How a mysterious change to voting tallies boosted Putin at St Petersburg polling station: a citizen observer reports
Election monitors across Russia reported alleged vote fixing in the presidential poll. Irina Levinskaya, a St Petersburg historian, gives her eye-witness account of how she saw it happen.
By Irina Levinskaya
After Russia’s parliamentary elections in December, it was impossible for anyone in my country not to know that there had been electoral fraud on a massive scale. But I am a historian and obsessed with verifying information for myself.
For that reason I joined the more than 3,000 citizens in St Petersburg who committed themselves to monitoring last week’s presidential election.
In training sessions, lawyers explained the kinds of irregularities that might occur and how to avert – or at least to record – them. They lectured us on the relevant laws and regulations. They told us how to prevent ballot stuffing and how to detect “carousel voting”, when people vote more than once.
“But remember,” they warned on several occasions. “The members of the electoral commission are not your enemies: think positively about them and don’t forget the presumption of innocence.”
I was allocated to Polling Station No. 1015 on Moskovsky Avenue in the south of St Petersburg. It was in a special school for excluded children and the head of the election commission was a social-worker-cum-teacher at the school.
Natalya Dmitriyeva was a kindly-looking, smiling woman in her mid-fifties: the sort of person you’d imagine to be perfect for rehabilitating our city’s excluded youth.
Such teachers, according to the school’s website, “prevent youth crime and teach individual responsibility and freedom”.
I arrived at 7.30am on March 4. In all, we were 11 observers from all walks of life and of all ages, including three young women students. We stayed at the polling station all day and well into the evening, when the votes for the five presidential candidates were counted.
At 10.30pm, the final count was made. The results astonished me: Putin had come first but with only 466 votes – 47.7 per cent of the vote. Second was the billionare Mikhail Prokhorov with an unexpected 226 votes (23.1 per cent ). Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, received 176 votes (18 per cent) and came third in this particular district.
Since most of the voters had been of the Soviet generation, I had assumed that the old habit of dutifully voting for the leaders (combined with aggressive pro-Putin television propaganda during the last few months and coercion in many state institutions) would have given a clear majority to Putin, with Zyuganov in second place.
Ms Dmitriyeva, the senior official, wrote up the results on the wall in large figures, as required by law. I took a photograph of the document. Now, all that remained was for her to make copies for each of us. This was so that the figures could not be falsified at a higher level, as had happened during the parliamentary elections.
Our job seemed to be over. We had spent more than 15 hours at Polling Station 1015. During that time, we had not seen a single irregularity. We were very pleased with how things had gone. Everything had been carried out in strict accordance with the law.
By now it was nearing midnight. Ms Dmitriyeva went off to copy the official documents. And this was when things began to go wrong. Exhausted after a long and tense day, it didn’t occur to us to go with her. Our vigilance slipped.
The sweet, smiling, kindly-looking teacher went off and didn’t come back. We waited and waited. I went to look for her but she had vanished. Now, I remembered with horror what we’d been warned of by our lawyers: “Don’t let the head of the commission out of your sight at the final stage.”
It was some time before another member of the commission appeared (we never saw Ms Dmitriyeva again) with a sheaf of papers in his hand. “You wanted copies of the official results? Here they are.”
“Thank goodness!” I thought. I grabbed a copy of the document, checked that all formalities had been complied with – the official stamp, signature in the right place and so on – then unfolded it.
I couldn’t believe what I saw: Putin – 780 votes (80.2 per cent); Zyuganov 83 votes (8.5 per cent); and Prokhorov 32 votes (3.3 per cent). I was horrified.
I’ll never forget the shock on the faces of the three young students: someone, though we could not know who, had falsified the ballot.
The member of the commission who had handed us the falsified papers was still in the building and so we waited at the exit to confront him. But he appeared to have taken precautions and phoned for support.
Suddenly, a Nissan Pathfinder drew up and three thick-set, young men with shaven heads leapt out. Pushing us forcefully aside, they escorted the commission member to the car and drove off.
I wrote down the number-plate and later established it was from a series used for official cars carrying government employees with the right to state security.
Next day we learned that the same car, and the same men, had been seen at other polling stations, either throwing out observers or escorting election officials.
Of course, this will not be the end of it. Immediately, we went to the constituency level election commission but its chairman had also vanished.
The following day, we filed a complaint and next week we will hand a witness statement, with all our documentary evidence, to the prosecutor’s office – along with hundreds of others from the St Petersburg district.
I am not confident of success, however: I have years of experience, not only of Putin’s Russia but also of our former Soviet paradise. The difference between them is growing harder and harder to determine.
Dr Irina Levinskaya is a senior fellow of St Petersburg Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University’s Centre for Advanced Theological Research