And the Winner Is? - Part 2
Federal elections law gives Russian and foreign organizations broad powers to observe all voting day activities, and observers are supposed to prevent the most crude abuses.
But observers were not everywhere. Communist and Yabloko party observers allege having seen, or heard of, massive fraud, to the tune of millions of votes. Zyuganov has claimed to have had 7 million votes stolen from him, quite a lot if Putin won by about 2 million - but the evidence provided for such claims, while often troubling, is not complete.
Meanwhile, it's hard to know how seriously to take foreign observers. Consider the biggest, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent a team of about 400 people to observe both the 1999 Duma elections and then again three months later the presidential vote. As with other foreign observer groups, about a 10th of the OSCE teams were "long-term" observers with strong knowledge of Russia and Russian, who arrived months beforehand to take an in-depth look at the situation, while the other 380 or so were flown in late in the game to watch the voting day.
Edouard Brunner, head of the OSCE delegation, told The Moscow Times a week before the Duma vote that he expected "international observers will come up with a statement [after the Dec. 19 vote] that the elections were conducted in a democratic way." They did indeed (with the exception of the least well-known of the lot, the European Media Institute, which characterized the Duma vote as "sad" and a step back from democracy for Russia).
The short-term foreign observers usually include the top officials like Brunner - and it is they who tend to set the tone of the crucial morning-after news conferences and press releases.
Following the presidential elections, long-term OSCE observers interviewed by The Moscow Times, on strict condition of anonymity, expressed disgust for the cheery tone of the day-after OSCE commentary - and dissatisfaction that the more thorough, official OSCE report on the elections - which was published two months later and was harsher and more informed - got no attention.
"They make the OSCE's press statement on the elections before the long-term observers - and it's the long-term observers who really know the story - have actually given their reports," said one long-term OSCE observer. "They don't actually hear all the evidence before they write it - and then what happens is, the longer report that the OSCE writes, which is sometimes more critical, its overall tone is set by the press statement.
"Because the press statement is the official stamp of approval. That's what gets quoted in the newspapers ... That's what Putin's people carry around with them in their hand. Nobody will read the detailed report."
That detailed report, released May 19, is posted on the OSCE web site. In it, the OSCE sticks to its initial finding that the elections were democratic and a step forward for Russia. But the report also cites anecdotal evidence from the long-term observers similar to stories heard repeatedly by The Moscow Times - even as the report downplays the significance of the abuses it chronicles and goes into little detail.
The OSCE report states, for example, that in fully half of all polling stations visited by OSCE observers, "some of the cumbersome procedural requirements for the vote count were circumvented in order to expedite the process."
It also notes that the Communist Party observers in particular had documented "episodic violations that, in and of themselves, would not appear to be sufficient to alter the outcome," and then goes on to give a jargon-softened list:
"For example, sporadic instances of family voting, inclusion of deceased persons on voter lists, occasional denial of requests to receive copies of protocols, various abuses of administrative resources, improper influence of administrative authorities seen to be directing the work of polling station commissions, expulsion of individual observers from some sites, incidents of inequities regarding access to the mass media, distribution of campaign material during the 'silent period,' etc."
"Other allegations were more serious and deserve the full weight of investigation," the OSCE report continues. "They involved charges that protocols were falsified, in some instances by reversing or increasing the vote totals recorded for Putin over Zyuganov."
The report concludes that the OSCE observers "are not in a position to judge the validity of the complaints raised by the Communist Party and can draw no conclusions as to the proficiency and seriousness with which they were reviewed by competent election commissions or the courts."
Yet the OSCE did in effect reject the validity of those complaints - when they endorsed the elections as free, fair and democratic. In similar cases, such as the fraud-tainted April re-election of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, Western observers complained until new elections were held. The winner, again Fujimori, today enjoys more legitimacy thanks to the exercise.
"Why did [Western observers] do it [endorse the Putin election as legitimate]? In obvious support for what they call Russian reforms," said Boris Kagarlitsky, a sociologist and political analyst with the Institute for Comparative Politics. "And of course in support for Putin as a reformer. It is a credit of trust to Putin and an extension of the support of the Chubais group," he added, referring to long-running Western support for Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russian privatization programs.
"Many of these organizations, they have as it were a political statement that they want to make before they go," said an OSCE long-term observer unhappy with the organization's soothing official findings. "I thought it was very, very ... totally cynical and unsatisfactory, and if I had been writing the press statement I'd have given it a different slant."
Not one person of those interviewed over the six months since the election could offer compelling evidence that fraud was part of a national conspiracy organized on direct orders from anyone in the Kremlin.
But there is abundant evidence that in some of Russia's 89 regions, orders to falsify the vote came down directly and formally from the governors' offices - in a nation where governors from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok all publicly embraced Putin's political vehicle Unity. And there are reasons to believe that Kremlin officials might have made clear, with not-always-subtle hints, that regional leaders were expected to deliver the Putin vote by hook or by crook.
