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 voting across 83 regions were expected to be easily won by the United Russia party which supports President Vladimir Putin.
Although Moscow did not participate in the ballot, 21 regions were electing new governors and 11 electing regional parliaments.
With the last polls closing by 1800 GMT, results were to be officially announced on Monday.
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.
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 for election.
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.
Navalny said Sunday night the party’s exit polls showed RPR-Parnas had received six percent of the vote, enough to squeeze a candidate into the regional legislature.
In an interview with AFP, Navalny claimed lower exit polls figures published by state-controlled pollsters were “complete rubbish.”
“Right now we are trying to defend our results,” Navalny said. “In Russia, things are the way they are: today exit polls show six percent, tomorrow morning we can wake up and see one percent.”
The coalition’s candidates have been disqualified from other regional polls in a move it called politically motivated.
Though votes were being held in 83 regions, just under half — 42 of them — were considered important. Many of the others were taking place in tiny rural areas.
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 for election or blocking 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.
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.