By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 27, 2009
ST. PETERSBURG -- In a country where complaints of vote-rigging are common -- and commonly ignored -- Anton Chumachenko's stands out: The authorities say he won an election, but he insists he lost.
A first-time candidate for office and a member of Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party, Chumachenko won a seat on a local legislative council in St. Petersburg last month. Three weeks later, he publicly renounced his own victory, expressing disgust that votes had been falsified in his favor.
"I don't need this kind of victory!" the recent college graduate wrote in an open letter to residents. "I don't want to begin my political career with a cynical mockery of rights, laws and morality."
Chumachenko's stand took authorities by surprise and caused an uproar, challenging the nation's crooked electoral system in a way no member of the opposition could. But it also stunned the government's critics, many of whom could hardly believe that a young man who came of age in Putin's Russia might choose idealism over the cynicism that pervades politics here today.
Chumachenko, a mid-level manager in a local hotel firm, seemed like a reliable United Russia man when he began campaigning for a seat on the municipal council of St. Petersburg's Morskoy district. He had been a member of the party since 2006, when he joined its fiercely pro-Kremlin youth wing, the Young Guard, and he was running on a ticket with four other United Russia candidates.
In a recent interview, he exhibited that youthful mix of earnestness and ambition so familiar in official Washington. The skinny 23-year-old with thick, arched eyebrows, a dark two-button suit and a degree in public relations said it was a "childhood dream" to seek office, adding that he hoped to fix roads, organize street patrols to fight crime and make St. Petersburg a more attractive tourist destination.
As for his selection of a political party, Chumachenko said he didn't have much choice. "I understood that only this political party would give me the power and opportunities to change things," he said. "If I worked with any other party, it would be just words, and I think it's better to do something than just criticize."A Work in Progress
As president and now as prime minister, Putin has worked to weaken Russia's opposition parties while concentrating power in United Russia, whose members hold the vast majority of the nation's elected posts, including more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament.
But the ruling party established in 2001 remains a work in progress. It has struggled in particular to contain infighting in municipal elections, one of the few remaining venues for open political competition in Russia.
In St. Petersburg, for example, Chumachenko's ticket was backed by a prominent city legislator, while its main competition in the March 1 election was another United Russia team endorsed by the Morskoy district chief. There was also a slate of opposition and independent candidates campaigning against government plans to build a highway and port in the neighborhood, which lies on an island in the Neva River.
The hotly contested race produced a high turnout, exceeding 35 percent of the voters in some areas, compared with about 10 percent in past years. Each slate of candidates sent observers to the polling stations to watch as residents cast ballots and election workers counted them.
At the end of the night, after the observers called in results, Chumachenko added the figures and realized he had lost, placing sixth in a race in which the top five vote-getters won seats. The four others on his United Russia ticket prevailed, along with one of the opposition candidates, Boris Vishnevsky, a leader of the pro-democracy Yabloko party.
But the next morning, the election commission announced different results. Chumachenko suddenly gained 80 votes, edging out Vishnevsky by two votes.
Vishnevsky filed a court challenge. Chumachenko kept silent, unsure what to do. "For me, it was like, what's up? What happened?" he recalled. "We thought maybe it was a misprint."
Chumachenko said that he never considered accepting the falsified votes, but that he worried he might be punished if he objected. After the official results were published March 16, he consulted with the other United Russia candidates on his ticket. They agreed to back him if he spoke out. Four days later, he released his letter without notifying party superiors in advance, he said.
"I am sincerely convinced that my colleagues in the party will support my position and make all efforts to make sure that the rule of law prevails," he wrote. "The party's strength lies not in exaggerated percentages of support, but in its ability to stand up for the truth."
Chumachenko also pointed out problems in a neighboring precinct where the vote count had changed overnight and knocked out two independent candidates.'Emotional' but 'Noble'
The letter caught the government off guard. An election official, Alexei Gromov, responded that someone had probably faked it and forged Chumachenko's signature. But prosecutors were shamed into opening an investigation, and a United Russia spokesman eventually issued a statement calling Chumachenko's action "emotional" but "noble."
The opposition was also surprised, reacting at first with suspicion. Some suggested Chumachenko was simply trying to boost his own profile. Others wondered whether he was following orders and playing a role in a feud between local politicians, or in a scheme to improve United Russia's image.
Tatiana Krinitskaya, 71, one of the independent candidates in the nearby precinct who was cheated out of a council seat, said she was astonished when Chumachenko showed up and asked her to help distribute copies of his letter, in part because he had belittled her during the campaign as too old for office.
"People said it was a public relations move, or maybe there's a struggle," said Krinitskaya, an environmentalist who has been fighting the development project planned for the island. "But if he really did this on his own, I would be proud of him."
Others said Chumachenko's actions were more important than his motives.
"It's the first time I can remember that someone who stood to gain from election fraud has spoken out," said Vishnevsky, 43, a veteran activist who has run in more than 25 elections and won a Moscow legislative race in 1990 after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's political reforms.
"Elections have become less and less fair since then," he said, noting that most of Yabloko's candidates were barred from the ballot here last month. "If these kind of things happened back then, the Communist Party would still be in power."
Grigory Golosov, a politics scholar who runs a program that trains election observers in St. Petersburg, said the Morskoy race was unusual only because the cheating was so thoroughly exposed.
He said the Kremlin evaluates local officials partly on their performance in elections, and it sets goals that "everyone knows can't be reached without fraud." At the same time, he said, the government has passed new laws toughening penalties against vote tampering.
"It means they want the fraud to be done professionally and not be so blatant," Golosov said. In St. Petersburg, where United Russia won 77 percent of the vote -- the goal was 70 percent -- and in the Morskoy district, in particular, the problem was that "they didn't do the fraud well," he added.
Chumachenko said he had heard complaints about election fraud but never expected votes to be falsified so brazenly. He also said he is disappointed the authorities limited media coverage of the case.
But he said he remained loyal to United Russia and hoped his stand would encourage others in the party to come forward. "It's a big organization with a lot of members, and I can't speak for all of them," he said. "But I believe the position of the party is to uphold the law and the rights of voters."
Chumachenko has provided evidence to the court and urged it to transfer his mandate to Vishnevsky. A ruling is pending. Meanwhile, prosecutors have sought to examine the original ballots. Election officials say they were damaged when a water pipe burst, an explanation that has been used before in Russia to stall investigations into election irregularities.
"We have very smart pipes," Chumachenko said with a grin. "They know exactly where to leak."