Putin. But the methodology, as laid out in an April 27 issue of Rossisskaya Gazeta, is highly questionable. And inexplicably, Saly's team has apparently only made intelligent use of about half of the hundreds of protocols it has collected. (A "protocol" is a certificate of a precinct's official vote tally.) Moreover, when Saly was asked to share copies of at least some of his findings with The Moscow Times, he agreed to show only some of the protocols, and joked that Zyuganov kept the rest in a folder with him.
A more conservative calculation by The Moscow Times - one that assumes fraud in the precincts that would not give out protocols was no worse than it was in those that did - settled on a figure of about 551,000 votes that were crudely falsified in this way.
In other words: After a visit to Dagestan alone, it is possible to challenge almost a fourth of Putin's national margin of victory as highly questionable.
In other regions, the same sort of correcting-fluid falsification - the clumsiest imaginable, where higher-level elections officials simply contradict the official reports of lower-level officials, and hope no one will notice - can also be documented. In Saratov, Communist-collected protocols chronicle discrepancies in Putin's favor to the tune of 11,779 votes; in Kabardino-Balkariya involving 7,126 votes; and in Bashkortostan involving 1,497 votes. Again, protocols in these and other regions were notoriously difficult to obtain, meaning this sort of crude falsification could actually be much larger.
In Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, where all told Putin won 2.87 million of the 4.46 million votes cast, fraud was more carefully organized. Voters and observers report a precinct-by-precinct conspiracy to stuff ballot boxes in every manner imaginable. If in Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkariya and Saratov higher-level officials rewrote lower-level results, in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan lower-level officials were already on board - they produced the "correct" results the first time around.
In Tatarstan, one ballot-stuffing game was so prevalent that it was even given a name - "the caterpillar" - and its perpetrators even approached the Tatarstan president's spokesman on election day to ask him to help.
This more closed sort of vote-rigging is much harder to put an exact number on. But a conservative guess would be that fraud was on a scale of that of Dagestan, meaning hundreds of thousands of votes stolen for Putin in each republic.
In all of the above-named regions and also in Kursk, Mordovia, Kaliningrad and Nizhny Novgorod - nine regions where Putin won a total of 6.96 million votes - regional governors resorted to a vertical chain of bullying: Everyone from collective farm workers to college professors was forced to vote for Putin. Some critics have gone so far as to argue that on the eve of the 21st century, such bullying excluded villagers as a class from the democratic process.
The effect of this so-called "abuse of administrative resources" on the vote tally is impossible to quantify. But those who have studied it and who spoke to The Moscow Times said bullying shifted several million votes from other candidates to Putin. Nearly all observers argued that it was far more influential than, say, the crude falsifications seen in places like Dagestan and Tatarstan. (This article does not look at how the Kremlin's abuse of media power influenced the outcome of the election, although the relentlessly positive national coverage almost certainly added even millions more to Putin's vote).
In Chechnya, Putin officially won 191,039 votes - or 50.63 percent - from a population made up of families whose homes and lives have been destroyed by the war and rank-and-file soldiers dropped into the middle of a bloody and terrifying guerrilla war. In other words, refugee camps and conscripts supposedly voted en masse in favor of Putin.
Even otherwise timid international observers were not amused by this. They have refused to recognize results from Chechnya, which was under martial law on election day, and there were no observers there. With the exception of the federal government and the Central Elections Commission, almost no one sees the vote in Chechnya as legitimate.
Perhaps the most startling discovery of our six-month investigation was one that emerged from the CEC web site: The official number of registered voters grew by 1.3 million in the three months between the Dec. 19 State Duma elections and the March 26 presidential elections - and there is no good explanation as to why.
All potential voters are automatically registered by the state upon turning 18 years old. That's why the appearance of 1.3 million new voters in such a short period has left Russian and American demographers interviewed for this article baffled - and troubled by the lame nature of explanations offered by the CEC and other federal authorities. An unofficial explanation is that these 1.3 million voters are mostly fictional - "dead souls," to borrow a term from Nikolai Gogol's famous novel, summoned up from the imagination of corrupt elections officials. (See Baby Boom or Dead Souls ?.).
In small villages where it is possible for someone to poll his neighbors and determine how they all voted, dishonesty turns up easily. Some villages have written open letters to the president and to other higher authorities to protest their votes being "stolen," and The Moscow Times has obtained such letters.
In some cases, voters have testified to having the pens and ballots snatched out of their hands at the voting booth and filled in for them. In others, they have been bullied into voting for Putin with threats from local leaders that they will lose their jobs, or be denied state welfare support. Other voters recounted seeing elections officials adding "dead souls" to registration lists - by listing children as adults, or listing people twice, or simply by adding names at random. In some cases, corrupt elections officials have added fictional floors to apartment buildings, and filled the resulting fictional apartments with fictional voters - who as one cast their ballots for Putin.
And everywhere, local government can be found to have worked for Putin - by leaning on factory directors, school principals, hospital administrators and farm chiefs, who in turn bullied their employees and others dependent on them. Those reluctant to vote "correctly" report being threatened with losing their jobs, being evicted or being denied their right to state support such as pensions. "Of course we were pressured from the top, and we pressured our people to vote for Putin," said one collective farm chief in an interview in Kazan, on condition of anonymity. "But it is forbidden to talk about it."
This and more is among the evidence assembled by The Moscow Times - reporting that echoed in similar investigations carried out by the Communist Party, Yabloko, foreign observer missions and the Saly commission in the Duma.
The inescapable conclusion is that Putin would not have won outright on March 26 without cheating.
At the same time, those months of reporting indicate that the conventional wisdom of the time was correct: Putin was far and away the most popular candidate for president in the spring and summer of 2000. Had he won less than 50 percent of the March 26 vote, he most likely would have faced - and easily defeated - Communist leader Zyuganov in a runoff.
Tellingly, in every region visited by The Moscow Times, the same top Communist members who so indignantly laid out evidence of fraud in the first round all freely conceded Putin would have easily won in a second round anyway.
According to Saly, the Communist Party member who heads the Duma's commission to investigate elections fraud, about 440 lawsuits were filed in courts across the nation to contest fraud of one kind or another in the March 26 vote. Saly also said the nation's various elections commissions have received untold thousands of formal complaints.
But those who file such complaints say they get no satisfaction.
And those who appealed to the courts were often told to readdress their complaints to federal or regional prosecutors - in other words, to complain to the executive branch ultimately headed by Putin, and not to the theoretically separate judicial branch. Prosecutors, in turn, often send such appeals back to the courts, or to elections officials - in a never-ending game of go-nowhere football.
Such has been the experience of Ilyas Magomedov, an aide to a Communist State Duma deputy from Dagestan. Magomedov filed suit in two separate courts in Makhachkala alleging specific instances of fraud and violations in both the December 1999 Duma vote and the March 2000 presidential vote. In both cases the courts declined to hear the matter, sending Magomedov written orders to appeal instead to prosecutors. When he then appealed to Makhachkala's deputy prosecutor, he received written instructions to appeal to the courts.
Many others reported that they did not even bother to complain about fraud they witnessed because they saw it was hopelessly futile.
"Undoubtedly there was large-scale forgery here, but we did not prepare a complaint," said Dmitry Fomin, who campaigned for Grigory Yavlinsky in Tatarstan's Naberezhniye Chelny district. "For Tatarstan, the definition of a court is: Something that takes a lot of energy but provides a very equivocal result. Everything is under such tight control here that we expect better results from publications in the media than from court decisions."