Baby Boom or Dead Souls?
Russian and foreign demographic experts have wondered how 1.3 million new voters could have materialized in just three months last winter. Perhaps they could find enlightenment by talking with Alkhat Zaripov, a 65-year-old pensioner who lives in a multistory apartment block in Kazan.
"I came to vote, but suddenly I noticed that there were extra apartments registered in the form where we all sign and give our passport details," said Zaripov, in an April interview outside his apartment at 107 Ulitsa Fuchika.
Zaripov remembered being confused: The form listed 209 apartments in the building, while he knew in reality there were only 180 apartments there. Twenty-nine apartments, filled no doubt with at least 60 or 70 fictional voters, had apparently been created by the imagination of the local election precinct.
A list for the apartment block next door, a building that held 108 apartments, recorded that it had 125.
Zaripov said he asked for an explanation - but a commission member just picked up the form and walked away.
"This is a lie! Why is this called democratic elections?" Zaripov said.
"I decided to tell [Vladimir] Putin's elections headquarters, but I could not find it. I then asked for the Yabloko headquarters, but no one knew where it was. Someone told me where the Communist Party office was. I went there and filed a complaint. I am not a Communist, I only wanted justice," Zaripov said.
In other words, an additional 1.3 million voters appeared on the rolls.
Remember: Any citizen over 18 is automatically registered.
Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov, in a written reply to questions, stated that the December national election had not been held in Chechnya, but the war-torn republic and some 480,748 voters were hurried back into the fold for the March vote. Veshnyakov also said that some 550,000 Russians turned 18 between the elections. Taisiya Nechiporenko, a CEC spokeswoman, offered a third explanation, suggesting that immigration into Russia from former Soviet republics and elsewhere had added tens of thousands of new voters from December to March.
Yet another explanation, suggested by others scratching their heads and struggling to come up with 1.3 million new adult citizens in such a short period, focused on the possibility of mass releases from the nation's prisons - convicted criminals cannot vote in Russia.
But there are problems with all of these explanations.
Russia's declining population is a well-documented fact, as the birth rate has for years lagged behind the death rate. Last year, the national population actually shrank by 836,000 people, according to the State Statistics Committee.
And the pool of registered voters, of course, should be shrinking even more rapidly under this dynamic: Each year's deaths overwhelmingly represent lost voters - while not a single new birth represents a new voter.
State Statistics Committee data for the first three months of 2000 - which covers most of the period between the two national elections - show the nation lost another 235,100 people to the discrepancy between the birth-death rate. At the same time, the statistics committee reports a mere 53,000 people immigrating from abroad. In other words, between the elections the country effectively lost 182,100 people, presumably most of them voters.
It is still possible, of course, that even as the population shrank, the number of voters grew, provided that hundreds of thousands of people turned 18 between December 1999 and March 2000 - in other words, provided that there was a baby boom about 18 years ago.
But there wasn't.
Murray Feshbach, a professor at Georgetown University specializing in Russian demography, pronounced himself "very confused by these data" from the CEC about 550,000 new 18-year-olds.
Feshbach, who made his name in demographics debunking falsified Soviet census data in the Stalin era, said various data on the Soviet population showed no significant spike in births over all of 1981 and 1982 - which was 18 years ago.
Yevgeny Andreyev, a demography expert with the Institute of National Economic Forecasting, came to the same conclusion as Feshbach after studying much the same population data and pondering the CEC's claim of 550,000 new 18-year-olds.
"The explanation of a boost in the numbers of 18-year-olds is not satisfactory. Perhaps polling stations started to more thoroughly compose their [voter] lists - or perhaps this boom [of 1.3 million people] is just made up," Andreyev said.
Statisticians with the State Statistics Committee were equally flummoxed.
"[The Central Elections Commission] is taking liberties with the truth when they explain such a figure with a boost in the 18-year-old population and immigration," said Irina Rakhmaninova, head of the committee's department tracking the national population.
And did Russia's jails release 1.3 million convicts back into the voting rolls? No. According to the Justice Ministry's Prison Department, the number of prisoners increased - and the number of voters decreased - by 38,000 in the first three months of 2000.
And opposition forces in places like Tatarstan have no doubt that officials conjured up "dead souls" to vote for Putin.
At Kazan's 372nd voting precinct, for example, a complaint written by three elections observers and signed by a precinct elections commission member, Alexander Vladimirov, alleges that "names of voters were printed twice in the registration forms in a very large quantity, while the same names were listed by different [passport] numbers." The complaint, provided by Tatarstan's Communist Party, quotes Zukhra Anisimova, the head of the precinct elections commission, as saying that the double-barreled lists were provided to her by the local government.
Ildus Sultanov, head of RIZ - an umbrella uniting opposition to the Mintimer Shaimiyev's administration, from Russia's Democratic Choice to the Communists - tells similar stories.
"Our observers were checking registration lists just before the elections, and they found a strange phenomenon: In one apartment at 25A Dubravnaya Street, electoral precinct No. 326, there were three old people - all born in 1901 - listed as living together with one couple," Sultanov recounted.
"Our observers went to that apartment to check up on these three people who were almost a 100 years old. And what did they find? These three elders were actually the small children of that couple.
"And there were a few other such 'elders' listed in the same apartment block. There were several cases like that, and strangely enough all these 'dead souls' spread across different electoral districts were listed as having been born in 1901."
Ramai Yuldashev, leader of the Azatlyk youth movement in Tatarstan and a member of Kazan's 418th polling precinct elections commission, recounted catching a colleague red-handed at such fraud - but when he complained, his colleagues had police remove him as a drunk.
Yuldashev teaches history, law and economics at a Kazan college, and in precinct No. 418 all of the elections commission members but him worked as employees of the same school. On voting day, the precinct commission chief summoned him for tea to discuss his status as an outsider.
"She told me, 'Look, we are all afraid of you. I have two children and I will need you to sign a document saying everything was all right here,'" Yuldashev said. "I said that if they worked honestly and without violations I would be only happy to sign such a document, declined the food and drink they offered and went back to work.
"But at 7:55 p.m., I saw that one of the commission members was writing something on a registration form. I was surprised and started to watch. She had some sheet of paper she was peeping at, and she was writing down passport details and signatures. I saw her fill in at least eight people's names.
"I put my hand on the list and demanded to have a look at what she was doing. But they would not let me and started to shout at me. I said I want to check if the lists were falsified. They told me I had no right to see them. She grabbed the lists and managed to hide the sheet with the names."
Soon the police were there to show him the door, and in mid-April Yuldashev was fined 50 rubles for disorderly behavior.
"Only half of our people voted in these elections," said Dzhafarov. "And I just laughed upon hearing the next day that close to a 100 percent of the people participated. They must have added people, but I have no facts to prove it."
According to CEC data, 59.23 percent of Dagestan's registered voters had cast their ballots by 6 p.m. But two hours later, turnout soared to 83.6 percent.
"Normally most people come in the morning, then attendance decreases slowly and in the end, there is a small rise, but not a vertical skyrocket of visitors," said Boris Kagarlitsky, a sociologist who has examined the elections data.
"I think at some of the precinct offices - if you were to look at the shoe sizes of all these people who came at the last moment according to the official statistics - they simply would not all fit. This is a direct sign that there were 'ghost voters' or 'dead souls' created by elections commissions."