Russia votes in local polls as opposition claims mass fraud
As Russians voted in local elections on Sunday set to confirm the ruling party's dominance, the opposition reported mass vote rigging and police stormed the office of independent vote monitors.
The local elections across 83 regions were expected to be easily won by the United Russia party which supports President Vladimir Putin.
The main challenge to the Kremlin comes in the sleepy city of Kostroma around 350 kilometres (215 miles) northeast of Moscow, in the one region where the opposition has been allowed to stand.
The RPR-Parnas liberal opposition coalition which is fielding two candidates, includes the party of slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov and is fronted by Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader and fearless Kremlin critic, and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov.
The coalition's candidates have been disqualified from other regional polls in a move it called politically motivated.
Activists and observers in Kostroma reported mass violations including so-called "cruise voting" where voters are bussed around polling stations, voting at each one, after obtaining absentee ballots.
- 'Police storm' -
On Sunday afternoon events took a dramatic turn as police stormed the Kostroma offices of independent election monitoring group Open Elections, launched by former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, with observers saying they were barricaded inside.
Activists said the police operation was apparently intended to prevent observers exposing mass violations.
"What is happening here? Regular electoral monitoring. Why do they need to paralyse this work if the count is fair? There is one answer: apparently it's not fair. They need to kick observers out of polling stations," Navalny told journalists after arriving at the scene.
Vote observer Maria Baronova told AFP by telephone from inside the office that some 18 police had entered and were not allowing the 12 observers to leave, saying they were investigating a murder.
She said that the police had arrived after a gunman in street clothes had tried to attack monitors, but it was unclear whether he was also a police officer.
Police told TASS news agency they responded to a call about a "conflict between citizens."
RPR-Parnas had earlier reported widespread violations in the Kostroma vote.
"During the entire day of voting, mass violations are taking place," it wrote on its website.
Activist Leonid Volkov said RPR-Parnas had filed some 20 official complaints about violations in the region.
By Saturday afternoon, the Golos election monitoring group said it had received reports of more than 1,400 suspected incidents of electoral fraud, 99 in Kostroma region.
The deputy head of the central electoral commission, Leonid Ivlev, said it had received just five complaints from all of Russia, however, Interfax news agency reported.
Experts said the vote had also been manipulated by electoral officials stopping opposition candidates from standing or blocked their access to the media.
- 'American' support -
Ilya Yashin, a top speaker at Moscow anti-government street protests and a close ally of Nemtsov, is one of the two candidates standing for a seat in the legislature for the Kostroma region for RPR-Parnas.
"United Russia has a monopoly on television and administrative resources," Yashin said. "It counts on winning the elections through its domination of information and resources."
The campaign in Kostroma has seen Yashin briefly detained, while his stump speeches have been interrupted by the police, pugnacious pro-Kremlin youth groups and even a black man hired to pose as an American diplomat.
At one Kostroma polling station, dozens of voters, many of the elderly women, stood patiently in line to cast their ballots. Several saying they were aware of the opposition coalition but did not intend to vote for it.
"I know that Parnas is running, the Americans are behind them," 47-year-old Valentina Oleneva said, adding that she had voted for the Communist Party.
Lyudmila, a 57-year-old pensioner, also condemned the coalition as "bought by the Americans."
Kostroma saw turnout of more than 31 percent by Saturday evening, TASS state news agency reported.
The polls are a key indicator of the public mood ahead of general elections next year and after economic hardships due to falling oil prices and sanctions linked to the Ukraine crisis.
Although Moscow is not participating in the vote, 21 regions are electing new governors and 11 electing regional parliaments.
Regional authorities reportedly organised mass submission of early votes to bulk up the turnout. The head of the central electoral commission Vladimir Churov acknowledged "violations" ahead of the poll.
© 2015 AFP