WORLD -- March 4, 2012 at 3:18 PM EDT
Despite Allegations of Fraud, Russia's Voters Demand to Be Counted
Updated at 5 p.m. ET: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claimed victory in Sunday's presidential election in Russia. Exit polls showed him receiving 58-59 percent of the vote based on exit polls cited by state television, reported the Associated Press. Official results are expected Monday morning.
MOSCOW | I've covered every American presidential election since 1976, and I have to say, I've not seen voters more determined than they seemed today in Russia. "In former times, we just lay in the bed," 60-year-old art historian Natalya Simonova, voting in the village of Desna, told me. But not this time. "This year ... we feel we're not slaves, and we can do something."
It seemed so odd to hear that, since the outcome -- a first-round victory that will return Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin after a four-year hiatus -- has been so widely predicted and seems assured. Yet the people we interviewed at the polls didn't sound cynical at all.
"I wanted to vote because I have a choice," said 52-year-old soccer coach Sergei Alexyevich, who marked his ballot for the Communist candidate, Gennady Zuganov. Why bother? I asked; the polls show Putin is sure to win. "Who knows who will win?" he retorted. "Only God knows what will happen."
What's more, some Russians were quite strategic in their vote. Simonova, for example, said she marked her ballot with Xs by every name -- Putin's, and also his four rivals -- because she couldn't support any of them. But she didn't stay home. "We want to express the feeling that the government should hear our voice," she said.
Others tried to send the same message by voting for the only new face in the candidate pack -- metals industry oligarch (and New Jersey Nets co-owner) Mikhail Prokhorov. Even though he thinks "Putin is really the only one able to provide authority in this country," Moscow telecom company sales manager Leonid Feoktishtov told me he marked his ballot for Prokhorov "to let the authorities know that there are different opinions in this world."
A polling station in the village of Desna, southwest of Moscow.
Even the pro-Putin voters sounded like independent thinkers, coolly weighing their options. "I don't like Putin," said a hotel doorman who'd just voted nearby. "But look around. Ten years ago, none of this was here. You would think, this is crazy country! Zuganov wants to take us back to days of USSR. I'll take the criminal over the crazy."
Hanging over this election day, of course, are the allegations of fraud -- among them, of so-called "carousel voting" in which busloads of voters are driven around to vote in multiple places. We went to the alternative rock mecca Masterskaya Club, where Prokhorov's campaign and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny had teamed up to create an election observer monitoring center, and heard the accusations of "massive falsifications" from Navalny himself. "We have all the evidence and the moral right to say, Putin's victory in the first round will be achieved only due to falsification," he maintained.
Margaret Warner interviewing two election monitors in Russia.
My team and I visited three polling places today, and we saw none of that. The volunteer independent observers at each spot -- armed with a special "Observer App" to report their observations on their iPhones and Androids -- told us they hadn't witnessed anything untoward. That doesn't mean that fraud hasn't happened, and if documented and proven, it will cloud Putin's victory, his legitimacy and potentially his authority.
The Putin campaign said it couldn't categorically deny the reports, but wanted them thoroughly checked out.
"It's hard to say. We see all kinds of reports," Putin deputy campaign manager Pavel Zenkovich told me at Putin campaign headquarters Sunday night. "We are the first to be interested in having them checked and double-checked. And if they are true, they should be prosecuted. Putin is the first man to want a clean election. He doesn't need this fraud."
Asked about Navalny's charges of a so-called "carousel voting" operation busing the same voters around to cast ballots in multiple locations, Zenkovich said that it would be natural if factory managers gave workers a bus to get to polling places at lunchtime. "We need to know, who sent them and for whom. So far, it is only accusations."
But as important as this controversy is, the debate over fraud shouldn't obscure what this day means to ordinary Russian voters. And to this veteran campaign correspondent, it seems that a sense of democratic empowerment of a kind never known in this nation's Soviet days has taken hold in Russia. And over time, even if it takes years, it's bound to be exercised and heard.
Photos by Fyodor Mozgovoy. View all of the NewsHour's Russian election coverage.