Consider just the example of the 1995 Duma elections, when then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin angrily and publicly berated regional governors for not delivering the vote - and even threatened to engineer the downfall of governors of regions where Our Home Is Russia did worst.
That the Putin team saw the apparatus of government as subordinate to their campaign needs is suggested by the composition of the team itself. According to the OSCE's final report on the March 26 vote, Putin campaign staff included, among many others, three deputy heads of the Kremlin administration; top Interior Ministry officials including the first deputy minister and deputy police chiefs across the nation; top Railways Ministry officials representing all of the country's major railroad routes; and top officials from the tax and agriculture ministries.
"[OSCE observers] in different regions encountered incidents where campaign materials for the acting president were found in offices of territorial election commissions," the OSCE report says, referring to the unit that oversees 20 to 30 polling stations. "Some territorial commissions acknowledged that they were instructed by the administration to pick up Putin campaign materials for distribution in their areas. Corroborating reports were submitted from territorial commissions as far distant from one another as [Vladivostok] and Kazan.
"In one instance, the chairwoman of a territorial commission acknowledged that one day earlier, she had received her first specific order regarding promoting the acting president's campaign. At that time she had been instructed to pick up campaign literature promoting his candidacy at the same time as she picked up the ballots for her territory."
Elections officials were also apparently bullied into making up results - whether by adding "dead souls" to their count (see sidebar, page VII) or "correcting" official lower-level results to favor Putin.
Not only were governors apparently bullying the local elections officials in their fiefdoms, they were leaning on everyone else as well - from mayors to the heads of schools, factories and collective farms.
The day after the elections, this was suggested in Nizhny Novgorod, when Governor Ivan Sklyarov - in an angry speech to a hall filled with squirming officials from across the region that was partially televised - shouted at heads of districts where Zyuganov did unusually well. "This post-factum revealed that there were orders given prior to the elections that they should be organized in a particular way," said Oleg Kotelnikov, a top Communist Party member in Nizhny Novgorod, by telephone.
Tales like this can be heard across the nation. Consider Tatarstan:
"[Tatarstan President] Mintimer Sharipovich [Shaimiyev] collected us, the heads of local governments, and said approximately this: 'If Primakov had put forward his candidacy, we would call on Tatarstan's people to vote for him. But as he has declined to do so, today the republic urges its citizens to vote for Putin," recounted Rashid Khamadeyev, mayor of the town of Naberezhniye Chelny, located 190 kilometers east of Kazan.
In an interview in the local newspaper Vecherniye Chelny, Mayor Khamadeyev recalled how Shaimiyev continued his address:
"Today I earnestly urge our leaders to create initiative groups headed by heads [of enterprises], and to organize public receptions at every enterprise to support Putin's candidacy.
"Of course if [a local leader] does not desire to do so, he may refuse. But after the elections, I have a great desire to analyze the quality of work of each [factory director or local leader]. We will take the results of each polling station and see how many people came and how they voted. And we will see how each local leader worked - in whose favor? And is it worth it to keep him in his post?"
In neighboring Bashkortostan, local government officials in regions where Putin did worst consistently resigned afterward.
One such official, Ravil Khudaiberdin, who headed the local government of the Uchaly district - 220 kilometers east of Ufa - explained his resignation in wonderfully twisted logic in the newspaper Nash Vybor. In Khudaiberdin's patch of Bashkortostan, Putin won 40.65 percent of the vote and Zyuganov 48.73.
"It's no secret that a major propaganda campaign was part of the run-up to the elections. A personality was defined who could lead our country by the way of democratization of our society - V.V. Putin. Our local government, like others, was explaining who all must vote for, but our appeals were not heard.
"This means that I and my team were not supported by the residents of the city and district. Such a result in the elections is a vote of no confidence in my administration, and that is why I decided to resign."
"I wanted to vote for Zhirinovsky," recounted pensioner Pyotr Filippov, 71. "Zhirinovsky is a good lad, he promised us cheap bread. But [Valentin] Markov, the head of our village, took away my ballot and signed it for Putin."
Filippov is an ethnic Chuvash who lives in the Tatarstan village of Tatarsky Saplyk, about 240 kilometers southeast of Kazan. As he spoke, sitting on a shabby bed that doubles as a couch, his unemployed son nodded in agreement. The son, too, had accompanied his father to the precinct that day and also had wanted to vote for Zhirinovsky - but like his father he had his ballot taken away and cast for Putin.
Other Tatarsky Saplyk residents recounted similar tales.
"The head of our collective farm told me, 'Sign for Putin,' and grabbed my pen from me," said Nikolai, a 40-year-old farmer who did not want his last name published. "But I told him that I wanted to sign for Zyuganov and grabbed back the pen, quickly marked [the box for] Zyuganov and put it in the ballot box. He said to me, 'Look, I will get back at you.'"
But Nikolai said he was not afraid because he has his own business.
"What can he do to me?" he asked rhetorically. "Last year, they paid me just 300 rubles for the entire year. But now I've found a private job - I do window frames - and I don't care what he says."
