As Russia Braces for New Protests, Anger at Suspect Election Results Persists

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Alexei Nikolsky / RIA Novosti / Reuters

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sits to get registered at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Moscow on Dec. 4, 2011

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Some of the most dramatic evidence has come from the civil-society group Citizen Observer. In the past few weeks, it has collected 223 original vote tallies — the so-called protocols — which were salvaged by officials like Salkin from polling stations around the country. "By comparing them to the official results, it seems clear that the tally at one in every seven polling stations were falsified," says Dmitri Oreshkin, the group's founder. Next month, when the organization completes its analysis of these documents, it plans to publish all of them online.

Other allegations are already public. On Dec. 19, the independent Levada Center polling agency published a survey of 1,000 voters in Moscow, and only 32% of them said they had cast their ballot for United Russia on Dec. 4. That is 15% less than the party's official results. Polling stations equipped with electronic ballot boxes, which are much harder to tamper with, also reported results of just around 30% for Putin's party. And the Internet has been flooded with clips of alleged vote rigging, some taken by established journalists. In one of the most popular, an election official apparently sneaks up on one of his colleagues with a camera and records him idly filling in blank ballots for United Russia.

The party's response has been predictable: three weeks of nonstop denials. Putin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, admitted that there were some irregularities during the vote, but said that they did not amount to more than 0.5% of the ballots — not enough to compromise the final results. But most of the damage control has been entrusted to Vladimir Churov, the head of the Central Election Commission, an old Putin friend from their hometown of St. Petersburg. In an interview with Itogi magazine the day after the vote, Churov set the tone of the official reaction: "I am not interested in the perverted fantasies of these tiny little people who doubt our honesty," he said. "Some of [the claims] are just absurd. In the last elections, some citizens demanded that we stop torturing the midgets who are hiding in the ballot boxes."

This patronizing tone, which runs through most of the government's denials, has only worked to infuriate Putin's opponents, and the stream of alleged leaks and whistle-blowers has continued hard and fast. Perhaps the most shocking was published on Dec. 22 by a United Russia official named Vladimir Semago. In an op-ed piece for the Novaya Gazeta daily, he stated that, "The falsification of these election results was a conspiracy aimed at forcibly holding on to power." He then recommended that the opposition stop demanding a recount of the vote and start demanding charges against the United Russia party, the Interior Ministry and the Central Election Commission for "forming an organized criminal group" aimed at violating the constitutional guarantee of free elections.

The most moving part of the article, however, had to do with Semago's own involvement in United Russia. "I have taken some actions in my political life for which I am ashamed," he wrote. "But I would never have the gall ... to look people in the eyes and say that our seats in the [parliament] are more important than your protests." He then pledged, as tens of thousands of others already have, to attend the next mass demonstration for free elections, which will be held on Dec. 24 in Moscow. Salkin, of course, will be there too, and if you ask him why, he repeats another refrain of the opposition movement. "The one good thing to come out of these elections is that they united society," he says. "People are fed up, and they are not afraid to say it anymore."

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