Complaints of Fraud, Bribery and Pressure

MTChildren preparing for a play Sunday at a school that is also a polling station.
Voters and opposition parties complained of ballot stuffing, bribery and intimidation in Sunday's presidential election, in which Kremlin-backed candidate Dmitry Medvedev appeared set for a landslide victory.

Golos, the only independent Russian monitoring group, said that a majority of the violations occurred not at the ballot box, but rather in the run-up to the election and during the tallying of votes.

Authorities, meanwhile, either denied any voting irregularities or dismissed them as negligible.

"These are free and democratic elections, and they were preceded by a free and democratic campaign," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said by telephone Sunday evening.

Numerous observers and voters called the Golos hotline and reported incidents of ballot boxes being stuffed ahead of the vote, according to the election watchdog's web site, which was being updated with fresh allegations of fraud all day Sunday.

"Most fraud occurs when election officials compile lists of voters, including people who are not eligible to vote in their district," Golos head Lilia Shibanova said.

Observers at polling stations simply cannot distinguish repeat voters -- who visit numerous polling stations to cast ballots for a candidate backed by authorities -- from real voters, Shibanova said.

One independent observer told The Moscow Times that a less subtle approach was used at Polling Station No. 1513 in the Pechatniki district in southeast Moscow.

The observer, Roman Udot, said he peered through the slots of both the sealed ballot boxes at the polling station and saw neatly stacked ballots, despite the fact that voting had not yet begun.

The top ballot in each stack had a mark next to Medvedev's name, Udot said. He managed to take a photograph of the stack of ballots in one of the boxes and posted the pictures on his blog, The photographs appear to support his claim.

"I reported this to the election officials," Udot said in a telephone interview. "I called police, and they came here for a while. What drives me nuts is that no one cares or takes any action."

City elections commission officials from the opposition party Yabloko were investigating Udot's claim, the party said.

A city police spokesman said there were no incidents of police being called to polling stations over purported fraud.

The telephone at the Pechatniki district elections commission was switched off Sunday.

Election officials later disqualified the ballots in question, Udot said. "There was a real crime committed here that now will turn into a minor irregularity," he said.

The liberal Union of Right Forces party reported a similar case of ballot stuffing in central Moscow and filed a report with city prosecutors, the party said.

Employees in state-run institutions also said in interviews that they had been bribed or pressured to vote by their bosses.

Two doctors at local hospitals said in separate interviews that their superiors demanded they come to work and vote at the polling stations set up there. One of the doctors was threatened with dismissal if she did not comply.

"Everyone is scared in this election," the doctor said on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retribution.

Doctors were also ordered to keep patients at the hospital until Monday, regardless of medical necessity, so they could vote there.

The other doctor said she was rewarded with two days' vacation for coming in to vote.

Irina, a 30-year-old teacher who declined to give her last name, said she voted for the first time in her life Sunday -- and only because her school's principal demanded that every employee cast a ballot.

In the North Caucasus republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, which had one of the country's highest official turnouts in the Dec. 2 State Duma election -- reaching 100 percent in several districts -- Sunday's results seemed to have been decided in advance, said Ismail Bidzhev, head of the local branch of the Communist Party.

Bidzhev produced a list which, he said, showed the percentage each candidate would receive in the republic: 86.7 percent for Medvedev, 10.2 percent for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, 2.5 percent for Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and 0.4 percent for Andrei Bogdanov, head of the tiny Democratic Party of Russia.

"If there were a real election, Medvedev would get between 25 and 30 percent," Bidzhev said. It was impossible to verify his claim Sunday.

Both Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov threatened to contest the election in court over irregularities. Zyuganov said he had evidence of some 200 violations, "each one being more cynical than the next."

Central Elections Commission chief Vladimir Churov said at the commission's headquarters that he was prepared to defend the election in court against the candidates' allegations.

Some measures to get voters to polling stations were more subtle. For example, some schools in Moscow and the Moscow region that served as polling stations held student plays.

Western election observers reached Sunday said they did not see any blatant violations.

"There does not seem to be any voter intimidation," Nigel Evans, a British parliamentarian, said after visiting eight polling stations in Moscow.

Evans is one of a 23-member mission from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the only regular Western observation team that came to monitor Sunday's election.

Two observer missions from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe canceled their plans to monitor the vote, saying Russia had placed overly severe restrictions on the work of their monitors. Russia has dismissed the claim. The head of the PACE mission in Moscow, Andreas Gross, declined to comment Sunday, saying he would issue his assessment on Monday.

Staff Writers Francesca Mereu, Nikolaus von Twickel, Natalya Krainova and Maria Antonova contributed to this report from Moscow. Staff Writer Catrina Stewart contributed from Karachayevo-Cherkessia.