Tatarsky Saplyk is located in the rural Drazhzhanovsky district - a traditionally Communist patch of Tatarstan not supervised by any elections observers. Putin won this collective farming region with a staggering 86.2 percent, while Zyuganov earned just 8.05 percent.
The Communists are not alone in attributing this landslide for Putin to the persuasive power of "administrative resources" - that vertical chain of bullying governors set in action when they order their underlings to bring in the Putin vote or be sacked.
"I think that this [bullying] has affected the final results of the presidential elections more than even direct falsification of votes," said Viktor Sheinis, a professor at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations, a branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Sheinis said regional chieftains easily manipulate the average rural Russians.
"They look at the peasants like a boa constrictor does at a rabbit. The level of political culture in our villages is not high, it is not Moscow - if something happens here, no one will pay attention," he said. "And if some babushka comes to vote, and she is completely dependent on the administration chief for getting wood and fodder for her animals - she will of course vote the way he tells her to."
For years now, collective farms in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Kursk, Mordovia and Dagestan - to name five regions where "administrative resource" bullying was rampant - have been failing to pay wages on time, and instead have paid in goods produced at the farms such as wheat, sugar and hay. These goods are a survival kit for villagers that supplements what they raise in their own gardens and from their own domestic animals - and a weapon at times of elections.
"In the village of Permiyevo, where I am from, the head of the collective farm told villagers that if they vote for Zyuganov, he would find out - and they would not get tractors for sowing, or wood, or food," said Valentina Lyukzayeva, a secretary of the Communist Party in Mordovia, in a telephone interview. "The villagers, most of whom are old women, of course got frightened and voted for Putin."
In some cases, not just voters but even official observers were told to choose between obedience and hunger.
"In many polling stations our observers were threatened that they would not receive food and fodder packages," said Rinat Gabidullin, a secretary of Bashkortostan's Communist Party.
Gabidullin argues that villagers as a class across the nation were simply excluded from the democratic process. But it's not just villagers who are so weak: All state employees, from education workers to police officers to city hall secretaries, have proven in interviews to have been vulnerable to such pressure. A feature common to some of the worst-run elections commissions, notably in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkariya, was that they would be made up almost entirely from the staff of a particular school or institute of higher learning - and chaired by the head of the institute.
But fraud was also introduced from outside the system - most spectacularly in Tatarstan - by a crawling system of ballot-box stuffing that came to be referred to as "the caterpillar." This practice was so widespread that Vladimir Shevchuk, head of the Tatarstan Elections-2000 Press Center, not only admitted it had existed, he even explained how it works.
"There are people standing near the elections precincts and when they see a voter coming up, they offer him or her 50 rubles or a 100 rubles so that he or she takes a pre-filled-in ballot to drop in the box, and then returns with a blank ballot," Shevchuk said. "Then [the fraudsters] fill in the new clean ballot and offer it to the next voter."
Shevchuk added that in December, during the State Duma elections, even President Shaimiyev's spokesman Irek Murtazin was asked to play the caterpillar game. And in a telephone interview, Murtazin confirmed that he had been given 50 rubles for stuffing a ballot - although he added that he had cheated the cheaters, and that the ballot in question had not been for the Duma elections but for parallel elections to the Tatarstan legislative assembly.
"I took their ballot and put an additional mark on it - thus spoiling it - and took them out a clean ballot. I wanted to vote against everyone anyway," Murtazin said, laughing.
The caterpillar might have been nearly foolproof. But not everyone was content to earn just 50 rubles. Three people were arrested at separate Tatarstan polling stations for trying to stuff large packets of ballots into the ballot box - always in favor of Putin, but sometimes also in favor of a candidate in local legislative elections, said Alexei Afanasiev, a legal adviser to the Communist Party in Tatarstan.
Afanasiev said nothing seems to have come of the investigations into those arrests, though all three still await trial.
One of those ballot-box stuffers was caught by Felix Rashidov, a member of the elections commission at Kazan's 263rd voting precinct.
"Suddenly one voter approached us and told us to come quickly to the ballot box," Rashidov recounted in an interview. "We saw a Caucasian-looking man put a large pack of ballots into the box!
"We immediately grabbed him and called the police," Rashidov said. "An official report was made, the ballot box was opened and the ballots were taken out. There were two lots [bundled together] - 12 ballots were filled in for Putin and 12 for a local candidate to Tatarstan's legislative assembly."
Who paid for the ballots to be stuffed? It's hard to say. But even here, there are signs that ballot-box stuffing can be traced back to "administrative resources" abuses. In Dagestan, for example, an elections commission member for Makhachkala's 931st voting precinct said she learned a local school had been pressuring parents of students to sneak in ballots for Putin and stuff them into the box.
"After election day, two pairs of parents brought me two small packets of ballots - three ballots in each packet - that they said they had been given by teachers of their children, to stuff into the ballot box along with their own [votes]."