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How Belarus voted Minsk election commission members explain the shenanigans and intimidation used to stage Alexander Lukashenko’s ‘landslide victory’

Source: Meduza
Siarhei Leskiec / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

On August 14, the Belarusian Central Election Commission certified the 2020 presidential election results and confirmed that Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in office with 80.1 percent of the vote. Many Belarusians, perhaps a wide majority, believe this landslide victory was fabricated. That conviction now fuels a nationwide protest movement and work stoppages across the country. Students and graduates throughout Belarus have started leaving their diplomas outside schools in protest against the teachers they believe facilitated the election fraud. Many members of local election committees also say the voting results were falsified. On condition of anonymity, a handful of these election workers in Minsk spoke to Meduza about voting in early August and why they were unable to prevent Lukashenko’s victory by counting votes honestly.


“We sat there and we realized we’d been set up”

A man we’ll call “Anton” says his school administrators approached him in May about volunteering at a polling station during the presidential election. He describes himself as an “activist” and says he manned voting booths for four hours on three days of the election. 

During early voting, ahead of August 9, Anton’s polling station wasn’t very busy. Each day he was there, from morning until afternoon, just 10–15 voters showed up to cast ballots. A single independent observer monitored these proceedings, Anton says, and a school employee regularly chased him away, citing technicalities that prevented his presence at this or that time. The election commission put these moments of seclusion to good use: for example, on a day when about 20 people voted at the polling station, the commission recorded more than 70 ballots. 

Anton says he’s not sure how officials pulled this off. Maybe they enlisted the dead? A friend told him that someone signed for his deceased father’s ballot at another polling station. (Election workers there told the friend that somebody must have signed for the man’s ballot by mistake.)

On election day, traffic at Anton’s polling station doubled and roughly 70 percent of voters came wearing the white ribbons of the opposition movement, he says. Some people argued with election workers about why they were forbidden from writing the date on their ballots (many did it anyway, insisting on their rights), and others stuck around to confirm that an election commission representative also signed and authenticated their ballots.

Based on what he saw of early voting, Anton says he expected Alexander Lukashenko to win the race. To facilitate “home voting,” he also brought ballots to senior citizens who couldn’t make it to polling stations. These old-timers didn’t bother folding their ballots to conceal how they voted — with one exception, it was always for the incumbent president, says Anton. 

On August 9, however, he says most people appeared to be voting for the opposition challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya). A rough count of the ballots submitted by August 9 suggested that she won more than 60 percent of the vote. Admittedly, many of the ballots cast for Tikhanovskaya were technically invalidated because people added additional markings like their signatures in the margins (“out of distrust,” Anton says), which is prohibited. 

The station’s chairperson and secretary were responsible for tabulating the results and Anton says he tried to monitor their work as closely as he could. After 30–40 minutes, they announced that Lukashenko won more than 50 percent of the votes and Tikhanovskaya got just 20 percent. “The other commission members started looking around like ‘What just happened?’ Tikhanovskaya clearly won,” Anton told Meduza

The volunteers had to sign these results, too, and they did, albeit reluctantly. “When it was my turn, I sat there for a long time and thought about what I ought to do. I didn’t even take the pen at first. I didn’t want to sign, but I didn’t know what would happen to me if I didn’t. I was afraid and I ultimately signed it,” he says.

When the chairperson and the secretary left to deliver the ballots to the Central Election Commission, the other polling station workers stayed behind, sulking in the aftermath of their surrender. That’s when Internet service returned and they learned that other polling stations were reporting victories for Tikhanovskaya. “The whole commission sat there and we realized we’d been set up. Somebody started crying. We’d signed the tally without coercion, willingly, but for fear of the consequences [if we refused],” Anton says. 

Disappointment and shame followed, and Anton says the days since he knowingly authenticated the phony election results have been a time of soul searching. Speaking to Meduza helped lift some of the burden, he says, but he nevertheless feels rotten. He says he donated the money he earned for his work with the election commission to a children’s foundation run by jailed opposition candidate Victor Babariko (Viktar Babaryka) and a group that helps protesters injured by police.

