Guest Column: The Grigory Belonuchkin case

What happens when you try to expose election fraud in today's Russia.

Putin 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Putin 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
On the night of April 2 Russian journalist and researcher Grigory Belonuchkin received a telephone call at his flat in Dolgoprudnyi, a small city outside Moscow. The journalist was asked to meet someone about the publication of material that "only he could help with." Living in a place where people know each other, Belonuchkin wasn't afraid to meet the caller. When he left his flat, two young men approached and beat him so severely that Belonuchkin had to be hospitalized. The attackers did not rob him. Back in December 2007, Belonuchkin told a court that the results of that month's federal parliamentary elections in two Dolgoprudnyi electoral districts were tainted. Working as an official observer during the voting for the Russian State Duma, Belonuchkin collected documentation of electoral fraud in favor of Vladimir Putin's party United Russia. For instance, at the 306 Electoral Precinct, between the end of the counting of votes by the Precinct Commission on December 2, and the publication of the results by the Territorial Election Commission on December 3, the parties' tally of voters changed. While the protocols handed to the election observers on election day indicated support of 54.4% for United Russia, the protocols that arrived one day later in the Territorial Electoral Commission reported that 82.4% had cast their vote for United Russia. Several minor parties, in contrast, had lost most of their votes so that, in the second protocol, the overall number of voters remained the same as in the first. Even following months of brainwashing by the government-controlled mass media, 82.4% for United Russia was still an unusually high result. Belonuchkin published his findings in the local press as well as on Vladimir Pribylovsky's popular Web site. Belonuchkin also initiated a legal process charging possible electoral fraud, at the Dolgoprudnyi City Court. The hearing's second session took place the day before Belonuchkin's beating, and a third session is scheduled for April 15. BELONUCHKIN HAD been receiving threatening phone calls demanding he discontinue his investigation into the December 2007 elections. He reported all this to the police. Strangely, his first police report was lost by officials at the regional offices of the Interior Ministry. When Belonuchkin complained for a second time to police, officers declined to open a criminal case on the grounds that nothing had happened to Belonuchkin since he filed the first "lost" complaint about the threats. The attack on April 2 was possibly a reaction to Belonuchkin's persistence and his participation in the court hearings the day before. One can only surmise how the perpetrators managed to get hold of Belonuchkin's telephone number and address. Belonuchkin has an interesting biography. He studied at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, known by its Russian acronym MGIMO. The institute is a cross between the London School of Economics and Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. MGIMO is connected to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and many alumni enter government service. Its students tend to be careerist, even by Russian standards, and politically inactive. But Belonuchkin became an activist in his second year of study at MGIMO. In 1989, he started working for the independent Moscow Bureau of Information Exchange that later became the Institute of Human and Political Studies. He continued working there for several years. Most of Belonuchkin's activities since 1989 were, however, linked to the Panorama Information and Research Center - a small group of political investigators around the blogger Pribylovsky. A living legend within Moscow's remaining small opposition scene and frequent contributor to both Russian and Western mass media, Pribylovsky provides background information on numerous prominent Russian figures. His center is known among Russian and foreign journalists in Moscow for its reliable handbooks and dictionaries on various aspects of post-Soviet and Russian political events - ranging from the lunatic fringe to the Kremlin itself. Belonuchkin edited or authored several of Panorama's most widely circulated content. He also made himself known by operating a number of informative Web sites. Belonuchkin was, perhaps, destined to become a victim of abuse in Putin's new Russia. Granted, the electoral fraud and violent attack in Dolgoprudnyi was probably not orchestrated in Moscow. Yet the atmosphere and tone set by Putin and his entourage for the 2007 State Duma elections could not but have facilitated it. AS RUSSIA returns to a de facto one-party political system, officials in Dolgoprudnyi probably felt compelled to engage in manipulations and perhaps even give a green light for this attack. In a democratic state, a vibrant civil society in combination with an independent legal system would take care of such cases and put electoral manipulators - not to mention officials with criminal connections - behind bars. Yet Russian society is now largely structured around Putin's exercise of power. The system works mostly by sophisticated management of information, fraud and small-scale sabotage of independent activity. The Belonuchkin case sends a message to anyone who may have illusions about the extent of freedom in today's Russia. The writer teaches at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kiev in Ukraine, edits the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society (, and compiles the biweekly Russian Nationalism Bulletin