Employees working in Russia’s government-funded institutions allege that they are under pressure to take part in an upcoming constitutional vote that could keep Russian President Vladimir Putin in office until 2036.
Voters face a simple “yes” or “no” vote on the 206 proposed changes, already approved by the Russian legislature and Constitutional Court.
To lessen the risk of spreading the coronavirus, the voting will be spread over a week, starting on June 25 and ending on July 1. Moscow and the Volga River region of Nizhny Novgorod, areas particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic, will be able to vote online.
President Putin already has declared that he is convinced “the absolute majority” of Russians favor the changes, which, aside from extending his time in office, would make Russian the state language and define marriage as strictly heterosexual.
To encourage turnout for the vote, groups sympathetic to the government will hold lotteries for apartments and cars at certain polling stations.
Some publishing companies have even already released copies of the constitution that contain the proposed changes – subject to approval on July 1, a disclaimer reads, the news site RBK reported.
But, according to some public employees, these are not the only incentives the government is using to get out the vote.
Two such employees told Current Time that their managers have both pressured them to vote and specified the procedure to follow when voting.
Dr. Konstantin Kopanev stated that managers at his Polyclinic No. 7 in the central Russian city of Kirov, sent out Viber messages to the clinic’s physicians ordering them to find out when their subordinates intended to vote and to inform the managers. The message, which Current Time has obtained, stated that the employees must vote before July 1.
When Dr. Kopanev questioned the grounds for this order, he was sent a message from the polyclinic’s human resources department.
According to images of the chat Dr. Kopanev provided to Current Time, HR personnel asked the polyclinic managers to enter information about employees’ planned dates of voting into a workplace spreadsheet and email the details to the HR department by June 16.
Kopanev was outraged at the order: “No one has the right to force me to go somewhere and vote,” he said.
Central Election Commission chairwoman Ella Pamfilova, however, has stated that she has no proof of attempts to compel voters to participate in the vote.
With that in mind, Kopanev sent a statement about his own experience to Pamfilova, the Prosecutor General’s office, and to his local election commission, asking them to explain “the judicial basis for these emails, orders.”
After telling the clinic’s senior physician that he intended to contact these officials, another Viber message was sent to doctors that stressed that voting on the proposed constitutional changes is voluntary, he told Openmedia.io.
However, Kopanev sees the clinic’s management and that of other state-financed organizations as simply “hostages” of the government.
“They’re pressuring us; someone else is also putting pressure on them,” he said of his employers. “But all of this comes, I’m convinced, from Moscow, naturally. Moscow [is pressuring] the government of Kirov Oblast.”
As of June 15, only the Prosecutor General’s office had responded to Kopanev; and that was simply a confirmation that his missive had been received, he said.
Current Time has also received an email from an employee at a municipal-funded St. Petersburg pediatric clinic that makes similar allegations about pressure to vote.
The Central Election Commission reports that it has received 17 complaints about such demands; the Moscow Public Chamber, a body meant to facilitate public cooperation with the government, announced on June 15 that it had received 32 such complaints.
Allegations about such campaigns, including from Russian opposition members, also can be found throughout Russian-language social media.
Outside of Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, voting will take place in regular polling stations, at the rate of eight voters per hour. To vote online, voters must register on a public-services portal or, in the capital city, on the Moscow mayor's official website.
Arman Tuganbayev, a math teacher at Moscow Technology School ORT No. 1540, told Current Time on June 12 that teachers at his school -- “and, as I understand, a rather large number of schools” -- have been urged to register in Moscow for voting online and to provide information “about who does this or not.”
Like others, he believes that the campaign is primarily intended to boost voter turnout.
The teachers, though, he said, have not been asked to vote in favor of the government-backed amendments. “But I suspect that if a sufficient quantity of people will be registered, and, at the same time, it’ll be known that they can evaluate whether they’ve registered or not, then, of course, many will be scared and will vote as needed.”
Tuganbayev, though, expressed no fear about retaliation for speaking out.
“If they fire me, that will confirm my words and will only add weight to all these accusations.”
The school administration does not appear to have responded publicly to Tuganbayev’s allegations. City Education Department head Marina Smirnitskaya has dismissed as “a fake” a video posted by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in which she allegedly discusses compelling teachers to take part in the vote.
But one prominent government critic, a Navalny colleague, insists that the campaign to get out the vote is not limited to hospitals and schools.
Spreadsheets the non-profit Anti-Corruption Foundation allegedly received from Moscow’s Department of Information Technologies track voter turnout at a range of government-funded entities – everything from the city road-maintenance agency to the service overseeing public lighting.
“This already is a wide circle of companies that work in Moscow,” Foundation lawyer Lyubov Sobol charged in a June 16 interview on Current Time’s Evening newscast. “We see the same thing, not only in Moscow, but also in the regions.”
As of June 15, the overwhelming majority of employees at the few dozen Moscow entities listed in the spreadsheets had supposedly registered to vote online.
The Information Technologies Department’s manager, Eduard Lysenko, however, told the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy that no such tabulation is being carried out.
An investigation by the TV station Dozhd (Rain) suggests, though, how tracking voters’ online registration is possible.
Following a tip from a viewer, journalist Anton Bayev reported that he had been offered on WhatsApp 75 rubles to register for Moscow’s online vote and 50 rubles to vote for the constitutional changes. At a meeting apparently filmed by a hidden camera, the contact, a security guard who identified himself only as Oleg Viktorovich, gave the reporter a bag of 25 SIM-cards; an email account for each of the SIM-cards should be created for registering to vote on Mos.ru, the Moscow mayor’s official website.
Participants can be paid for registering 20 additional voters per day, Bayev was told.
How the security guard and others involved in the scheme received the SIM-cards was not clear.
The Interior Ministry announced on June 17 that it is verifying the information in the report.