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Russians in New York Vote in Opposition Elections


Olga Golovanova (center) and Pavel Ivlev (right) helped Boris Kuznetsov (left) register to vote. Credit: REBEKAH MINTZER

Almost a year after Russians first took to the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities to protest the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, a small but determined group of Russians in New York joined a global online effort this weekend to do what the Russian government under Putin could not: hold free and fair elections.

The balloting was to choose a 45-person coordinating council to help direct the agenda of the nascent Russian opposition movement. Originally scheduled to run Saturday and Sunday, voting was extended into Monday after a “denial of service” attack, widely believed to have been caused by the Kremlin. The attack meant that most voters here and abroad were blocked from casting online ballots on Saturday.

Russians who wanted to register for the vote in New York came to a one-room office on W. 29th Street to present their passports. Among them was Victoria Dushkina, a Muscovite living temporarily in New York. Dushkina was not deterred by Saturday’s cyber attack, even though it initially kept her from recording her choices.

“These elections are going to be fair,” she said.

Helping Dushkina was Brooklynite Olga Golovanova, who is from Russia and said that she joined the opposition last December, after legislative elections in Russia that were widely viewed as fraudulent.

Laptop in hand, Golovanova reloaded the voting webpage over and over, usually getting only an error message for her effort, due to the cyber attack.

“If you don’t like who you are being represented by, then you have to find somebody else that you will be represented by,” Golovanova said. “Of course the Russian Constitution, that’s the most important document, those are the rules, but unfortunately our government doesn’t play by the rules.”

The main desk at the polling station was set up for business on Saturday, October 20 st. An iPad displayed live video feed from the office that streamed over the internet to ensure transparency. Credit: REBEKAH MINTZER

An iPad propped up on the main desk displayed a live feed of the activity in the room, which was also streamed on the Internet as one of the measures to ensure transparency. To prevent voter fraud, the election organizers offered Russians a couple of options to register online – including emailing a photo of themselves holding up their Russian passports. Or, they could present themselves in person, with passport, at a polling site like the one in Manhattan.

Such measures were “a big plus” for the transparency of the opposition elections, said Stephen Sestanovich, professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. They were also a marked contrast with recent polls run by the Russian government, widely denounced as riddled with fraud, he said.

But the opposition council vote drew a tiny turnout. Just over 170,000 Russians registered worldwide for the online ballot, and only about half of those actually voted.

“The challenge for the new leadership will be to show that they represent a significant part of Russian public opinion, and not just the relatively small number of voters who chose to take part,” Sestanovich said in an e-mail interview.

If the numbers were miniscule, the passion of some voters was not. Tatyana Ilyina, a U.S. resident for over a decade, drove all the way from her home near Philadelphia to register to vote in Manhattan,“because I’m not happy with what’s going on in Russia and I still consider myself to be part of Russian society.”

Boris Kuznetsov, a human rights lawyer forced to leave Russia for political reasons and now living in Fort Lee, New Jersey, also registered on Saturday. Being heard, he said, was important.

“The thing is that in 1968, when the Soviet Union drove tanks into Czechoslovakia, only eight people went to protest on to the Red Square,” he said. Despite their small number, “this action played a significant role in the ending of the Soviet Union,” said Kuznetsov. “You have to do what you believe is right to do, and we’ll just have to see about the outcome.”

Golovanova said that like many in the opposition movement, she is motivated by her love of her country.

“I’ve been embarrassed of my country and my government, I’ve been upset with it,” she said. “But I love it, I absolutely love it.”


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