Anton says he’s attended multiple peaceful demonstrations and come to love his country now more than ever. “Well, I love my country but I hate the state,” he clarifies, saying that he can’t imagine how the current unrest will end. “Because I don’t believe in the government’s good judgment. I think the core is in our army and in the state structure. If they side with the people, maybe then we’ll win,” he told Meduza.


“Everyone had something at stake”

A woman we’ll call “Margarita” says she was recruited for polling station work without much discussion. “They just called me and said: ‘You’re signed up’ and I didn’t really resist. I said I’d come. Honestly, I was interested to see how it all worked,” she told Meduza.

Like Anton, Margarita worked a few four-hour shifts during early voting and then devoted a whole day of her time on August 9. Once again, ballots seemed to appear out of thin air — volunteers say just a handful of people showed up to vote early, but precincts recorded dozens of ballots. 

On election day, most of the voters wore the opposition’s white ribbons, but fewer people turned out than Margarita expected. There were certain irregularities, too, like the men and women who showed up without Belarusian citizenship (all they had was residency) but were nevertheless listed on her precinct’s voter roll. “It’s unclear how they ended up there,” Margarita told Meduza

Like Anton, she says Lukashenko won the early voting at her polling station. “I was very upset,” she recalls, “but it’s plausible because the people who voted for Tikhanovskaya came on August 9.” There’s another reason Lukashenko may have outperformed his rival in the early voting: the boxes containing these ballots were sometimes out of view, though they were sealed at the end of each shift. 

For all the trends and shenanigans of preliminary voting, Tikhanovskaya drew six times more votes than the incumbent president on August 9, Margarita says. Based on conversations with volunteers at other polling stations, she says she concluded then on Sunday that the opposition was clearly winning the race, though she isn’t sure by what margin.

Despite what was apparent to Margarita, the chairwoman at her polling station reviewed the ballots and announced Tikhanovskaya’s defeat. The scene that unfolded was a repeat of what Anton witnessed at his precinct: tears and disbelief.

The teachers who worked alongside Margarita were the first to sign off on the results. When it was the students’ turn to endorse the numbers, each person agonized over the decision for a few minutes. These young people were told that withholding their signatures wouldn’t invalidate the results; the students would simply lose their membership in the commission and the vote tally would proceed to the Central Election Commission. 

But the students risked a lot more by refusing to sign. The precinct’s chairwoman, it so happens, was also their department dean, and she made it clear that their failure to cooperate with the election commission would lead to problems at school. “We were scared — very scared,” says Margarita. “Personally, my parents pay through the teeth for my university education and I was very scared.”

When the tally was done and sent off, more feelings of shame followed. More disappointment. But Margarita says she and her fellow volunteers weren’t so afraid that they hid from their friends what they witnessed. “We told everyone we know about what we’d seen,” she says. “What matters most now is that they’re talking about this all over the world.” 

Margarita also acknowledges that other election workers faced even more serious pressure — direct threats, not just insinuations, about expulsion and dismissal. “Everyone had something at stake,” she told Meduza. “And we’ve been living with that fear for the past 26 years.”

Like Anton, Margarita says she’s joined some of the protests and she, too, stresses that she’s participated only in peaceful assemblies. “I believe that the people, their honesty, and what is happening now in this country are much stronger than the man who’s exhausted his legitimacy,” she says. “I believe in our nation and our people.


“Figures out of thin air”

A resident assistant at a dormitory in Minsk whom we’ll call “Konstantin” says a school administrator asked him to volunteer for the election. He agreed to do it, of course — he wanted the experience. Plus, it wasn’t strictly volunteer work — there’d be a paycheck at the end. Konstantin told Meduza this was his first direct exposure to the voting process from the inside (though he says he worked security at similar events in the past). It wasn’t until later, when he got a look at the election commission’s internal documents, that he realized he’d been nominated by the pro-Lukashenko Belarusian Socialist Sporting Party. A puzzling discovery, given that he’s never belonged to a political party.

