Russians complain of being pressured to vote

Russians complained Sunday about being pressured to vote, with some saying their ballots were already filled out for President Vladimir Putin's party and others reporting cash bribes, election watchdogs said.
The violations across the country appeared to be part of an organized campaign to raise turnout and produce a big win for Putin's United Russia party, which exit polls showed had more than 60 percent of the vote.
Dozens of voters reported being paid to cast ballots for United Russia, said Alexander Kynev, a political expert with election monitoring group Golos.
In the town of Pestovo in the western Novgorod region, voters complained that they were given ballots that had already been filled out for United Russia, he said.
In Chechnya, where turnout was over 99 percent, witnesses reported seeing election authorities filling out and casting voter ballots in the suburbs of the regional capital, Grozny.
Other violations included campaigning on Election Day _ prohibited under Russian law _ and putting pressure on election-monitoring groups, according to Golos.
One Golos employee in the northern city of Petrozavodsk was detained after reporting a violation; another monitor in the central Tver region was summoned for questioning by the local security agency.
"It is an orgy," Kynev said. "The uniform nature of violations across Russia demonstrates that it is an organized campaign."
Government-paid teachers and doctors and employees of private companies nationwide complained that their bosses ordered them to vote at polling stations set up at work.
The liberal Yabloko party _ which failed to clear the 7 percent threshold required to win seats in parliament _ estimated that the number of absentee ballots cast was four times higher than in 2003.
Alexandra, 18, who works at the Saratov State Law Academy in the central city of Saratov, said she and her colleagues were forced to vote at a specific polling station and were required to cast their ballots for United Russia and then report back to their boss by phone. Those who refused were told they would be fired, she said.
"It is pure lawlessness. It is totally out of line," said Alexandra, who declined to give her last name for fear of losing her job. "It is my personal choice and the authorities have no business telling me how to vote."
Alexandra said she called her boss after casting her ballot but in reality voted for Yabloko.
The election was billed as a referendum on Putin's two terms in office, and he has suggested that a high turnout and sweeping victory for United Russia would grant him a popular mandate to remain at the helm of the country after he is due to step down in May.
Foreign rights groups, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, had warned of widespread pressure to vote.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe _ whose election monitoring is considered authoritative in the West _ did not observe the voting for the first time since the Soviet collapse, saying the government put up too many obstacles. Moscow accused the United States of forcing the OSCE of pulling out.
Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, called the campaign to pressure voters to support Putin and his party a "special operation aimed at raping Russian citizens."
"Putin is everywhere: People are being forced and threatened to vote, otherwise they won't get their salaries or pensions," he said.
Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, said the party would contest the results.
The election, he said, was "the most irresponsible and dirty" in the post-Soviet era.