Tens of thousands of people are observing the Russian presidential election. Their aim is to document the polling - or better yet, to prevent electoral fraud.
An old factory building in an industrial area in the southeastern outskirts of Moscow. It's here that the next Russian "revolution" is being prepared, even though the people here don't like to use the word out loud.
"We do feel a bit like revolutionaries," says Julia Drogova with a laugh. Then the blonde woman in her late thirties adds, "But we want to make this a peaceful revolution." As she speaks, her cell phone rings again. It's been ringing every few minutes, because Drogova is busy coordinating a project called "Citizen Voters", part of a wider movement for free elections.
Protests mobilize observers
The movement has an important task in this year's presidential election. After serving as prime minister for the past four years, Vladimir Putin wants to be elected to the presidency once again. He needs at least 50 percent of votes to achieve that. Surveys put him above that percentage, but since independent election observers criticized last year's parliamentary elections, many Russians are skeptical whether the poll will be free and fair.
This time around, activists like Julia Drogova want to make sure that any fraud during the vote is prevented, or at least documented. On election day, Drogova will be coordinating volunteers across Moscow to observe the elections.
Ever since the 2011 parliamentary elections and the ensuing protests, Drogova has experienced a run from citizens who want to get involved. Last year, her project trained 500 voters to become election observers and sent them out to the Russian capital's polling stations. This time, almost 4,000 have joined Drogova's cause.
"They are normal citizens, on average between 30 and 40 years old," says Matwej Petuchov of Citizen Voters. "Most are well-educated specialists, some are even managers." Petuchov himself is a physics teacher.
A difficult job
In all of Russia, tens of thousands will be observing the elections. Around 200 have been dispatched by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but the large majority of observers are Russian activists, both from opposition and pro-Kremlin groups.
A cursory glance at the "Brief Manual for Election Observers" shows that this is not an easy task. Not only because observers have to prepare themselves thoroughly, and bring their own water, food and any medication. Each of them has to observe up to ten polling stations and work intensely until late into the night.
They have to be assertive, too, because the relationship between observers and state authorities is often tense. One high representative of the Central Electoral Commission in Moscow criticized NGO plans to present an alternative vote count, saying that would amount to a crime.
Some regions without observers
According to Lilija Shibanova, who heads the NGO Golos, or "Vote," observers were treated with hostility or even banned from polling stations during last year's parliamentary elections. Because of this, she says, Golos observers will be working in pairs during Sunday's presidential election.
Some 2,200 Golos observers will be on duty across Russia. But neither Golos nor all the other organizations combined have the capacity to send observers to every one of Russia's 94,000 polling stations. It's not only because there are not enough volunteers. Golos, for instance, has more than enough reason not to send observers to the Caucasian republic of Chechnya.
"We tried once and then we were told that in the evening of election day, men carrying machine guns entered the polling stations and took the ballot boxes away," says Shibanova. According to official results, 90 percent of voters in Chechnya voted pro-Kremlin.
More fraud expected
Shibanova says Putin could win the elections without resorting to fraud, and says it seems that the prime minister does take an interest in having fair elections. She points out it was Putin himself who suggested installing surveillance cameras in almost all the polling stations, which is a big help to observers.
And yet she does not expect the elections to proceed fairly. In the run-up to the vote, Golos received reports suggesting that fraud was being planned. "Apparently there have been clear suggestions how the election could be falsified," says Shibanova. The opportunity to vote at home, for instance, could be used to rig the poll. Also, employees of state-owned enterprises are being brought to a "controlled vote" with buses.
Should the amount of documented violations reach a certain dimension, Shibanova says, this will cast doubt on the election's legitimacy. "But first," she adds, "people have to vote and those votes have to be counted."
Author: Roman Goncharenko / ar
Editor: Ben Knight