February 26, 2012

Becoming Observers

Becoming Observers

I have slept very little the past two weeks, and I have done very little to prepare for my classes. My students have tired of asking when I will correct their papers, and piles of their notebooks are gradually filling up my room. There is nothing to eat in the house; I have no had any time to get to the store. I am completely overcome by my work in “Citizen Observer” (in Russian “Гражданин Наблюдатель”, or simply GN).

GN is a civic organization. Actually, it would be more correct to say it is an organization of honest people who don’t bother explaining to one another their political views or their affiliations with this or that party. Instead it is people who simply, before the Duma elections last December, came together to see just how honestly the elections would be conducted. Back then there were not many members of GN, yet they did observe something strange: in those polling places where they sent their observers, Unified Russia received a far lower percentage of votes than in other locations. After the Duma elections, people gushed into Citizen Observer.

I went to sign up at noon on Saturday, January 14. On January 13, Russia celebrates “Old New Year,” and no less vigorously than “New New Year.” Therefore, I was not surprised to find that, in the building of human rights organization Memorial,where the orientation was taking place, there was just one other person. By all appearances he was a first-year student.

“Just two defenders of democracy could be found,” I thought to myself.

And then the people started to pour in… A mother arrived with her small child. Two women of retirement age showed up, then three strapping guys who started asking one another how they had spent the previous “New Year’s” Eve. The people just kept coming and coming. All of them wanted to be observers. All of them wanted honest elections. Everyone’s character, it should be said, was excellent. An hour later, when we were leaving, a whole new group was forming up. This is the way it has been every weekend since.

After this, GN started to arrange lectures, to teach the future observers. And the lectures – four hours long, by the way – continue to this day. And you have to sign up fast; they fill up very quickly.

It’s rather surprising, actually, just how many ways there are to cheat in elections. You can stuff ballot boxes before polling places are opened, during voting or after. You can drive up with a bus full of guest workers, who will vote exactly as commanded. You can stitch additional pages into the book with the voter rolls. You can, when tallying the votes, name one candidate, then place the counted ballot into the other’s candidate’s pile [The ballots are supposed to be read aloud, then placed in the pile of the recipient. But often several monitors start counting aloud at once. Which makes it impossible to monitor if they are reading the correct name and putting it into correct pile. When piles are made, nobody re-checks them; they just count the number of ballots. That is why it is so important to read them only one by one, and by one person. And observers should also theoretically stand behind the readers’ back and check what he reads – which does not always happen.] And, finally, you can simply write up fake reports. We will be on the lookout for all of this, if of course we are not kicked out of the polling places, accused of hooliganism… if we are not kept away from the tallies and ballot boxes… if they don’t bust up our cameras… if they don’t drag us into the street and beat us up…

It is to protect against this latter possibility that GN is attempting to place three observers in each polling place. This will make it more difficult to cover all the polling stations, but on the other hand we will be able to support one another.

The work in Citizen Observer turned out to be considerably more than expected. They needed help and so, next thing I knew, I was a brigadier, responsible for seven cities in Moscow region. I am in constant communication with fine people, who are choosing the polling place where they will act as observers, traveling to Moscow (which sometimes requires several hours) in order to attend lectures, reading the election laws and the observers’ manual. In a word, they are getting ready to stand watch so that votes may be honestly cast.

Let me try to describe who these people are. There is Yulia who, judging by her voice, is very young, although she has already served as an observer. There is Vyacheslav, who is likely retired military, judging by how he thoroughly, succinctly and in a businesslike manner inquires into every detail, attempting to prepare for every possible wickedness that the commission might attempt.

An elderly woman calls me: “Reporting in. We compiled a list of nine observers and sent it over to you. We have divided the polling places amongst ourselves and are continuing to recruit more observers.” A student named Maria went home, met a friend she had not seen for a long time, and the latter immediately wanted to be an observer as well. There is so much work that we are simply drowning in it. I believe that Yekaterina, the brigadier for all Moscow oblast, has stopped sleeping altogether.

How the Moscow brigadiers are coping, I have no idea. A young fellow who is responsible for the district where I live in Moscow always begins his letters with the words, “Excuse me for taking so long to answer, I am drowning in your letters.”

This week they started giving observers their ID. The majority of candidates get theirs in the cities where they live. In one of “my” cities – Orekhovo-Zuyev – the Communists have already put three people in every (!) polling place. This is the maximum that a candidate can put in each location.

The billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who of course does not have any branch offices in the provinces, is giving out IDs to his observers in Moscow, in the Central Telegraph building on Tverskaya Street – right in the center, not far from the Kremlin. There are so many people there that the stuffiness makes it difficult to breathe. And for now they are only giving out IDs for those working in Moscow region. Moscow city observers will get theirs next week.

Prokhorov is very popular, even though he is rumored to be a Kremlin decoy. Still, many want to vote for him. He is intelligent, tall, handsome, charming, and, well, completely unlike all the other candidates. Yesterday I spent five hours in Prokhorov’s reception office, helping to give out IDs. The people arrived in droves. Many had to stand in line for an hour or more in order to receive their documents – after first going online to get the number of their polling place.

It was surprising just how many in this line were serious, middle-aged men. Most think that the only people interested in politics are radical youth or old women. Yet here were businessmen, teachers, adults who were calm and sure of themselves. It will not be easy to falsify things with these guys around. And alongside them were extremely young boys and girls. Then suddenly an elderly man came up. He appeared to be a professor, a scientist. Who he really was, I don’t know, but he looked as if he had just stepped out of the auditorium after giving a lecture. A mother and her grown son arrived, a man and his wife.

For the several of us filling out the ID cards, there was no time to raise our heads, to stand up and stretch our legs. I sat, pecking away at the computer, finding the number of people’s polling places, while next to me a married couple, Lyosha and Katya, without a single break, wrote out IDs and handed out “road maps.” And next to us is another table, with their line, their crowd. There are so many people that we are disturbing the lecture for observers, which is taking place in the next room. Everyone tries to speak in whispers, yet the noise is unavoidable.

Suddenly a drunk arrives. “Where is Prokhorov?” he cries. “I want to vote for Prokhorov!” Someone calms him down and leads him back outside.

Pretty girls dreamily gaze at candidate Prokhorov’s portrait. He is famous for his love of the fairer sex. In fact, the first we ever heard of him was when French police detained him in the famous Courchevel ski resort, since he had arrived there in the company of 40 girls, whom he explained were just his friends. You would think the public would have been outraged. Yet, by all appearances many women will vote for Prokhorov.

Around 10 pm the flow of future observers begins to slow. After all, they are arriving here from other cities, and it’s time for them to return home. I exit the Central Telegraph building and trudge along Tverskaya, barely able to keep my feet under me. Tomorrow is Saturday, and they say there will be even more people. When will I ever get to my students’ homework? Then again, my students themselves are rather worried about how the elections will come out.

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