Looking for Trouble: Young Russians Hope to Catch Fraud at March 4 Elections

PHOTO: People carry banners in support of Vladimir Putin during a procession ahead of a mass rally, Feb. 23, 2012 in Moscow, Russia.

Alyona Bykova is determined to prevent her country from being stolen. On a recent evening, after a long day of work, she and several dozen citizens crowded into a university classroom in Moscow to learn how to catch fraud at the March 4 presidential election.

They learned how to spot ballot stuffing and voter intimidation and how to report it. Perhaps just as important, they learned how to prevent being intimidated themselves and which laws protect them from being arrested.

Bykova, a 20-something public relations manager for a large chain of electronic stores, is among a generation of young Russians who have taken to the streets by the thousands in recent months to protests a corrupt political system that appears poised to return Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the president's office.

While few expect Putin to lose the election, even the country's independent pollster today put his popularity at well over 60 percent, he will have to contend with a changing Russia that is more politically active and willing to challenge him in public.

"I'm getting more mature probably. The whole society is getting mature. People didn't care about politics, about real social life for years, for decades," Bykova said in nearly perfect British-accented English during a break from the four-hour class. "Now for some reason they have this yearning for more. They want to influence the life of society they live in, they want to influence something more than their tiny flat packed with good furniture. People want to live better."

Young Russians to Keep an Eye on Vote Fraud

Bykova's generation has been mockingly referred to as the "office plankton" who have enjoyed the fruits of Russia's economic boom of the last decade. They don't remember the Soviet days and were only children during the turbulent 1990s. They came of age during a decade of Putin's rule that saw Russia become rich on petrodollars that paid for vacations abroad, iPhones, and the most fashionable cars and clothes.

But recently, spurred by blatant fraud in recent elections and lessons in democracy learned overseas and on the internet, they have awakened politically in large numbers for the first time.

Bykova and her peers were driven to the streets after last December's parliamentary elections which were widely seen as fraudulent. Putin's United Russia Party narrowly maintained its majority, but videos emerged on YouTube showing officials blatantly stuffing ballot boxes.

Many of those videos were the product of a group called Citizen Observer which organized the election monitoring class. Interest in their work has exploded since December. They now hold two classes a day during the week and three a day on weekends training hundreds of monitors for next month's election.

Some, like Olga Vilenskaya, another young Muscovite, found the class the way her generation finds anything. She Googled it.

"I wanted to be a part of the history of Russia because I believe that the future of our country depends on young smart people," she said, explaining why she wants to be an election monitor.

She brought her friend Konstantine Zakharov, who works at an international investment, with her to the class and they'll be monitoring the election together at the same polling site in Moscow.

"I want the elections to be transparent, honest, in a way. To make sure that Russia gets faith back," he said.

For Zakharov, the massive demonstrations against Putin encouraged him to make his interest in politics active.

Russian Elections Getting Young New Monitors

"The recent events showed people that actually it's a massive movement and a lot of people want things to be different and it's a great motivation," he said. "I feel like I am a part of a big group and it makes me more confident in what I am doing."

Despite their willingness to be observers, many in the class expressed concern about being detained and how to handle the police. Some were surprised to learn that there are laws that protect their right to keep a vigilant eye on the polls.

"I learned that a lot of legislation and the rules are on my side and that I am confident that everything will go smoothly and that I am backed up with legislation," Zakharov said.

Alena Bykova is preparing for trouble on election day. She has loaded up her Amazon Kindle with legal documents that defend her right to observe the polling station where she has been assigned and says she studies it every day on the Metro ride to and from work. She's watching tutorials on YouTube on how to catch fraud.

"On my little level of public observer on the vote, I can change something and I will try my best to. And there's a new wind and everyone feels it. It's a new wind, probably not in the whole Russia but in Moscow and in big cities, people are getting interested," she said.

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