Russians say being forced to vote in election

MOSCOW Sat Dec 1, 2007 5:58pm EST

A police officer keeps watch in front of a speaker podium during an election rally by the liberal Yabloko party in Moscow November 30, 2007. The banner reads, ''Yabloko. Put Power under Citizens' Controll! Protect the Constitution!'' REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

A police officer keeps watch in front of a speaker podium during an election rally by the liberal Yabloko party in Moscow November 30, 2007. The banner reads, ''Yabloko. Put Power under Citizens' Controll! Protect the Constitution!''

Credit: Reuters/Alexander Natruskin

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Students in Siberia, doctors on the Volga river, and office workers in Moscow say they are being threatened with disciplinary action if they do not vote in Sunday's parliamentary election.

Officials have denied there is a campaign to force people to vote and President Vladimir Putin, who is leading his United Russia party into the election, said this week it would be "honest, as transparent as possible and open."

But Kremlin critics say reports of employers putting pressure on their staff to vote confirm their suspicion the vote will be skewed to ensure a big personal endorsement for Putin. Russian law states voting is voluntary.

Senior United Russia figures have billed the poll as a referendum in support of Putin. Analysts say the Kremlin wants a high turnout -- as well as a win for United Russia -- so it can present the result as a convincing vote of confidence in Putin.

Accounts collected by Reuters, and others posted on Internet blogs, suggest some employers are telling their staff to vote at work on Sunday -- even though for many it is not a working day -- where managers plan to check who has cast their ballot.

An employee with a firm that rents space at Gorbushkin Dvor, a massive indoor market in Moscow, said an aide to one of the market's managers told her boss to make sure his staff show up at work on Sunday.

"The essence of the conversation was that on December 2 there will be elections to the State Duma (parliament) and that our staff ... about 70 or 80 people should come here," she said.

"All of them will be loaded onto buses and we should all vote for the United Russia party," the employee, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.

"They said: 'Do you want to continue to rent the premises at the same price as now?' ... They named a price that would have forced us to move because for us it was not a realistic price."

A senior Gorbushkin Dvor manager said people working on Sunday were simply being given the option of voting nearby for their convenience.

"We have never asked or forced anyone to do anything," said Deputy General Director Marina Rachenskaya. "We have not given any information that anyone must do anything."

BIG TURNOUT

Many of the accounts say employees are not told to vote for United Russia, just to cast a ballot. Opinion polls show most voters already support the party.

Reports of employees being pressured have been posted on a specially-created Internet blog, here

A blogger who identified himself as a doctor in the Volga river city of Saratov said bosses told staff to vote in the hospital, and were drawing up lists of those who complied.

"Doctors are being forced to ... come to their workplace on their day off for voting. Otherwise they threaten people with the sack," he said.

"They put nearly everyone down in the lists," he said. "One elderly doctor, who has nothing to lose, refused as a matter of principle, as well as two young doctors (including me.)"

Another blogger said staff at the Siberian Federal University in the city of Krasnoyarsk had been told to note down the names of students who had voted, and they were not allowed to go home on December 2 until every student had cast a ballot.

"The students, under threat of being thrown out, are being forced to ensure 100 percent turnout at the elections," said the blogger.

The employee at the Moscow electronics market said she was the only member of staff in the business where she worked who had refused to come in on Sunday and vote.

"There was such blatant blackmail which really knocked me off my stride. I felt like some sort of puppet who can be controlled," she said. "They are trying to turn people into cattle, without rights, without a vote, without anything."

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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