Fraud Alleged In Russian Election

The losing candidate in the mayoral election in Sochi, Russia, is claiming fraud after a pro-Kremlin candidate was declared the winner with 77 percent of the vote. Associated Press reporter Steve Gutterman, who covered the election, offers his insight.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A well-known Russian opposition figure who ran and lost for mayor of the city of Sochi is crying fraud. Boris Nemtsov challenged Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, who's a supporter of Vladimir Putin, in the city that will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. The result: 76.8 percent of the vote for the winner, Pakhomov, and for Nemtsov, a distant second place finish with 13.6 percent of the vote.

Joining us from Moscow is Steve Gutterman, a reporter for the Associated Press.

And you're just back from Sochi, I gather.

Mr. STEVE GUTTERMAN (Reporter, Associated Press): That's right. I returned to Moscow yesterday and I'd been in Sochi since early last week, so therefore, part of the campaign and the election itself on Sunday.

SIEGEL: Now, Boris Nemtsov claims that that incredibly lopsided victory for the incumbent, whom he was running against, reflects a fraud that involves early votes. What's he talking about?

Mr. GUTTERMAN: Well, he says that people who voted early, that is before Election Day itself, were pressured to vote for the incumbent, the acting Mayor Pakhomov. And he's saying that his studies have found that in early voting, upwards of 95 and even up to 100 percent of those who cast ballots were voting for Pakhomov. So he says that that is one of the things that skewed this election so far in favor of the Kremlin's favorite.

SIEGEL: And does he have exit polls to back up his view that this isn't the result that should have emerged?

Mr. GUTTERMAN: His campaign conducted exit polls, and he says they found that the result on Election Day was that Pakhomov got about 46 percent, and that he, Nemtsov, got about 35 percent. And if that were true, if Pakhomov really did get less than 50 percent, then there should have been a runoff between him and Nemtsov.

SIEGEL: Now, I've seen some comments attributed to an independent observer group that looks at Russian elections. Are they a credible group and what do they say?

Mr. GUTTERMAN: Yeah, Golos, it's a very credible group. It studied thousands of elections in Russia. They say that they can't comment on whether people were definitely pressured to vote for Pakhomov when they voted ahead of Election Day. But they said that the number of people voting early, which was about 25 percent of the total number voting, is extremely high. And that this early voting is subject to more influence by state officials than Election Day voting because most of the people who are doing the early voting are state employees, such as teachers, soldiers, hospital workers.

And a lot of people in Russia say that what can happen is that bosses of state enterprises get the word from higher up, and then they pressure their employees into voting early and voting for a particular candidate, sometimes through vague suggestions, but sometimes through concrete pressure and threats that they could lose their job or deduct pay.

SIEGEL: Well, do you think that most Russians would dismiss Nemtsov's complaint as sour grapes, a loser complaining? Or when Russians see a number of 76.8 percent for the pro-Putin candidate winning, do they assume that there might well be something fishy about that number?

Mr. GUTTERMAN: I think many Russians would actually assume that Nemtsov's complaint is well-founded because they've seen opposition leaders make this complaint about previous elections. And I also spoke to people in Sochi, voters who were saying that they thought the campaign was unfair, and they didn't believe that their vote was going to count for much.

SIEGEL: And when they said the campaign was unfair, I mean apart from whatever shenanigans there might be surrounding the vote, were there any other evident aspects of unfairness to the campaign?

Mr. GUTTERMAN: Well, the campaign itself, and as Nemtsov also made this criticism, it was very lopsided. The acting mayor, Pakhomov, who ended up winning, received very positive coverage on local TV, local newspapers, but Nemtsov was criticized very heavily on local TV and in local media. So it was an uneven campaign, and that's what a lot of the voters that I spoke to said. They said, we really didn't see anyone on TV except for Pakhomov. And one woman just said, you know, I really don't like this, and I'm voting for a different candidate just out of protest.

SIEGEL: Will there be any court scrutiny of the result? Can Nemtsov bring suit and have the result challenged there?

Mr. GUTTERMAN: He can bring suit and he said he will do that. You know, a lot of people see the courts as being one of the instruments of power for the Kremlin here, so I don't think there's much general feeling that he could have a serious chance of reversing or sparking a review of the election results.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks a lot for talking to us.

Mr. GUTTERMAN: All right. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Steve Gutterman speaking to us from Moscow, where he is a reporter for the Associated Press.

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