Amid Widespread Fraud Claims, Russian Officials Praise 'Genuinely Competitive Elections'

MOSCOW -- On September 7, a group of journalists and election observers boarded a bus in Krasnoyarsk, a region of Siberia, and made their way south to Kyzyl, the capital of the neighboring Tyva Republic not far from Russia’s border with Mongolia.

As the bus neared the crossing into Tyva, several men appeared in the middle of the road, raising their arms to signal that the route is closed off. As confusion reigned, dozens of other men -- some in masks and others on horseback -- appeared before the bus’s windshield. People inside the vehicle reported some of the men on horseback were armed.

According to a video later published by Krasnoyarsk’s Channel 8, the men who apprehended the bus -- and refused to identify themselves -- sought to board it. The driver refused to open the doors. It was around that time that the vehicle’s tires were deflated, perhaps shot out by the men on horses, Channel 8 said. The driver was forced to make a U-turn and ultimately returned his entourage home to Krasnoyarsk.

The group, it later emerged, was en route to polling stations across Tyva to monitor the course of elections in the republic taking place the following day. According to Aleksandr Kotenev, a Channel 8 journalist traveling with the group, rumors spread on social media in advance of the elections that regional authorities were ordering state employees to block roads and prevent monitors from passing through. "But we didn't expect such medieval tactics," he said in an interview.

The stand-off on the Krasnoyarsk-Tula border was perhaps the strangest among a series of incidents that reportedly took place across Russia on September 8, fueling allegations that the regional elections were marred by voter fraud.

The vote saw over 3,000 election campaigns culminate across Russia, with 16 regions electing governors, a dozen electing legislatures, and hundreds of municipal races held. The independent election-monitoring organization Golos reported more than 1,700 voting violations across Russia, including more than 560 cases in Moscow and 220 in St. Petersburg.

As results began coming in from across Russia that evening, so did video clips purporting to show brazen examples of ballot-stuffing. Watched with the sound on, many of them featured a loud thud as a pack of ballot papers is heard landing at the base of a voting urn. RFE/RL could not independently verify whether the videos were made at Russian polling stations on September 8.

Alleged Ballot-Stuffing

Such clips came in from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan and many other cities. In none of them, it seems, were people engaged in the apparent fraud immediately apprehended by police or election officials. As video evidence of ballot-stuffing continued to surface, state TV apparently sought to counter the reports.

On Rossiya 24, presenters argued that 99 percent of voter-fraud allegations ultimately prove false. "This is actually a very free and fair process," one presenter said of the election, suggesting that someone was benefiting from peddling fake news. Another presenter later denounced people who "generate fakes, and there's plenty of those around.”

Most of the attention on September 8 was focused on Moscow, where a slew of independent candidates allied with the opposition were excluded from elections to the city council, sparking some of the Russian capital's biggest protests in years this summer.

United Russia candidates won 25 of the Moscow City Duma’s 45 seats, enough to retain a majority, according to complete preliminary results released on September 9. But candidates patronized by the Smart Voting system launched by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny also succeeded in beating the ruling party’s politicians in many districts.

Aleksei Venediktov, the head of the Public Headquarters for monitoring the Moscow elections, said he did not see serious violations that would have led to a distortion of the outcome based on the 20 percent of the eligible population that voted, the city-owned news agency M24 reported him as saying.

As the official results started to come in, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin praised the weeks-long election process -- without mentioning the accompanying crackdown on protesters demanding free elections and the jailing of several on charges of opposing the state.

“These were perhaps the most emotional and genuinely competitive elections in recent history,” Sobyanin tweeted late in the evening. “Passions were real.”

He was right about the last part.

“Yes, passions were real,” one user commented in response. “So was the exclusion [of candidates] from the elections on bogus grounds, the jailing of rivals, voter fraud, and ballot-stuffing.”

“Down with United Russia! You don’t have very long left,” another user replied.

Others simply wrote: “Retire!”