On Sunday, millions of Russians will vote to elect a new president. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is expected to win and return to the post he held until 2008.
The government is promising these elections will be free, fair and transparent. But many are skeptical, believing last December’s parliamentary vote was rigged.
You can hear that skepticism among fans at a hockey arena in the western reaches of Moscow. As cheerleaders in skimpy costumes perform on a platform high above the ice, one fan explains why, for him, what happens on the ice is more interesting than politics.
“The results of the match are more important because the election is already decided unfortunately,” he says. Another fan echoes that same thought.
That view – that Vladimir Putin is sure to win — is widespread. Even independent polls suggest he’s comfortably ahead of his rivals.
But the allegations of fraud last December, and the massive protests that followed in Moscow and other cities, have inspired many Russians to get involved as volunteer election monitors.
The video below aims to recruit volunteer monitors with some very direct images. On screen, you see people dropping their ballots into boxes, only to have them shredded into garbage below.
Whether inspired by such images or by something else, as many as 30,000 people with no party affiliation have signed to be poll watchers this Sunday. That’s unprecedented in Russian elections.
One group of about 100 volunteers is focusing all its attention on the central Moscow district of Danilovsky. Dmitri Surnin and Dmitry Cherny are coordinating a campaign to scrutinize every vote in Danilovsky’s 27 polling stations.
Cherny is quick to declare that this isn’t about partisan politics. “I should stress,” he says, “that we are not against any candidate. We are not against Putin or somebody else. We just want fair elections.”
For him, the motivation is what he claims he saw last December when he monitored the vote at a polling precinct. The numbers were changed, he says, to give United Russia, a party loyal to Putin, a higher percentage of the vote.
Cherny is a corporate lawyer by day. He filed a complaint with the election commission. But he says the commission told him he didn’t understand the law.
“I am a lawyer and they say I cannot understand the legal sense of things,” he says. “I am a lawyer with 10 years experience.”
The government rejects charges of widespread fraud. And Putin has tried to cast doubt on the volunteer monitors, saying they will stuff ballot boxes in order to claim wrongdoing.
“I hate the level of cynicism that now kind of permeates everything… every governmental structure in this country. It comes from TV, it comes from everything,” says Dmitry Surnin.
He too filed a complaint about irregularities at the polling station he monitored last fall. He says this time around he’s motivated by indignation.
Surnin and Cherny say their strategy for Sunday is to have at least two monitors in every polling station. The two coordinators themselves will be at the electoral district headquarters trying to ensure the overall count is clean.
Putin has promised transparency too, ensuring webcams are installed in every precinct so anyone can log on and watch. Surnin says that’s not enough.
“This is a basic right of a person and [the fact that] people have to go out into the streets to defend that right shows that there is huge moral problem inside the country, inside the way the system operates,” says Surnin.
For these men, as for Putin, the stakes are high. Evidence of a rigged vote could well lead to more protests, casting a shadow over Putin’s probable return to the presidency.