Ink and fire. In three days, at least 44 Russians attacked polling stations and spoiled ballots pushed by phone scammers
Оля Ромашова
Ink and fire. In three days, at least 44 Russians attacked polling stations and spoiled ballots pushed by phone scammers
19 March 2024, 7:47

Photos: social media

All three days of presidential elections in Russia were accompanied by attacks on polling stations and attempts to spoil ballots—we counted at least 44 such incidents in 29 regions. The head of the Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, habitually accused the “pro-Western liberal opposition,” adding that “scoundrels are using other scoundrels for money from abroad.” The detainees themselves say they were pushed to the attacks by phone scammers—reminiscent of the wave of military draft office arsons, to which scammers regularly push ordinary, not politically active Russians.

“They promised to close the loan” or asked to “help the investigation”

According to our count, at least 44 attacks took place in 29 regions of Russia, including the annexed Crimea.

Among those detained are teenagers, young women, and pensioners. The youngest is 13 years old: according to the chairwoman of the local election commission, the schoolgirl set fire to a tablecloth at a polling station in Krasnodar “on the instructions of the special services of a neighbouring state.” The oldest is 80 years old; she tried to set off a 16-shot firework at a polling station in Chelyabinsk after scammers convinced her that “she must ‘destroy the enemies’.”

Most often, the perpetrators poured brilliant green, the ubiquitous antiseptic of distinct green-blue colour, iodine, and ink into the ballot boxes. In some cases, the scammers assured the victims that a special dye poured into the ballot box would help identify fake ballots. Less frequently, people set fire to voting booths and ballot boxes or damaged voter registration books.

At least four people, including the 80-year-old woman from Chelyabinsk, came to the polling stations with firecrackers. Two were injured themselves. In Perm, a 64-year-old pensioner set off a firecracker in the toilet at a polling station and was hospitalised, while in Tobolsk, in Siberia, a 22-year-old student set off a firecracker while holding it, receiving a wound to his left hand and abrasions.

Scammers persuaded a pensioner from Volgograd to light a smoke grenade in the voting booth at a polling station. “I said, what’s this, explosions? They said no, there won’t be any explosions, just smoke. For this, they promised to close my loan,” she said after having been detained.

The attacks are carried out in front of witnesses and under CCTV cameras. Often, a phone can be seen in people’s hands; many are likely in contact with the scammers until the last moment. Some are not even deterred by the presence of police officers: for example, a 31-year-old woman from Simferopol, Crimea, came to the polling station with brilliant green in a Lyubimiy apple juice package and poured it into the ballot box while a police officer stood nearby.

In videos recorded after the arrests, the perpetrators look very confused. They all tell similar stories about phone scammers.

Some, like Olga from the Belgorod region, were lured by the promise of the “security service” to write off loans and poured brilliant green into the ballot box.

Others first have money extorted from them and then are offered to participate in an “operation.” “I took out a number of loans to cover the loans taken out by scammers, and they told me that all my loans were closed. About a million rubles ($10,900). Today they said that there is a large falsification of ballots going on in the elections and that it is necessary to help the investigation,” said a 32-year-old woman from the Volgograd region who threw a Molotov cocktail into the ballot box.

A 33-year-old woman from the same region said that she was promised 30,000 rubles (about $300) over the phone if she poured brilliant green on the ballots.

Three dozen criminal cases and several people under arrest

We know of at least 31 criminal cases so far—almost all of them were initiated under Article 141 of the Criminal Code (obstruction of the exercise of electoral rights). The maximum punishment is 5 years in prison. Criminal cases are initiated even if the perpetrators did not manage to successfully complete the task. For example, a 47-year-old woman from the Krasnoyarsk krai spilled brilliant green only on her ballot and the ballot box lid, but she was still accused of attempting to interfere with the work of the election commission.

At least four people have already been sent to pre-trial detention—like 20-year-old Alina Nevmyanova, who poured brilliant green into a ballot box at a polling station in Moscow. Baza and Shot wrote that the girl was “instructed by someone” over the phone.

21-year-old Aleksandra Karaseva from St. Petersburg was arrested for throwing a Molotov cocktail on the porch of a school. According to the investigation, the student received such a task on Telegram from Ukrainian handlers. In Udmurtia, 43-year-old electoral commission member Nadezhda Pinegina tried to pour brilliant green into an electronic ballot box and was arrested.

A 28-year-old resident of Khakassia, who set off a firecracker in the building of the city administration during voting, was also placed in pre-trial detention. Unlike all the others, he is accused of hooliganism with the use of weapons.

The investigation demanded to put a Moscow pensioner Petrukhina (name unknown) under house arrest, but the court refused. She is probably accused of setting fire to a voting booth in the Lyublino district. According to the court ruling, she has never been prosecuted before and suffers from an oncological condition; she fully admitted her guilt and intends to cooperate with the investigation.

In some cases, administrative protocols were first drawn up. For example, in the Sverdlovsk region, two people who came to polling stations with brilliant green were jailed for 15 days under the article on petty hooliganism (Article 20.1 of the Administrative Code). One of them is 50-year-old Emilia Nosova, a professor at the Ural Federal University. Most likely, a criminal case has already been initiated against her under Article 141 of the Criminal Code—the Ministry of Internal Affairs noted that “the materials will be sent to the investigative authorities for making a procedural decision.”

An 80-year-old pensioner from Chelyabinsk also received a fine of two thousand rubles ($20) for trying to set off fireworks at a polling station; a protocol was drawn up against her for interfering in the elections (Article 5.69 of the Administrative Code).

First there were the draft offices. Same scam, new event

We have previously described the scheme scammers use to convince pensioners and other vulnerable Russians to commit arson. Strangers pose as bank employees or special services, extort money, and then offer to set fire to some object in exchange for the return of the stolen money—most often a military draft office or an ATM.

Sometimes victims are convinced that arson is necessary to assist Russian security forces in apprehending criminals. In April 2023, 16 such cases were recorded; in the span of just five days in late July and early August, an additional 30 cases were reported as a fresh wave of “scammer-induced” military draft office arsons swept across Russia.

Arsonists who were influenced by scammers faced charges not only for the destruction of others’ property (Article 167 of the Criminal Code) but also under more severe articles related to hooliganism (Article 213) and even terrorism (Article 205).

Despite the evident fact that the accused were exploited by scammers, they frequently receive substantial prison sentences. In one instance, the 2nd Western District Military Court sentenced pensioner Nadezhda Kornilova to 5 years in December 2023 for hurling two Molotov cocktails at a military draft office door in Usinsk, Komi republic. Scammers, posing as security officials, had persuaded Kornilova that the arson would aid in apprehending a criminal plotting to steal her money.

Similarly, in February, the same court handed down a 10-year prison sentence to 67-year-old Zhamangul Kurbanova from St. Petersburg. Kurbanova had set fire to the doors of a military draft office after falling prey to scammers who first extorted money from her and then promised to return it if she threw a Molotov cocktail at the office where the criminals were supposedly hiding.

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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