One polling station, two different worlds
The number is impressive: 43,572 citizen observers monitored the presidential election in Belarus. Two thirds of them were, however, nominated by government-subsidised organisations. Oppositional movements and parties managed to send “only” a couple of thousand observers. Fulfilling their civic duty by observing seems to be the only thing all observer groups agree on.
Children are running around, picking up chestnuts from the stairs in front of the gymnasium that hosts polling stations no. 15 and no.16. Parents guide their schoolkids home through the foyer displaying an exhibition of selected works from art classes. A poster announces the polling stations’ opening hours. On early voting days, they are open from 10 a.m. to 19 p.m. with a break from 14 p.m. to 16 p.m., as everywhere in the country.
A gift and a congratulation card
Natalia and Nadezhda usually work as English teachers at the gymnasium. But this week, they are two of Belarus’ 43 572 citizen observers monitoring the elections.
“I find the election procedures very interesting”, explains Natalia, who represents the Teachers’ Union, “That’s why I am here”. Nadezhda, sent out by the Belarusian Patriotic Party, nods affirmatively. They watch carefully as a young girl casts her vote and receives a congratulation card and a notebook saying “I love Belarus” – a present for being a first-time voter. Congratulations for fulfilling your civic duty”, the young voter is told by the Precinct Election Commission (PEC).
Early voting is very popular this time, Nadezhda says: “It is surprising how many people come to cast their vote. But so far, we didn’t notice any violations”.
Sitting only two metres away, Egor, Tatyana and Denis (names changed) have an entirely different opinion on the electoral procedures within the polling station. They represent opposition movements and attentively count each ballot cast to have their own turnout record.
“In the past days, the difference between the official daily protocols and our own counts was between 0.5 and 60 percent. Two days ago, we counted 56 voters here at polling station no. 15, but the PEC stated that 118 had come. At polling station no. 16, it was 45 to 104”, Egor explains.
“They don’t observe the election – they observe us”
Polling station no. 16 is located in the same room, just a few metres away. “Observers stationed there were allowed to take photo-copies of the protocol. Here we could only write the numbers down. The PEC of polling station no. 15 is living in the middle ages”, Egor continues with sarcasm. For him, the presidential election is not the first election to observe: “At the parliamentary election in 2012 observers were granted more rights”.
For Egor and his colleagues, observers from state-aligned movements are nothing but a hindrance to their work. “They don’t observe the election, they observe us”, Egor says, looking at Natalia and Nadezhda. “I think they have to write a complaint about us every day”. Having already had a number of disputes with the PEC, Egor fears he will be deprived of his observer’s accreditation not later than on the actual election day. According to the Electoral Code, PECs have the right to do so when they consider an observer’s behaviour going against the law.
Sealing the ballot box with sticky tape because it looks prettier
Then, the PEC’s head announces the midday voting break and seals the wooden ballot box. She is using a paper that is taped down on the slit with transparent sticky tape. “This procedure is ridiculous”, says Egor. “It is not securely sealed. The tape would not leave any traces if removed”. He asks the head of commision if the sealing could be improved. “It would not look aesthetic that way”, she answers.
Afterwards, the room is locked from outside and everybody goes away. According to the Electoral Code, the door should be sealed as well. “But they never do it here”, Egor says. “We do not even complain anymore – it is just pointless.” The members of the PEC leave, the key for the room remains with the head of commission.
Egor and his fellow observers stay in the hallway and approach the young-looking militsia officer who is on duty of guarding the room. “I don’t want to offend you”, Egor says to him, “But do you know that according to the Electoral Code you should be handed over the key to this room by the head of the Electoral Commission?” The officer shakes his head, seemingly disinformed about the electoral process. “That is how they treat young people”, Egor comments. “They did not even tell him.”
Polling station no. 24 – not enough tables?
Polling station no. 24 is located in a school for visually impaired children. In late afternoon, the white-painted classicist building is a quiet place. The doorwoman tells voters that the polling station is on the second floor. After the first three days of early voting, the turnout is rather low here, with only 125 of 1500 registered voters having cast their ballot.
