Fraud fears cloud election in Russia's Tambov region

Russians are voting in parliamentary elections on Sunday 4 December - already denounced by opponents of the ruling United Russia party as neither free nor fair. The BBC's Steve Rosenberg visits the Tambov region, where allegations of widespread fraud emerged during local elections last March.

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Image caption Electronic ballot boxes are to be used in Tambov for the first time

The first time Alexander Ryazanov took part in an election was in 1937; at the height of Joseph Stalin's Great Terror.

"There was a real holiday feeling that day," Alexander recalls.

"Our collective farm had to elect a deputy to the local council. All of us voted for a woman called Marfa who looked after the cows. Everyone on the farm came to vote - except for one man, the local shepherd.

His mother had been drying his shirt near the fire and had accidentally burnt it. So the poor lad had nothing to wear and stayed home!"

I meet Alexander in a Communist Party office in the town of Michurinsk, in the Russian region of Tambov, 300 miles (500km) south-east of Moscow.

Staring down at us from the walls are portraits of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.

The tiny room is like a shrine to 70 years of communist dictatorship - to an era when elections were a farce with only one party on the ballot.

Although Alexander is a devoted communist, he is not nostalgic for the one-party state.

The World War II veteran has launched a crusade to defend democracy. He has gone to court to challenge the results of local elections held across Tambov in March.

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Image caption Election observer Alexander Ryazanov says he has proof of fraud in March

During that ballot, Alexander was an election observer at a polling station.

He shows me the signed and stamped document he says he was issued with late at night confirming the result of the count.

By morning, though, the figures had changed. Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia, suddenly had 10% more votes.

"This is theft. It's falsification," Alexander says, "and according to the Russian constitution, this is a crime."

'Complete fantasy'

Following those elections, a former head of the Tambov Election Commission, Nikolai Vorobyov, published a report alleging there had been widespread vote-rigging in favour of United Russia.

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Media captionTambov pensioner Galina Lavrukhina says life has become terrifying and she will not be voting in the elections

"On election day I got a call from someone telling me that, at a sports hall across town, ballot papers already marked for United Russia were being handed out," Nikolai says.

"Groups of between four and five people were getting into cars and taking the papers to different polling stations to put into the ballot boxes."

Student Yevgeny Arkhangelsky admits he took part in the operation. He says he was paid the equivalent of £10 ($15) to stuff ballot boxes.

"A couple of days before the election," Yevgeny tells me, "some other students and I were contacted over social networks or by phone and asked if we'd like to earn a bit of extra money.

"We weren't told right away what we'd have to do. When we turned up, they told us we'd need to go round polling stations and cast ballots already marked for United Russia. I wasn't happy with that. It was deception. So I didn't put any of the ballots I was given into the boxes."

Tambov's Election Commission says it takes all claims of falsification seriously. But its chief, Alexei Puchnin, dismisses allegations of ballot box stuffing and denies the local elections were rigged in favour of United Russia.

"Out of the 85 alleged cases of fraud listed in the report, 68 are complete fantasy. They've been dreamt up, not by the author of the report, but by the sources he uses. Among those sources are people from two political parties which lost the election."

'Don't care'

This time round, Tambov will be trying out the very latest electronic ballot boxes.

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Media captionTambov entrepreneur Alexander Zaitsev: "Officials have tried to extort money from me"

Election officials give us a demonstration.

If you try to cast more than one ballot, the machine tells you it won't accept them and spits them out.

But only 5% of the polling stations will have these - which is why, on election day, opponents of Russia's ruling party will be watching closely for any signs of fraud.

On the streets of Tambov, though, few of the Russians I spoke to seem concerned.

"Rumours of fraud are spread by people who are jealous of United Russia," Tatyana tells me.

"People have bigger problems to worry about," says Vladimir, "like paying their utility bills."

"I don't care," Alexei says, "because I can't change the situation."

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