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Voting in St. Petersburg. September 8, 2019
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‘From cultural capital to gangland’ An election monitor explains how chaos in St. Petersburg has led to mass fraud

Источник: Meduza
Voting in St. Petersburg. September 8, 2019
Voting in St. Petersburg. September 8, 2019
Pyotr Kovalyov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Days after election day, the results in St. Petersburg still haven’t been announced. In precincts where opposition candidates apparently won, election officials are busy with recounts that have handed opposition seats to candidates from United Russia, the country’s ruling political party. To learn more about this chaos, Meduza spoke to the “Golos” election monitoring group’s local coordinator in St. Petersburg, Natalia Menkova, who says her beloved city has succumbed to “gangland” rule. 

Were there any signs leading up to September 8 that St. Petersburg’s municipal elections would turn into such a scandal?

There were all too many. We published a report after the candidate-nomination and registration process, and part of it looked at the level of competitiveness in these elections — that is, how many candidates on average were competing for each seat. As of early August, in 21 municipal districts [out of 110], that figure was at two or less. In some districts, it was 1.2 or 1.3. In municipalities like those, about 80 percent of the winners’ list was known in advance [because the registration process set up non-competitive races for candidates loyal to the regime].

On average, throughout the city, we had three candidates running for each seat, but there were districts where the level of competition was five or six people per seat. So overall, it was clear from the beginning that things wouldn’t be that simple on election day.

Plus, a lot of independent candidates had to go through several circles of bureaucratic hell: First you get a rejection from your municipal election commission (IKMO), and then you go to the City Election Commission, and then you have to go back to the IKMO, and so on.

Even if the candidates got past all those obstacles, their opponents would sue them [and demand that the courts remove them from the race]. Right at the end of the campaign process, just a few days before the elections, the courts in some of our municipal districts ordered the removal of several strong candidates from their races, like Andrey Pivovarov in the Central District and Daniil Ken.

Some of the IKMOs went even further. For example, in the Chernaya Rechka municipal precinct, officials ignored a court order to register [Just Russia] candidate Pavel Chupunov. As a result, a registered candidate didn’t even appear on the final ballots there. I’d say this story is a felony and grounds for invalidating those election results.

How were things on the actual day of elections?

We got a lot of calls and messages, but generally it was uneven. The thing about St. Petersburg is that there’s no one guy pulling all the strings. It’s a different story in every district, where officials each have their own “protection,” their own federal connections, and their own black book of contacts. This makes it impossible to force people on the ground to obey the law. There’s no way to pressure them into it. There are something like 35-40 election commissions in Petersburg that are closely connected to the municipal government and therefore weakly managed from above. This is where we had the biggest problems.

Apparently, these problematic IKMOs were tasked with obtaining suitable election results for the elites in their corners, which is why they did everything they could in these districts. Each district hustled the game to the extent of its ability and understanding of the limits it couldn’t cross. This is precisely why we got the audio recording from the Primorsky District, before the election, where polling station commission members were being told how to keep count and falsify election results. They had “chtets-pisar” there, and there were other technologies in other districts.

Were there municipalities without election problems?

There were districts where the election commissions and candidates prevented total insanity. Things turned out relatively okay, for example, in Pushkin and Kolpin, where all the data was uploaded to the “Vybory” (Elections) State Automated System by 6 a.m. on September 9. If an election commission does everything according to the law, the count itself should end around 2 a.m., but less than 30 percent of the commissions in the city met these criteria.

By the evening of September 9 (one day after election day), opposition candidates were reporting mass fraud and the falsification of votes. What was going on?

There were two mechanisms at work. First, commission chairpersons either skipped out on their duties or used every excuse to delay the process, which halted all counting at these precincts without issuing any final tabulations, leaving everyone with just the raw preliminary data. Closer to the evening of September 9, these commissions resumed counting, and it turned out that their results were now very different from what they’d been in the morning. Generally speaking, it was the independent candidates and “Yabloko” members who suddenly lost votes. But it’s virtually impossible to prove anything with just the data. You can’t prove that the ballots were replaced, because they can always say that the commission members were so tired at 3 a.m. that they simply made a lot of mistakes.

The second mechanism that’s been used is something of a novelty to me. If commission members and candidates were really stubborn and somehow managed to get final tabulations, the results at these polling stations were simply recounted and overwritten with entirely new figures.

On what grounds did they conduct the recounts?

So far, we’re seeing these recounts in municipalities where United Russia lost its majority. The reason is claims from candidates that commission members were barred from monitoring the counting of votes. Supposedly, they have doubts about the accuracy of the final tallies. This is perfectly legal, but it hasn’t been used much before.

At some polling stations, ballots were recounted several times, and the final results showed some candidates gaining hundreds of votes, which has fueled public outrage. Why have officials resorted to these measures? Is there really no simpler way to falsify the election results?

You’ve hit on the most positive development, I think, in this year’s elections: people have grown stubborn. They’re not leaving commissions, even when they’re shooed away or smacked across the face and told that they’re powerless. Even in the most difficult situations, the candidates and the commission members aren’t leaving, and they’re not letting the commissioners escape from the polling stations. They’re not taking their eyes off the ballots. I’m proud of these people.

