Million people 'invented' for Russian election

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The Independent Online

Ballot papers were burnt, voters bullied and entire electorates invented in large-scale fraud perpetrated during Russia's presidential election in March, The Moscow Times newspaper has claimed. In its weekend edition, the respected English-language daily said its journalists had gathered enough evidence to question the legitimacy of the vote that brought Vladimir Putin, an obscure former KGB agent, to the pinnacle of power.

Ballot papers were burnt, voters bullied and entire electorates invented in large-scale fraud perpetrated during Russia's presidential election in March, The Moscow Times newspaper has claimed. In its weekend edition, the respected English-language daily said its journalists had gathered enough evidence to question the legitimacy of the vote that brought Vladimir Putin, an obscure former KGB agent, to the pinnacle of power.

The defeated Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, complained at the time that he had been robbed of the chance to go into a second round against Mr Putin. And observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, while finding the elections on the whole "democratic and a step forward for Russia", spoke of abuses. However, the newspaper's inquiry, carried out over the last six months, was the most far-reaching and hard-hitting critique of the poll on 26 March.

Perhaps the most startling discovery, it said, was that 1.3 million new voters had appeared between the State Duma elections on 19 December 1999 and the presidential election just over three months later. These were not "dead souls", as described in Nikolai Gogol's famous novel of that name, but "new-born souls" who were given the vote. Not only were children listed as adults but also corrupt officials added fictional floors to multi-storey apartment buildings and had their occupants vote for Mr Putin.

The newspaper did not even consider the gross manipulation of the media that smeared and sidelined the opposition and made Mr Putin seem the only viable candidate. It concentrated only on the instances of bosses bullying workers to vote for Mr Putin or risk losing their jobs and of election officials "correcting" unacceptable results. It interviewed a policeman who witnessed government officials burning sacks of votes for Mr Zyuganov.

In the Caucasian region of Dagestan, the newspaper said, theft of votes from opposition candidates amounted at a conservative calculation to 551,000 and there were disturbing discrepancies in Saratov, Kabardino-Balkaria, Bashkortostan and Tatarstan as well. The latter two regions voted en masse for Mr Putin even though their leaders had been involved in the opposition. In Chechnya, the public was asked to believe that 50.63 per cent of a population whose lives and homes had been destroyed by Russian bombing had voted for Mr Putin.

"Fraud was far from insignificant," The Moscow Times commented. "Given how close the vote was - Putin won with just 52.94 per cent or by a slim margin of 2.2 million votes - fraud and abuse of state power appear to have been decisive. The inescapable conclusion is that Putin would not have won outright on March 26 without cheating."

While the Communists and other opposition candidates complained, however, all seemed to accept that after a second round, victory would have gone to Mr Putin in the end. And in a country where people still fear the authorities, few seemed inclined to take the matter of vote-rigging to the courts.

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