Ahead of March 4 presidential election, Russian whistleblower charged with slander


Tatyana Ivanova, a 55-year-old assistant high school principal in St. Petersburg, has been accused of slander for complaining that she was asked to rig December parliamentary elections in her precinct. (Kathy Lally/WASHINGTON POST)
February 28, 2012

— Disgruntled citizens registered thousands of complaints of violations after the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections and demonstrators filled the streets protesting their unfairness, but all these weeks later it’s difficult to find any traces of anyone being held to account.

Except, that is, for Tatyana Ivanova, an experienced St. Petersburg precinct chairman and high school assistant principal who publicly reported that she had refused to comply with orders to falsify the vote. That produced a charge of slander and today, out of work, she’s awaiting her day in court.

The attack on her, and the lack of any public effort to prosecute vote fraud, suggests the results of the March 4 presidential election may be open to question, even though Web cameras have been bought to oversee polling places across the country. Doubts about the results could threaten the legitimacy of Vladimir V. Putin, who is intent on achieving a rousing first-round victory to dispel any uncertainty about his authority after repeated protests against him.

“I don’t know of anyone who has been prosecuted for election violations,” said Maxim Reznik, a member of the St. Petersburg City Council and a leader of the liberal Yabloko party, which made numerous complaints about fraud.

He predicts the upcoming election will also be unfair, but said the opposition has no intention of easing its pressure on Putin and his government.

“The fourth of March is not the end,” he said. “It’s just the beginning.”

Ivanova, a 53-year-old speech therapist and Russian teacher, has worked on elections for 14 years. When a city election official summoned her to a pre-election meeting last fall, she expected to rehearse the procedures she had long since mastered. Instead, a young man she had never seen before confronted her and a few others.

“You’re very experienced,” he said, as she recalled last week. “We need your help.”

His message: United Russia, the ruling party connected to Putin, needed more votes. Ivanova said she was shocked; her first thought was that her honesty was being tested. She’s a fixture at her precinct, located in School 575, where she teaches.

She lives nearby, in a historic neighborhood on Vasilyevsky Island. Her daughter teaches at the school and also serves on the election commission. Ivanova’s children went to the school, and the family — Ivanova, her husband, daughter, son, daughter-in-law and grandson — share an apartment. “We each have one room,” she said, “and we meet in the kitchen.”

Ivanova was sure United Russia would win anyway.

“We need more votes,” she quoted the man. “Your work will be noticed.”

One of the other election workers spoke up. “How much?” he asked. They would be paid, he was told, the equivalent of $2,300. As a precinct chairman, Ivanova was paid $300 for work over a three-week period.

She was summoned once again, this time in the presence of the district education official in charge of Ivanova’s school. United Russia must get an extra 200 votes, she was told.

“I said not a single [parliamentary] deputy is worth my imprisonment,” Ivanova recounted, fortified by a pot of tea. “They said, ‘Fine, someone else will do it — but you must close your eyes.’”

Ivanova said she was infuriated at the sense of impunity. “They all were so sure nothing would happen to them,” she said.

‘My honest word’

On election day, she made sure the observers sat right next to the ballot box. Late at night, they took the results to election offices, where the young man she had encountered earlier and the district schools supervisor awaited. The young man threw the results on his desk.

United Russia had gotten 22.7 percent of the vote in Ivanova’s precinct. Though some St. Petersburg precincts reached the mid-30s, it was not a good day for United Russia, which won just under 50 percent of the vote nationwide.

“Nothing can be done here,” she recalled him saying.

“I decided I wasn’t going to leave things like that,” Ivanova said, taking out a tissue from her purse as her eyes began to water. “But I didn’t know where to go, or whom I should complain about. I didn’t have any proof. I only had my honest word, and now that seems like such a rare thing.”

At the end of December, when higher-ups pressured her principal not to give her an annual bonus, Ivanova quit her job. “I like my principal very much,” Ivanova said. “She was afraid she would be fired.”

After 30 years, she was earning about $900 a month as a teacher and assistant principal. Her 55-year-old friend, the other precinct chairman, quit in support but decided not to go public.

Ivanova went to the newspapers, and soon her story was all over St. Petersburg. Recently, Natalya Nazarova, the district schools supervisor, accused Ivanova of damaging her reputation and asked for $3,700 in damages.

Nazarova, who has declined to speak to the Russian press, could not be reached for comment.

Thirteen school principals in the district wrote an open letter criticizing Ivanova and her fellow precinct chairman.

“The obvious lies of the former teachers prove their unscrupulousness,” the letter said. “There is no doubt that they were paid for their statements. In our opinion their planned interviews with newspapers, Internet resources and TV are examples of dishonest pre-election struggles.”

Reznik, who is head of the education committee in the St. Petersburg City Council, said teachers, who are so dependent on the government and vulnerable to the chain of command, should not be supervising elections.

“What she did was very courageous,” he said. “The more we talk about it, the better.”

Legal assistance

The League of Voters, a citizens group formed in January to promote fair elections, has publicized Ivanova’s case and offered her legal assistance.

Andrei Y. Buzin, who supervises election oversight for independent monitor Golos, estimates that 30,000 complaints were made around the country over Dec. 4 violations.

Prosecutors have officially reported opening six criminal cases and 3,000 lower-level administrative suits, he said, but most have probably been dismissed.

“Here’s one example in Moscow,” he said. “A member of the election commission was seen stuffing ballots. Observers saw him. A complaint was filed with the prosecutor’s office. Members of the commission were called in, and they denied it. Case dismissed.”

Friday, the independent Levada Center reported the results of its latest poll: 80 percent of Russians believe Putin will win the election Sunday.

Tatyana Ivanova will be among those voters casting their ballots for Putin. She is a member of United Russia. Putin, she said, has done a good job.

“I still believe in him,” she said.

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