Coming up against these people, [the officials committing election fraud] realized that they had no alternative, so they resorted to dirty, ugly “stuffing.” In other words, they decided plain and simple to distort the popular will. One example is voting in the town of Lisy Nos, which witnessed a total anomaly: According to the initial ballot count, most of the local municipal council deputies had been swept from office, but the election results changed dramatically, after a recount. The winners and losers traded places.

Can candidates and election commission members prevent something like that from happening?

This sort of thing is already way over the line. State investigators are the ones who should respond here. Stuff like this needs to be investigated. Bring in the police and start interrogating people. This isn’t some civil case.

How much longer can these recounts last? The elections were days ago now.

The final tabulations are due by September 17. If they’re not submitted by then, the election results are invalidated. 

I should point out that we’ve been talking exclusively about the municipal contests, but the violations occurred in elections that also included a gubernatorial race. Admittedly, officials probably wouldn’t be able to pull off these dramatic recounts when it comes to the votes for governor. 

Why do the authorities find themselves in a situation where they’re forced to correct election results retroactively? Did officials not expect the opposition to do so well?

I’m fond of a theory from Pavel Shchvets [the “Growth Party” St. Petersburg branch chairman], who says the municipal election commissions aren’t built to correct errors. Personally, I think they care more about holding onto their status and covering for the elite groups that back them. 

Meaning that they’re basically taking the law into their own hands at the local level?

Yes. At the lower levels, local connections are more important. Neither the City Election Commission nor the Central Election Commission can break through to this lower level. It’s a genuine crisis for the entire electoral system.

Neither the City Election Commission nor the Central Election Commission has concrete ways to influence the IKMOs? They can’t force them to release their results sooner?

The thing you’ve got to understand about local government in St. Petersburg is that municipal election commissions in municipal elections are basically their own mini City Election Commission. In practice, when it comes to municipal elections, they’re the top of the food chain. And they don’t actually report to the City Election Commission, which can’t make any demands of the IKMOs.

Even before election day, officials in the City Election Commission realized the nightmare they were in for. In the districts where the municipalities listen to reasonable district administrations, election commission members were required to come to the district administrations with both their gubernatorial and municipal vote tabulations. There were no problems in these areas. But the 30-40 IKMOs that are out of control because of their links to local municipal officials — that’s where this whole mess has been piling up.

At the same time, it’s clear that the higher-up election commissions created this situation. There was also blatant fraud in the 2014 municipal elections. The falsifiers were identified, but they weren’t removed from their IKMOs. As a result, everyone realized that they could get away with anything. Everyone was safe. A sense of impunity leads them to do whatever they want.

The City Election Commission can’t do anything to fix the situation?

Maybe it wanted to fix this, but it’s too late now. Also, the election commissions now in place will be the ones to stage the State Duma and legislative assembly elections in 2021.

The City Election Commission has already said it will demand the invalidation of election results in some municipalities. 

The City Election Commission can’t cancel election results. It can only appeal to the courts. The commission's lawsuit would probably carry more weight than complaints from candidates, but it’s still up to the courts.

Would this help? Or would they hold another round of elections and falsify everything in advance?

The election results could be canceled, but then we’d go back to square one: scheduling new elections, registering candidates all over again, and so on. And in the end we’d come right back to the same IKMOs with their own understanding of the laws.

As a taxpayer, I want to ask the people who’ve already broken the law and spent big money on these elections if we could finally hold an election in accordance with the law. For me, the choice here is simple: if you’re canceling the election results, then the commission members should be brought up on criminal charges. People need to understand that you go to prison when you break the law. Our Investigative Committee could flash a bit of the wondrous efficiency it demonstrates every time it raids an activist’s home. It’s got the resources, but for some reason it’s totally ignoring these suspects and culprits.

At this point, do you know how many of the municipalities’ results are still up in the air?

I think it’s something like 100-200 seats out of a total of 1,500. There are still a few commissions where stubborn candidates and local residents are in standoffs with the municipal mafia. In the Admiralty, Central, and Frunze districts, data uploads have been significantly delayed. This is precisely where United Russia didn’t win majorities. And there are recounts underway now in Primorsky and Vyborg. 

In any case, four days is a lot for any normal vote counting. If we continue to drag this out, it should start to concern members of law enforcement.

How do you expect everything to end?

It’s hard to say, but we at “Golos” will make selective recommendations to the Central Election Commission about what needs to happen in specific municipalities. We’ll draw up a list of the areas where the worst insanity occurred. 

I don’t think the election results need to be invalidated completely. After all, elections rely on taxpayer money and the enormous work of a large number of people. You don’t need to tear down everything. Clearly, the will of voters was directly distorted in some municipalities, and the results need to be canceled here and you need to hold new elections. In other districts, less radical measures are necessary.

Generally, it’s a shame that the actions of 30-40 election commissions have turned my city into a national disgrace. We’ve gone from a cultural capital to a gangland.

Interview by Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Kevin Rothrock and Hilah Kohen