On August 3 — nearly a week before election day — Konstantin’s precinct held a meeting where election workers were told to sign the ballot results there and then before voting had actually begun. When one of the volunteers protested, explaining that this wasn’t supposed to happen until the end of the election, the chairwoman became incensed and argued that she needed the signatures now to avoid confusion later. Nobody ended up signing their name that day, but the volunteer who spoke up was quietly removed from duty during early voting. Konstantin says he reached out to her afterward and learned that she’d received a phone call informing her that she’d come into contact with a coronavirus patient and should stay away from the polling station. 

On August 8 — still a day before the election ended — Konstantin was working the precinct’s evening shift when the polling station’s chairwoman called him into her office, where another woman from the district government was also waiting for him. They wanted his signature again. He says he studied the document they handed him and realized it was a final tabulation of the precinct’s early voting results. At least three other volunteers had already signed it. “I was kinda in shock and I asked how this was possible. ‘You just need to sign,’ they told me,” recalls Konstantin. 

He refused. The chairwoman later told him disappointedly, “I guess you don’t trust me.”

Siarhei Leskiec / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

When the polls finally closed on August 8, Konstantin sat down with the chairwoman, her secretary, the district official, and another commission volunteer to count the ballots. Watching everything from the sidelines, he says, were observers from the government-funded, pro-Lukashenko “Belaya Rus” civic association. The chairwoman took charge again, counting the ballots without referring back to the precinct’s voter rolls. She tallied 222 ballots altogether, including 70 on Saturday, which was almost twice as many as Konstantin and his colleagues counted. But the main event — election day on August 9 — was hours away, so he says he decided to swallow his pride and sign the official results as he was asked.

Sunday’s voting was even dirtier, Konstantin says. The independent observers who were meant to monitor the polling station for irregularities were themselves guilty of various procedural violations. Worst of all perhaps, roughy 50 people were given ballots even though they were only temporary local residents — a practice that is technically permitted, but only so long as election workers contact the individuals’ registered polling places to confirm that they haven’t already voted. Konstantin says he’s not sure if the officials at his precinct ever made these phone calls, but he knows they refused to let him cast a ballot based on his dormitory residence. “Election statutes say I had the right to vote there in this case, but out chairperson told me and other students in the same situation that our [rental] contracts supposedly don’t qualify as official documents,” says Konstantin.

Despite these setbacks, he says turnout on Sunday was intense (“Our ballot boxes were literally filled to the brim,” he recalls), and more than half of all voters came wearing symbols of the opposition, like white ribbons and red-and-white clothes. Nearly 80 percent of the ballots submitted were folded like accordions — a gesture the “Honest People” group advocated as a way to identify votes against Lukashenko. Others were even more defiant. "They took their ballots and checked the box next to Tikhanovskay’s name in front of everyone, keeping it open so the commission could see, and then dropped them in the box,” Konstantin says. 

The ballot-stuffing Konstantin witnessed in early voting was demoralizing, he admits, but the sight of so many Tikhanovskaya supporters on election day reinvigorated his “fighting spirit,” he says. “I’m voting for your future,” a father told his son. “For our children’s sake, I hope you’ll be counting honestly,” a pregnant woman told the election board. Such scenes convinced him to do whatever he could to protect these people, as well as his own conscience, Konstantin told Meduza.

When Sunday’s voting was done, the chairwoman tried to comfort Konstantin with the words: “Don’t worry. Everything will be alright. The main thing is to listen to me.” It would be the evening’s theme. After fiddling with documents at a table removed from other volunteers and the election monitors, the chairwoman and the district official announced that 187 ballots had gone unused. An argument then ensued where Konstantin says he insisted that these ballots needed to be counted openly in the presence of everyone there at the precinct — in accordance with the law. The chairwoman was reluctant to do this, but she acquiesced in the end. 

