MOSCOW – With the Kremlin determined to see a high turnout in Sunday's election, many Russians say they are being pressured to vote at work under the watchful eyes of their bosses or risk losing their jobs.
They say they also are being told to provide lists of relatives and friends who will vote for United Russia, the party of President Vladimir Putin.
United Russia is expected to win handily. But Putin has turned the parliamentary elections into a plebiscite on his rule, and the Kremlin appears to be pushing for nothing short of a landslide.
The constitution requires Putin to step down as president in May, but with the support of the majority of Russians he could claim a popular mandate to retain power.
"The plebiscite will become a mockery if only slightly more than half of the people vote and if only 60 percent of those vote for United Russia," as the latest opinion polls predict, political analyst Alexei Makarkin said.
In the push to get out the vote, the absentee ballot has become a popular new tool.
A teacher in St. Petersburg said the school administration told staff members to get absentee ballots from their neighborhood polling stations ahead of the election. They are to vote together Sunday at a polling station at the school.
"They didn't tell us necessarily to vote for United Russia, but you can read between the lines," said the teacher, who was willing to give only her first name, Yelena, out of fear of being fired.
Similar accounts have been given by teachers, doctors, factory workers and others around the country. Some have said they were warned they would lose their jobs if they did not comply.
Hundreds of people have called an election hot line to complain about the use of absentee ballots, the Central Elections Commission said in a summary of the complaints posted on its Web site.
Some complaints came from hospital patients, who said they had been threatened with early discharge if they did not produce absentee ballots.
The commission's head, Vladimir Churov, said Tuesday that every effort would be made to prevent voting violations through the use of absentee ballots, but election officials have not discouraged voters from using them.
Non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties also have reported receiving many complaints.
"It is unbelievable. The use of bureaucracy is on an unprecedented scale," said Marina Dashenkova of Golos, an election-monitoring group. "People are complaining that their bosses are forcing them to take absentee ballots and vote for whom they say."
The use of absentee ballots in this way is new, she said, and kills two birds with one stone for the Kremlin: By getting absentee ballots, people are registered as voting even if the votes are never cast, boosting turnout; and when they vote under the supervision of bosses they are likely to vote "correctly."
People also have complained of being required to round up a certain number of votes for United Russia. Yelena, the St. Petersburg teacher, said she was told to compile a list of five relatives or friends.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a parliament member whose liberal party was barred from the election, said he has received reports from his home district in Siberia that government agencies have been told to make sure all employees and their family members vote.
"They want to be legitimate in the public eye and that's why they are pressuring everyone to vote," Ryzhkov said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "Even if people come and vote for parties that are opposed to the ruling party, their votes will still raise the legitimacy of the elections."
Much of the pressure appears to be on teachers, doctors and others on the government payroll. But some company owners also have shown an eagerness to get out the vote.
A 23-year-old manager at the Moscow grocery store chain Sedmoi Kontinent said her company was putting strong pressure on her and colleagues to get absentee ballots and vote at company headquarters.
"It's pure pressure. They are saying, 'We are not forcing you, we are asking you, but if not, you will show your disloyalty to your company,'" said the woman, Anna, who declined to disclose her last name out of fear of being fired.
The pressure to get out the vote starts with Russia's more than 80 governors, most of whom are United Russia members. The orders, whether explicit or just implied, are then passed to government agencies, companies, hospitals and schools.
"For them to ensure a decent turnout and the necessary percentage of the right vote is not a referendum for or against the president but a question of either signing their own prison sentence or being able to continue to live peacefully and remain governor," the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta wrote.