“Whatever anybody says, especially our foes from abroad, both you and I know that we live in the most democratic country, in Russia.”
— Georgy Poltavchenko
This past Sunday, September 14, was declared “Democracy Day” in Petersburg, Europe’s fourth largest city. What this meant on paper was that the city’s Kremlin-appointed governor, Georgy Poltavchenko, swept to an overwhelming victory in his first “real” gubernatorial race, while ruling United Party crushed the opposition in elections to the city’s neighborhood councils. Then the victors celebrated “democracy” with a pop concert on Palace Square.
What this meant in practice was that Poltavchenko’s only real challenger had been peremptorily “filtered” from the race two months ago, and the melancholic KGB nonentity was left to face a quartet of stick-figure opponents almost no one had heard of before; the United Russia machine pulled out all the stops doing what it loves best—brazenly rigging elections and just as flagrantly cracking down on anyone who challenges its right to do that; and a band of foreign fascists, ultra-right-wingers, and Stalinist clowns, masquerading as “international monitors,” showed up to rubber stamp this bloody farce. No wonder Robert Mugabe backs Russia.
I received the following letter from a friend whose son celebrated “Democracy Day” by serving as a member of the electoral commission at a polling station in central Petersburg. I have translated the letter and published it here with her permission, but I have changed the names of people and places to protect “Dmitry,” “Lyuba,” and the author from further persecution and harassment.
I don’t know whether you are aware of yesterday’s elections in Petersburg. They were completely hellish.
[Our son] Dmitry was a voting member of the electoral commission at Polling Station No. 86, on Austerlitz Street. His girlfriend Lyuba had the same status at Polling Station No. 85, which was in the same building. A bunch of Dmitry’s friends worked in the same capacity at various other polling stations.
The chairs of the commissions hid from them all the time. On Saturday, the day before the elections, Dmitry went to his polling station, where he immediately faced aggression and intimidation: “We’ll have you removed from the polling station,” “Don’t you dare photograph anything,” “We’ll settle your hash later,” and so on. Dmitry demanded to be shown the certificate for receipt of the envelopes containing the absentee ballots. The chairwoman started screaming that this was a provocation. Saturday ended with the chairwoman turning Dmitry over to the police for allegedly photographing the voter lists.
Dmitry was taken to the eighty-third police precinct on the Old Barge Channel, where he was immediately released because the arrest had been illegal. I went to the precinct to get him.
Then came Sunday [election day]. Right away in the morning, Dmitry wrote to us that there had been a bunch of violations; he was again being threatened, and so forth. He was sent out with a mobile ballot box to make the rounds of the old women [pensioners confined to their homes], and while he was out, the chairwoman sent someone with two unregistered ballot boxes to a hospital. At the end of the day, the ballot boxes came back with twenty additional votes that had appeared out of nowhere, as if people had been admitted to the hospital the day before and were immediately registered as voters at this polling station. It was like this with the ballot boxes at nearly every polling station: two hundred votes apiece, cast by completely unknown people, ended up in them.
In the afternoon, I brought Dmitry coffee, because he was afraid to leave the polling station. Lyuba went out to have tea, and while she was out, two ballot boxes were carried away from her polling station: she was informed of this after the fact.
When I arrived at the polling station, they also made as if they were going to arrest me: “Who the hell are you? His mama?” and so on. I snapped at them and told them they were shameless. Dmitry and I went out onto the porch. Some security guards—not cops—came out after us, as if they were keeping track of us. They smoked and swore. We remarked to them that both smoking and swearing were administrative violations. They cussed us out. When Dmitry started filming them with his telephone, they began pushing us down the stairs, trying to snatch the telephone from Dmitry. They got the telephone from him, and Dmitry hurt his hand. (Also, one of the guards got doused with coffee, meaning that Dmitry was left without coffee.) We called the police. When they heard us doing that, the guard cooled their heels and gave back the telephone, but they had erased the video.
Then a polizei came, and Dmitry and I filed an assault complaint. The polizei said he would charge the men with an administrative violation for smoking.
I told the chairwoman that hopefully she was being well paid for everything, because otherwise I saw no point to this mayhem. To which she replied that she was glad I was concerned about her welfare.
But it got really gnarly after the polls closed. We got reports from everywhere about [opposition electoral commission members and observers] being removed from polling stations during the counting of the votes. When Lyuba’s turn came and she refused to leave the polling station voluntarily, the police were summoned and told that she had spit on a local cop. Lyuba was taken away, and like Dmitry the day before, she was just released. She has filed a bunch of complaints against everyone.
At Dmitry’s polling station, on the contrary, they didn’t start counting the votes for four hours: they were supposedly verifying the voter lists. However, the chair of the Shostakovich Municipal District Electoral Commission, a man who weighs over a hundred kilograms, would come up to Dmitry and whisper in his ear, “I will find you and kill you.” He did this several times. Dmitry was alone against twenty gangsters who insulted and threatened him.
Dmitry called us and said he was being threatened, that they were trying to remove him from the polling station for videotaping and interfering with the commission’s work. I telephoned GOLOS (in general, I spent all of Saturday and Sunday phoning and writing everywhere). The people at GOLOS [a Russian electoral rights NGO] told me I should go to the polling station. At one in the morning, Grigory [her husband] and I ran to Austerlitz Street.
Just as we got there, Dmitry rang to say he was being forcibly dragged from the polling station. A police jeep was already parked outside. Dmitry had also called the police and told them he was being unlawfully removed, but they hadn’t shown up, or rather, they showed up to arrest him.
I was talking to Dmitry on the phone, and he was yelling, “Don’t you dare arrest me, you’re breaking the law.”
The door opened, and Grigory and I saw a cop dragging Dmitry from the polling station. I ran up to the cop and told him he was breaking the law and so on. To make a long story short, Dmitry was again being taken to the eighty-third police precinct. We headed there.
Before leaving, I asked the cop a question.
“Look me straight in the eyes and tell me you aren’t ashamed.”
“I am just doing my job,” he said.
“But what about the law?” Grigory asked.
The cop began to walk away.
“Do you believe in God?” Grigory shouted to him as he walked away.
“Yes,” the cop firmly replied.
Well, then we arrived at the police station. Dmitry was almost immediately released. He also dashed off a bunch of complaints.
We got home at four in the morning. Dmitry ate and drank for the first time in a twenty-hour hellish day. Then we were online until six in the morning watching as his electoral commission kept putting stuff up and erasing and rearranging it. They didn’t even have the obligatory large summary vote tally.
Dmitry’s friends were practically removed from all the polling stations [where they served as electoral commission members and observers]. One friend, Eduard Dubinsky, who was a candidate for the municipal council in the Kamenka district, was arrested for allegedly resisting the police. He spent the night in jail, and the next day a court sentenced him to a five hundred ruble fine. So Dmitry got off lightly. But we are waiting for responses to all his complaints.
P.S. We also found out that there were around two hundred ballots in the unaccounted ballot boxes at Dmitry’s polling station that were secretly sent out and brought back from the hospital, but it is impossible to verify who filled them out and how. Twenty-one of these ballots were allegedly filled out by people who had been admitted to the hospital the day before. It is unclear how they could be entered onto the voter lists. In fact, it couldn’t have been done legally. Plus, now Dmitry has checked and spotted the fact that another one hundred additional voters appeared up out of nowhere. He found this while looking over the final report. Meaning that approximately three hundred fake votes were added to the tally at his polling station. That is roughly fifty percent added to the total. Now I understand why the commission was so aggressive and didn’t allow the results to be known, and whey they were looking for an excuse to kick Dmitry out.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of academichelp.net