Russian election: Navalny rallies army of observers to counter Putin
Young activists at the Alexei Navalny office where people can register and receive training on how to participate as observers in the upcoming presidential elections, Moscow, Russia on March 14, 2018.Sergey Ponomarev / for NBC News
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MOSCOW — On a typically dour March day in Moscow, it is almost intolerably hot and loud inside the offices of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.
Days before Sunday's presidential elections, the mood is jovial among the 100 or so election volunteers crammed into small offices in the south of the capital. The sound of laughter and chatter bounces off the walls adorned with campaign posters of their man.
The thing is, Navalny isn't actually running for office. The 41-year-old lawyer has been barred from the race that's expected to see President Vladimir Putin swept back into power in a largely uncontested coronation.
Instead, the outspoken Putin critic has asked his supporters to boycott the vote and instead watch for irregularities that have blighted past polls. Some 62,000 have signed up to become election observers.
"Our main goal is to count every ballot that goes into the ballot box, without getting distracted by anything else," said lawyer Aleksander Pomazuev, who is running 90-minute election observer training sessions in Navalny's cramped offices.
"This data is critical for us," he said as he waved people into the latest workshop. This is part of an effort to ensure the government doesn't inflate voter turnout numbers to boost its credibility.
The data gathered by the observers will be fed into models to help reveal discrepancies in the traditionally high official turnout numbers.
"We realize that the result of the main candidate is already predetermined, and our goal is to see how many people actually take part," Pomazuev said.
In the days after the 2012 election, which Putin won with over 63 percent of the vote, social networks were flooded with videos purporting to show evidence of ballot-box stuffing and so-called "carousel voting." This is when groups of people get bused from polling station to polling station to cast multiple ballots.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the vote was "clearly skewed" in favor of Putin, with a lack of any real competition and an abuse of government resources meaning the winner was never in doubt.
The competition doesn't look any stiffer this time around. And although Putin's approval rating is soaring above 80 percent, the Kremlin is worried about voter apathy.
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None is seen as serious challengers.
These sorts of things have propelled Aleksandr Brusentsev, 21, who's heading to Chechnya as an observer. For this, a friend called him a "fool" — only half-jokingly.
Chechnya is ruled by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, a staunch pro-Putin regional leader whose government has been accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Still, Brusentsev is sticking to his plans.
"I am going because they had a voter turnout of over 99 percent there during the last presidential election in 2012," he said.
He is among those lining up at Navalny's headquarters to pick up a key piece of paper — an election observer accreditation. This is their way of being part of the election without actually participating in it.
Navalny says there is no doubt in his mind Putin will win, while doing everything in his power to curry legitimacy by increasing voter turnout.
He reasons the only way to actually see how many people legitimately vote for Putin is installing trained observers at polling stations around the country.
Polls show Navalny would not unseat Putin if he ran, but his backers believe he would pick up a big chunk of the protest vote and displace the Communists as the country's second biggest political force behind the pro-Putin United Russia Party.
Medical student Georgiy Gromadin has never observed an election before.
"My country’s fate is at stake — the future of my family, friends, fellow voters and my own," the 24-year-old said to explain why he's not voting but also volunteering to be an observer.
He said he was ready to give up when the final list of presidential candidates came out — not one representing his political views.n
"Now all I can do is observe the election, wait for the voter turnout numbers and see how much lying there will be this time around," he said.
While Navalny's observers will be watching others vote, the vast majority won't cast their own ballots. Navalny has been encouraging his supporters to boycott the election as another form of protest.
"I am not voting because I think the system where someone decides for us who we can vote for and who we can't — is predestined for failure," said 19-year-old student Anna Dmitrieva, who signed up to be an election observer in the Republic of Mordovia, a region in Russia's west.
According to Pomazuev, the whole election process is there to make Putin's self-reappointment look legitimate inside and outside the country.
"That’s why he wants to see as many people as possible show up and vote. He will still get his 70 percent, but it's important for him to see how many people will agree to take part in his reappointment," she said.
This year, the government has also introduced an option to vote at any polling station regardless of where a voter is registered. A number of Russian celebrities have been busy promoting the idea on social media with the hashtag #votewhereyouare.
And Putin's campaign looks to be also getting onto the observer bandwagon: Russian news service TASS reported last week that the president's campaign office planned to train up to 100,000 people.
Back at Navalny's office, Brusentsev said Kremlin's efforts to get the voters out are obvious to him.
After his stint as an election observer is over Sunday night, he and thousands like him are bound to wake up Monday morning to the news of a president they don't want to see in power for another six years.
But he said he has plenty of motivation to keep going.
"We are not giving up," Brusentsev said. "There is nothing I can do about [the election result] at the moment, but I am doing everything in power to change it."