Communist party activists in Moscow

Russia goes back to school in parliament polls

GMT 13:31 2011 Friday ,02 December

Arab Today, arab today Russia goes back to school in parliament polls

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits a school in Verkhnerusskoye
Moscow - AFP

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visits a school in Verkhnerusskoye As in any other election, most Russians casting ballots in Sunday's parliamentary polls will go to a polling station in their local school. But observers say schools, meant to raise fair and law-abiding citizens, often become embroiled in campaigning, and even force teachers who sit on the voting committees to falsify poll results at the risk of losing their jobs.
A video uploaded on YouTube in November shows a village classroom in Russia with first-graders in their best outfits assembling for their very first day of school.
But then two women address these six- and seven-year-olds with the words: "Do you know what is United Russia? No? This is a party. When you grow up, I think you will also become members of this party."
The children's teachers are silent as the women proceed to hand them gift packages to take home.
In another video, a school principal in Lipetsk, an industrial town about 400 kilometres (250 miles) south of Moscow, tells the world about how principals in her city are forced by local officials to petition for a mayoral candidate.
Rebelling against the prospect of forcing teachers and parents to sign their names in support of an "unknown candidate", Yelena Dumcheva decided to "put my post on the altar, so that some truth is spoken and heard," she told AFP.
"I call upon my colleagues not to be silent, not to be afraid of pressure. We need to unite our efforts... for the future of our children and for a decent school process," she said in her video, recorded near the school's cloakroom.
The video has cost her the job: education administrators unexpectedly announced that her school will be merged with another one starting next year. "My post as principal in this school will be cut," she said.
A teacher of Russian language in the Moscow region, who chose to remain anonymous, told AFP that teachers were told recently to "ensure parents' turnout to the polling stations" by cold-calling their homes, and then providing authorities with a list of names.
"We have to sign and distribute invitations to the elections, for free," she said in an email.
Political campaigning in schools is almost always in favour of the majority party, said a Communist Party parliament member Oleg Smolin, who sits on the State Duma's education committee and is a former teacher.
"When I was a candidate, schools called together parent-teacher conferences especially to hear the opposing candidate from (ruling party) United Russia speak, but I was not allowed to participate," he said. "These meetings were secret" from the opposition, he said.
"But the saddest thing is that teachers, who often make up most of the polling station committees, are forced to participate in vote-rigging," he said.
About half of Russia's polling stations are located in schools, said Andrei Buzin, an election monitoring expert at Golos, an independent election watchdog.
But in densely-populated cities like Moscow, schools are where most people vote, and if a violation needs to be orchestrated, school workers are usually the ones to do it, he said.
"Most commonly, committee members are asked to give out bulletins to people that have no right to them," for example to dishonest voters that are bussed around different stations, voting several times, he said.
Other times, violations occur during the vote count.
"But the main role of the committee members is simply not to notice violations," he said. "There were cases when school polling stations went through without a vote count: people didn't even read the bulletins."
Under recent amendments, teachers' salaries became even more dependent on the goodwill of the principal, and principals became even more tightly connected to the local administration, according to Smolin.
"There is fear, there is a lack of dignity... it's all a leftover from the Soviet times," Buzin said.

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