Of five observers present, Vasilii is the oldest one. “I am a pensioneer, I have enough time”, the friendly yet reticent veteran of the Afghanistan war says. He is observing the election every afternoon on behalf of the Union of Afghanistan Veterans, as several dozens of his colleagues are doing around Minsk.
But the abundant leisure time is not the only reason he became an observer. “I want the election to be held on a good level”, he states after a hesitating for some seconds, “I want everything to proceed alright” Vasilii, who has voted already on the first day of early voting, testifies that nothing out of order has happened so far: “Everything is being done in accordance with the law. If anything, I can complain that there are not enough tables in this room”, he says with a smile.
Militsia officer turned oppositional observer
Unlike Vasilii, Nikolai Kozlov managed to occupy one of the tables. His gaze is straying around between the ballot box standing in the middle of the spacious room, his colleague sitting next to him and a tablet in his hands.
Not too long ago, Nikolai was a lieutenant-colonel in the militsia. During the parliamentary election in 2008, he was on duty in this very same polling station to guard the ballot box in the evening. When the head of the PEC wanted to enter the room to cast additional ballots into the ballot box (a phenomenon also known as “ballot stuffing”), Nikolai intervened. He then received the order by one of his superiors to let the commission members in, and subsequently saw them casting numerous ballots into the ballot box.
After this incident, Nikolai noticed that he was being closely observed. In 2009, he quit service, the observation ceasing soon after that. When there were still no signs of any investigation into the election fraud in the run-up to the presidential election in 2010, Nikolai decided to tell his story to the public.
Two elections at the same time
Today, Nikolai coordinates the oppositional United Civic Party’s election observers in Minsk. “Although we know who is going to win, we try to make the election a little bit more honest”, he describes their mission. But to him, every stage of the electoral process is flawed, starting with the collection of signatures in order to be registered as a candidate. “Next, there’s the formation of the Electoral Commissions. The percentage of members of opposition parties in PECs is about 0.04 percent”.
He enumerates further problems: students, soldiers and state servants being forced to vote early, the lack of any responses to complaints written by independent observers, policemen not being the right ones to guard ballot boxes. “After all, there are two elections going on at the same time”, he concludes – one for show, and one where the requested official outcome is assured.
Carousel voters caught in the act
Nikolai reports that he and his colleague have spotted dozens of so-called carousel voters in the last days. These people vote upon the PECs’ tacit approval at several polling stations in return for being paid. “You can spot them by their strange behaviour. They move unnaturally, come in groups, have their passports ready, and leave instantly after having voted. After all, they are not professionals”, Nikolai explains. He thinks that the authorities rely on such rather subtle methods for knowing that there is a prominent observer at polling station no. 24. Absurdly enough, the PEC’s head and deputy are still the same as in 2008, having only changed positions. “Now, they are rigidly correct when they talk to me”, Nikolai says.
One day after Nikolai told his story to BelarusVotes, subtlety turned into aggression: Nikolai was physically attacked after he caught carousel voters in the act. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty he reported that around 12 a.m. he had noticed an elderly voter in “a hat that was too large for him”” moving timidly when entering the polling station. The man was registered and voted.
As neither the election commission nor the policeman on duty at the station reacted to Nikolai’s request to check the voter’s documents again, he followed him to the street. There Nikolai saw the man joining a group of persons who were handed out cash by a woman. “I started shooting them on video with my laptop, after which two of them burst on me, hit me by my legs and tried to seize my laptop. Then I returned to the polling station and called the police”, Nikolai told RFE/RL.
A bipolar assessment also on international level
The contrasting views of Nikolai and Vasilii in polling station no. 24 shared by Egor and his fellow observers, and Nadezhda in polling station no. 15, illustrate the bipolar assessment of the presidential elections in Belarus. While independent citizen observer groups like “Pravo Vybora” call the election “neither free nor fair” in their preliminary reports published on 12 October, government-subsidised organisations do not even release any such reports. This irreconcilable contrast is reflected among international observers, alike: Whereas the International Election Observation Mission, composed of OSCE and Council of Europe envoys, highlights problems in multiple fields, the Mission of the Commonwealth of Independent States notes that the presidential elections had been “transparent, open and competitive”.