Russians head to the polls on March 4 for a presidential vote in which Vladimir Putin is a clear favorite. But fears of election rigging abound. DW met two polling station chairwomen who were fired for reporting fraud.
Evidence is mounting of serious fraud committed during Russian parliamentary elections in December, and critics point to signs that Russian authorities are out to influence the vote for president on March 4 as well.
Though presidential candidate Vladimir Putin's popularity is waning, he is still the expected winner in March and remains Russia's most popular politician.
"Things are getting better, and I think we have no right to let down our leadership - probably we could find a way to continue when someone else is in power, but what will happen is very difficult to predict," said high school director Olga Klubnichkina in a recording now circulating online as evidence of the pressure people face to vote for Putin.
Klubnichkina was speaking at a school meeting in Lyubertsy, just outside of Moscow. In the tape, she gives instructions to her staff on how to vote in the upcoming presidential elections.
"You understand for whom you are to vote," Klubnichkina can be heard saying. She adds that how the staff members vote will be carefully registered and that those who vote "correctly" can count on perks that include extra vacation days.
Pressure to stuff ballots
With polls showing that Putin is losing some of his luster, opponents fear widespread election fraud as an attempt to offer Putin a decisive victory in March. They say it would continue a pattern also observed in the December parliamentary elections.
Two women who chaired polling stations during that election have publicly declared they were pressured to commit fraud. They refused to cooperate, and as a result they now have been dismissed from their jobs.
Tatyana Ivanova had been chairwoman of a polling station in St. Petersburg for fourteen years, where she said she and other poll workers were asked to stuff ballot boxes.
"We replied that it was simply impossible, since we are working with lists of voters, and the number of ballot papers issued must coincide with the number in the ballot box. Then [election authorities] said they would provide us with a second, alternative list, and indeed two days before election day they brought the lists to our polling station," Ivanova explained.
After refusing to use the second lists, Ivanova claims she and a fellow dissenter were promptly sacked from their posts as chairwomen.
Ivanova, who worked as a teacher for thirty years before resigning following the poll incident, said the initial attempts to commit fraud in her polling station were pre-empted. But when it came to election night, counting procedures went on for hours, until seven in the morning. That procedure would normally take an hour, she said, concluding that the extra time must have been used to rewrite the election results.
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Former polling station chairwoman Irina Kolpakova had a similar experience in Samara, a city on the Volga River. She is happy to show a copy of the protocol from her station, which she says proves the real victor was not the ruling party United Russia.
"They tried to talk us into committing fraud, but we did not comply," she said. "In our district the Communist Party won a convincing victory, but the consequences were not so nice for the leadership of the territorial election committee. The chairman and many members were sacked."
Kolpakova first told her story in a video clip posted on the Internet in early February. The clip became an instant hit. Soon after, Kolpakova and other members of her team were told they would not be allowed to work in the polling station during the presidential elections.
Now a criminal investigation has been launched against her for alleged fraud. A complaint has also been filed against Ivanova, who is being accused of slandering a superior.
Both women stress that they have not seen election fraud to this extent in the past.
Putin 'not to blame'
Ivanova said, however, that she thought the fraud wouldn't influence the outcome of the election. Kolpakova noted that in her area, Putin's United Russia did win in many polling stations where, to her knowledge, no fraud had been committed.
Kolpakova added that in spite of having lost her position as chairwoman, she still greatly admires Prime Minister Putin, whom she is convinced was not behind the voting manipulations. Instead, she blames his aides.
Vladimir Churov, the head of the central election committee, dismisses their complaints. The close Putin ally has promised to install webcams in the polling stations, and he denies reports of cases in which video evidence of fraud during the parliamentary elections was available.
Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp, Moscow
Editor: Gabriel Borrud