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After Fraud Charges, Russian Election Under Scrutiny

There were widespread allegations of fraud in Russia's parliamentary polls in December. In advance of Russia's presidential election Sunday, Russian citizens abroad have been allowed to vote early. This woman casts a ballot in Kyrgyzstan on Feb. 26.
Vyacheslav Oseledko
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AFP/Getty Images
There were widespread allegations of fraud in Russia's parliamentary polls in December. In advance of Russia's presidential election Sunday, Russian citizens abroad have been allowed to vote early. This woman casts a ballot in Kyrgyzstan on Feb. 26.

Just three months ago, Russia's parliamentary elections prompted widespread allegations of fraud and drove thousands of protesters into the streets in the days afterward.

The Russian government and government critics both say they are trying to prevent a similar outcome in Sunday's presidential poll.

Valdimir Putin, who has been either the president or the prime minister for the past 12 years, is widely expected to win another six-year term as president. But the credibility of Russian elections is also at stake.

The government says it has installed webcams in all of the country's more than 90,000 polling places so the key parts of the voting process can be monitored live and recorded for later review.

"It's all transparent," says Nikolai Konkin, secretary of the Central Electoral Commission. He says two cameras will keep the process in view from the time voters enter the polling place until the final count is reported at the end of the day.

But his demonstration is a video that was made under optimal conditions at a model polling place.

Opposition groups say video cameras may help to deter the most blatant kinds of ballot-box stuffing. But they're not going to be very useful in combating one of the most common types of fraud, so-called "carousel voting."

A portrait of Russian prime minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, bearing the slogan "For Putin! And That's It!" hangs on a building in Moscow.
Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
A portrait of Russian prime minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, bearing the slogan "For Putin! And That's It!" hangs on a building in Moscow.

That's where groups of voters are driven from one polling place to another, using absentee ballot forms to cast multiple votes.

Most of all, critics say they distrust the system because it was set up by the very people who were accused of vote rigging in December.

Opposition To Monitor Polls

A lack of trust in the voting system is what has brought more than 100 people to an ornate lecture hall at Moscow International University.

Vassily Tovstonohgov says he's here because he doesn't like being tricked, and he feels that's what happened during the election in December. The 26-year-old television writer has come to a training session for election observers, put on by a group called Citizen Voter.

The trainer promises the participants that by the end of the session, they'll know more about Russia's election laws than the officials at the polling places.

The trainer spices up his presentation with a video showing officials at a provincial polling place trying to turn observers away.

It's set to music by the singer Sergei Shnurov and his band Leningrad. Shnurov has a reputation for being wild, and the first verse has him promising to stay sober all day, so he'll be ready to vote in the elections tomorrow.

Most of the participants here are young, like Katya Goolina, who's come with her twin sister.

They see something historic in what they're doing, something they can be proud of later in life.

"To say to my son, to my children, that I did something to stop this bad behavior of my government," she says.

The stakes are high for all sides.

Putin is considered likely to get the 50 percent needed to win in the first round. But he faces the possibility that he might not do well in Moscow, Russia's capital and its largest city.

Rumors are circulating among opposition groups that Putin supporters will try to boost his numbers by bringing in voters from other cities and having them cast absentee ballots in Moscow.

For his part, Putin has said that he believes opponents will try to fake evidence of election fraud and then blame it on the government.

All sides say they'll be watching.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corey Flintoff is a correspondent with the Foreign Desk. His career has taken him to more than 45 countries.Since 2005, Flintoff has been part of the NPR team covering the Iraq War. He has embedded with U.S. military units fighting insurgents and hunting roadside bombs. His stories from Iraq have dealt with sectarian killings, government corruption, the Christian refugee crisis, and the destruction of Iraq's southern marshes.
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