Then came the dirtiest trick of all: The chairwoman and her secretary grabbed the voter rolls and started sealing them without counting how many ballots were cast or comparing this number to how many names were on the voter rolls. While Konstantin was busy writing his dissenting opinion to be filed with the precinct’s results, the rest of the election workers opened the ballot boxes and started counting the votes, all without ever confirming how many voters actually reported to the polling station that day. “Everyone else — the observers and the commission members — said nothing. They were afraid,” he told Meduza

The drama didn’t end there. Even a dissenting opinion would have marred the precinct’s election results, which apparently made it necessary to boot Konstantin from the commission entirely. After the chairwoman threatened to remove him but then backed down, the district official in the room spoke up, declaring, “I don’t agree that he should stay here.” That was enough to send the motion to a vote. Five voted to expel and five abstained, which made it the chairwoman’s decision. She sent him packing and his dissenting opinion disappeared along with him. According to the precinct’s official records, Konstantin was simply absent when the ballots were counted.

He says he later spoke to some of the other election workers. They described the same series of events that unfolded for Anton and Margarita: Lukashenko had received more votes during early voting, but Tikhanovskaya collected five times as many votes on election day. Nevertheless, the commission recorded more than 500 ballots for Lukashenko and just 100 or so for Tikhanovskaya. “They pulled these figures out of thin air,” says Konstantin. “And then they forced everyone to sign off on the results.” 

Two days later, he had another encounter with the commission chairwoman, who called him to say that he would face no trouble at the university, despite their confrontation at the polling station. “Then she burst into tears,” Konstantin recalls. “She’s a decent enough person. I don’t know what happened to her or what they told her.” 


“Your mind starts to race”

“Egor,” we’ll call him, says he was recruited for election work through his employer. One fine day, the deputy director at his firm told him he needed to pitch in. “They’re asking you to help and you can’t refuse,” his supervisor explained. When Egor went online to register for this endeavor, he says he discovered that he’d been nominated by a political party. This was news to him, but he went along with it.

Egor says he worked just one of the early-voting days, but that was enough to witness some funny business with the precinct’s counting. By now, you’ll no doubt recognize the pattern: the number of ballots recorded was mysteriously higher than the number of people who showed up to vote. When Egor pointed this out, he was told simply that he didn’t understand. “But I saw three different sets of numbers and I don’t know why,” he told Meduza.

Lots more people came to vote on election day, though some of them clearly worried about fraud, Egor says, and they conveyed as much to the commission workers. He also noticed that many voters were folding their ballots into unusual shapes — part of the campaign to demonstrate clearly that these were not votes for Alexander Lukashenko. Egor says he cast his ballot for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya a few days earlier.

When Sunday’s voting was done, the commission members tallied up Tikhanovskaya’s resounding victory. During early voting, she’d lost to Lukashenko, roughly 70 votes to more than 300. On election day, however, she collected more than 1,000 votes against the president’s 150 ballots. Egor says the group wrote up the results and signed off on the numbers. That was that. Until it wasn’t.

With the results finalized, the precinct chairman was supposed to post the information outside the polling station. Instead, the chairman disappeared for some time, before returning to collect the sealed ballots, all while promising that he was just about to post the results. When the commission workers walked outside where the vote tally should have been displayed, they found the riot police waiting for them. “On the bus. Let’s go,” they told everyone. “There were no heroics,” Egor says, explaining that nobody declined the invitation. “When you’re sitting in a bus packed with riot cops, the window curtains are drawn, and you’re being taken who knows where, your mind starts to race,” he recalls.

As menacing as the ride seemed at the time, the officers merely brought the group to the local executive committee building, where the chairman and his secretary got out and went inside. Everyone else went to their cars and drove home. The Central Election Commission later reported that the precinct’s results had been posted, but it wasn’t true, Egor told Meduza. He says he’s also heard about other polling stations getting similar visits from the riot police.

The experience has clearly enraged Egor. The authorities stole people’s votes and turned the election into a shell game, he says. But he hasn’t joined the protests. “It’s my choice,” he says, though he did sign a formal complaint stating that his precinct never posted its results.

Egor says he doesn’t know what comes next for Belarus, but he suspects the current situation is untenable in the long run. What he fears most now, he says, is that young people will give up on the country and flee for better lives abroad. “The borders aren’t closed, after all. We have no iron curtain,” he says.

Interviews by Kristina Safonova

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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