Elections in Russia and Bolivia

When Russia holds elections, whether national, regional or municipal, the votes are first counted at the polling stations. Each station serves a polling precinct, the minimal unit in the system so to say. Each precinct has its own electoral commission, made up of local residents, which supervises polling at the station and counts the votes after the station closes at the end of polling hours. The commissioners count the ballots by hand (sometimes watched by independent observers), sign the results tally and send it to the commission overseeing the vote in the electoral district. Eventually these results reach the most senior electoral commission responsible for the voting, which enters them into the results database.

Rigging the vote works best at the precinct level if all the commissioners are government employees or clients and no observers are present. It can be virtually impossible to prove that the ballots have been miscounted. Government-friendly operators could also input the wrong data into the results database but fraud at this level must be easier to detect and prove than polling-station fraud. In the past five years or so the Kremlin, it seems, has abandoned this method and moved on to precinct-level shenanigans. Moreover, its electoral strategy is now based on banning opposition candidates from running altogether.

Now let’s refocus onto a place southwest of Russia. Last Sunday’s presidential election in Bolivia has been marred by allegations of fraud during the vote count. Drawing parallels with Russian elections isn’t easy because the double-track count isn’t practiced in Russia:

Hours after polling booths closed on Sunday, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal released the first results of the quick count…

With 83.8% of the votes verified, its website showed Mr Morales leading with 45.3%, leaving Mr Mesa in second place with 38.2%…

But then the website with the quick count stopped being updated for 24 hours…

When the quick count was finally updated on Monday evening, Mr Morales had a lead of 10.12 percentage points – just wide enough to stave off a second round.

This sounds like something that may have happened in Russia 10-15 years ago and would correspond to top-level tampering. But there’s also a “detailed count” in Bolivia, which doesn’t correspond to any Russia procedure as far as I know. Its results differed materially from the quick count:

With 72% of the votes counted, Mr Morales just had a 0.58 percentage point lead over Mr Mesa, making a second round highly likely.

Now, the site for the detailed count still shows that the Morales’s lead over Mesa, with 100% of the votes counted, is slightly less than 10%.

What’s the Kremlin connection here? It may have nothing to do with the counting process but, as Russian journalists have reported, Russian consultants helped Morales run the campaign:

“They do not have the highest results, but there are never public scandals” – this phrase was used by Russian official, who asked not to be named, to describe the work of the political strategists who work for Rosatom.

However, Rosatom is not a political consultancy – it’s the state-owned company responsible for all of Russia’s nuclear facilities. True, but consider this:

…Rosatom… is traditionally responsible for elections in the cities where its facilities are located. For example, in 2016, when Russia elected the lower chamber of its Parliament, political strategists hired by Rosatom ensured the victory of the ruling “United Russia” party in 10 cities…

And this:

In 2016, the head of the company, Sergey Kiriyenko, moved to the position of first deputy head of the presidential administration. In this post he is responsible for all domestic policy in Russia…

Including elections, it should be added. Kiriyenko was briefly PM in 1998, including the late August, when Russia defaulted on its ruble debt. He played the role of a pre-designated scapegoat and was duly sacked after the fiscal collapse but managed an impressive comeback. He is probably more influential today than he was as PM in 1998.

It was Kiriyenko’s staff at the Kremlin that coordinated the selection of specialists to be sent to Bolivia… The head of the regional department of Rosatom… was directly responsible for sending the mission to Bolivia.

The puzzle begins to fit together. Consider one more piece:

…Rosatom has a contract with Bolivia for the construction of a nuclear center worth $300 million in El Alto. Russian state energy giant Gazprom became a participant in gas production projects, and “Russian Helicopters” (part of the state company “Rostech”) has a plan to sell helicopters to the Bolivian army.

If Morales lost the election, the fate of these contracts “would be in doubt”…

By Latin American standards, there’s nothing particularly outrageous about all this, unless Rosatom was directly involved in falsifying the election results. I doubt it was, since you have to be a local for that – at most, the Russians may have shared their Russian experience with Morales’s team. In the long run, staking everything on one side in a political conflict doesn’t look like a sustainable approach, and Rosatom’s business by nature is all about the long term. I wonder if they are hedging their risks and if yes, how exactly.

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