Opponents say there is ‘no legitimate president’ and upload to the internet examples of what they claim is evidence of fraud
By Miriam Elder in Moscow
Two women hover over a ballot box in the industrial Russian city of Cherepovets, stuffing in ballot after ballot. On the streets of Moscow, an independent election monitor armed with an iPhone trails a van full of “carousel” voters – people bussed from polling site to polling site in order to cast multiple votes for Vladimir Putin.
Three months after Moscow exploded in a storm of fury over allegedly widespread electoral fraud during the country’s parliamentary vote, Russians went to the polls to vote against or, mostly, for Vladimir Putin in his quest to return to the presidency.
Putin quickly claimed victory, waiting until just over 20% of votes were counted, but his opponents just as quickly cried foul, armed with reels of evidence of alleged fraud. They uploaded them by the thousands to their Twitter accounts and LiveJournal blogs, helping the indignation go viral.
“Russia has no legitimate government or legitimate president,” opposition leader Alexey Navalny said, addressing press and supporters at a makeshift headquarters at a central Moscow cafe. “He who has declared himself president is a usurper.”
The tension on the streets was palpable. Interior ministry troops, backed by army trucks, arrest vans and bomb sappers, flooded central Moscow. They stood, camouflaged, with their backs to the Kremlin, guarding its residents against some unknown threat.
Outside, democracy à la russe was being carried out in polling sites around the country. Millions turned up at ballot boxes set up in schools, academies and even grocery shops to fulfil their civic duty, despite the widespread belief that the result had been decided for them.
Nadezhda Dvornikova, a 57-year-old pensioner, held her grandson by the hand as she walked the halls of Moscow’s Polytechnical College. “I voted for Putin,” she said quietly. “I trust him.” When asked if she thought her vote would make a difference, she said: “No, I don’t trust the results.” Then why vote? “We were raised that way.”
Though “democracy” came to Russia only 20 years ago, elections were a regular feature of the Soviet system. There was no choice and no surprise, but Soviet citizens turned out again and again to cast a formal vote for a decision that was out of their hands.
Few yesterday thought that system had changed. “Everyone knows the result beforehand,” said Vassily, a 27-year-old engineer. Vassily said he did not vote “for” anyone. “I voted against Putin,” he said, nominally casting his vote for Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire businessman who continues to battle claims that he is a Kremlin project to harness liberal anger against Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule.
It was as though Moscow had been turned into a giant film set, with everyone playing their role. Voting sites blasted out 1980s Russian pop music. Grandmothers set up tables selling discount sandwiches, chocolates and even woollen scarves. But the mood was far from joyous as voters trickled in, voting more often against something – Putin or chaos – than for a particular candidate. Few spoke; even fewer smiled.
“I think he’ll bring stability,” said Olga, a 49-year-old social worker, explaining her vote for Putin. “I wouldn’t wish a change of personnel on my biggest enemies.”
More than one Putin voter said they did not see any alternative. Not one expressed support for a particular policy or approach, or expressed hope for what a further six years of Putin could bring to their lives.
The military presence in the city only added to the feeling of imminent threat. Putin has spent months warning his subjects that those protesting against his rule are merely agents of western-sponsored revolution.
Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group formed in the wake of pro-democracy revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, was deployed in force in the evening to counter that supposed threat. Tens of thousands of its members gathered in wet snow outside the walls of the Kremlin and adjacent streets, cheering as they listened to Putin declare victory over his unidentified enemies.
That was not the only role they were called on to play. One activist standing in front of two dozen buses carrying the names of various Russian towns told the Guardian he had been bussed in from outside Moscow to vote in the capital.
Communist party candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who received around 17% of votes, told reporters after the polls closed that he will not recognize the election result, calling it “illegitimate, unfair and intransparent”.
His campaign chief, Ivan Melnikov, claimed authorities set up numerous additional polling stations and alleged that hundreds of thousands of voters cast ballots at the ones in Moscow alone in an apparent attempt to rig the vote.
Billionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov said on Channel One television after the vote that authorities kept his observers away from some polling stations and were beaten on two occasions.
Oksana Dmitriyeva, a Duma deputy from Just Russia party, tweeted that they were witnessing “numerous cases of observers being expelled from polling stations” across St. Petersburg just before the vote count.
Mikhail, 28, who voted for the first time against Putin, casting his ballot instead for Zyuganov, said: “Of course they won’t be clean. The last election showed us everything.”
Natalya, a 49-year-old accountant, said: “It’s obvious that Putin will win.” She would not say who she voted for, instead explaining that she “voted against Putin”. “Of course he’ll win – but I wanted our leaders to know that not all of Moscow is for them, that we’re not all empty.”
As the polls closed, opposition activists began to discuss the results, expected as they were. There were no gasps of surprise or even raised eyebrows as the numbers attested to Putin’s first-round win. Some laughed. The mood was neither angry, nor downtrodden, nor particularly excited. The film script had run its course.
The evening ended with a quote from Stanislav Govorukhin, Putin’s campaign chief and, appropriately, one of Russia’s most celebrated film directors. Speaking to the online news portal Gazeta.ru, he said: “These were the cleanest elections in all of Russia’s history.”