Putin's party accused of voter fraud
Moscow - When the governor of the Chelyabinsk region in Russia's Ural mountains travelled recently to the town of Miass he convened top local entrepreneurs and told them to make sure their employees voted for Vladimir Putin's ruling party.
The town of 170 000 should give the United Russia party at least 55% in Sunday's parliamentary elections, said governor Mikhail Yurevich.
Sixty five percent would be better, and 80% would be "excellent", he told the meeting last month, according to an audiotape posted on the internet.
"Ordinary people do not care, simply do not care who to vote for. You understand that, yes?" Yurevich said.
"Please work with your colleagues, subordinates, friends and acquaintances, and do it seriously," he said, telling them to enforce compulsory voting at their enterprises and reward those who voted for United Russia.
Maximum results - Putin
Seven parties are running in the polls, which are seen as a dress rehearsal of March presidential polls in which Russian strongman and current Prime Minister Putin is expected to reclaim his old Kremlin job.
Speaking recently to the party top bosses, Putin cautioned them against letting the opposition "bust the parliament".
"I would like to draw your attention to the need for you to seek maximum results in these elections," Putin told them.
The parliamentary polls are seen as a crucial vote of confidence into his ability to hold on to power, and officials are pulling out all the stops to please the Kremlin.
Prisoners in jails are told to vote for United Russia. In a zoo in the mining town of Novokuznetsk, a sign "For United Russia" has been pinned on a cage with a bear, the party's mascot.
"This time around violations have become more blatant," said Andrei Buzin, head of election monitoring at Golos Association, Russia's leading independent election observers.
Warning over electoral fraud
The association documents electoral fraud through the "Map of violations" website (www.kartanarusheniy.ru). In a sign that the project ruffled a few feathers, three parliament members have recently asked prosecutors to probe Golos.
Russia's governing political party has routinely been forced to deny accusations of voter fraud.
But this year's attempts by officials to secure victory for the ruling party at all costs appeared so audacious that the usually pliant deputy head of the lower house of parliament's security committee warned that the scale of electoral fraud was pushing Russia towards "extremism and collapse."
"Are these free elections? Is this democracy?" Gennady Gudkov, a parliament member with left-leaning A Just Russia party, said in an impassioned speech in the State Duma. The Duma, dominated by United Russia, is not used to such outbursts of raw emotion.
"Even a hare driven into a corner becomes a wild beast," he said. "And you, dear comrades, are driving into a corner not only the opposition but the entire country. There's still time to stop this madness."
The authorities' heavy-handed tactics have begun to meet public resistance.
A priest from the city of Volgograd indignantly complained that local officials had convened clerics at short notice last month asking them to encourage church-goers to vote for United Russia.
"I cannot care less about either United Russia or the others," father Alexei Pluzhnikov wrote in his blog entry. "I just won't let anyone put pressure on me."
A delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which visited Moscow last month, warned of "serious concern that the election results could be manipulated".
"This election campaign is condemned to being dirtier and more dependent on falsifications," independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told AFP.
"The peculiarity of these polls is the more obvious, more scandalous, more public nature of violations and falsifications."