MOSCOW (Reuters) - Reports of ballot-stuffing, vote-buying and intimidation in Sunday’s Russian parliamentary election have poured in from dozens of regions, independent election monitors said.
The alleged fraud, which threatens to tarnish the victory of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, ranged from detaining observers to offering gifts in exchange for a pro-Putin vote.
“A group called Young Europe is inviting people who vote for Putin’s team to take part in a lottery for prizes,” such as TVs and refrigerators, said Leonid Gozman, a top official for opposition party Union of Right Forces in St. Petersburg.
“This looks like a mass action. People are showing up at the polls and asking: ‘Where are the presents, where is the lottery?’ and they are told, ‘First you vote, then you get the presents,’” Gozman said.
Putin had promised a fair and transparent election and the head of the Central Electoral Commission, Vladimir Churov, said voting had progressed “calmly and according to schedule”. Churov has not commented so far on specific allegations of violations.
After initial results showed United Russia on course for at least 60 percent of the vote, United Russia chief Boris Gryzlov, said the violations were not significant.
“Of course there are violations, but the question is do they have an impact on the final result ... They in no way put in doubt the final result,” Gryzlov told a news conference.
The main source of complaints has been Golos, Russia’s only independent election observer. Its deputy head, Grigory Melkonyans, said the fraud was systematic.
“These are not isolated incidents. The complaints are from every corner of Russia,” he said.
Observers from former Soviet states, who are monitoring the vote in several regions, found no serious problems, however.
“If any criticism is to be expressed, it is of a technical nature,” said Bakytzhan Zhumagulov, the deputy speaker of Kazakhstan’s parliament, Interfax reported.
The West’s main election monitoring body, the ODIHR, cancelled its mission to Russia, citing visa delays and other hurdles. This left fewer than 80 Western observers to watch over 96,000 polling stations in the world’s biggest country.
Observers from Russia’s political parties, except for Putin’s United Russia party, lambasted the vote.
A common trick they reported involved bussing young people to one polling station after another so they could cast numerous votes, a tactic known as carouseling, which was reported in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
In regions such as Chechnya, the turnout was improbably high. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov put participation in his wartorn republic at more than 99 percent, RIA Novosti reported.
“We estimate that the number of people taking part in the carousels is in the thousands,” said Natalia Avilova, spokeswoman for a pro-Kremlin party, Fair Russia.
Police were also seen detaining independent observers in Samara. The observers from civil rights activist group Svoboda were detained at voting stations 906, 909 and 910 for “looking suspicious,” Svoboda said in a statement.
A busload of Communist party observers were also detained by police in Moscow for six hours on Sunday after having their identification papers taken away, Vadim Solovyov, a party official, told Ekho Moskvy.
Golos, or Voice, which has some 2,000 observers in 40 regions, called off observations in Samara and Krasnoyarsk after pressure from police overwhelmed their local branches.
Lyudmila Kuzmina, the head of Golos in Samara, said she was charged a week before the election with using bootleg software in the organization’s office, which police sealed off.
The watchdog’s office in Krasnoyarsk closed after three top representatives resigned from their posts under pressure.
“Police invited them for a chat and told them to quit by November 30,” Golos executive director Lilya Shibanova told Reuters on Sunday. “I have not been able to reach them since then to find out what they were being threatened with.”
By Sunday, the mood of outrage at Golos’ Moscow headquarters seemed to have hardened into cynicism. “What a surprise,” Shibanova said. “It’s not even lunchtime and Tyumen (an oil-producing region) is reporting a 100 percent turnout.”
Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in St. Petersburg; Editing by Stephen Weeks