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The Big Brother is watching you! All of Russia was transformed into one big reality show on Sunday as thousands of webcams, in the first ever giant operation, fixed their unblinking gaze on more than 94 000 polling stations around the country.
From the Baltic to the Pacific and from the barren lands beyond the Arctic Circle in the north to the Caucasus Mountains in the south, every polling station was equipped with two webcams - one broadcasting images of electoral commission members and the other, beaming images of the ballot boxes to a designated website.
Hundreds of thousands of netizens were glued to their screens watching various locations around Russia right from the moment the web cameras were first turned on when the polling stations opened in the Far East while it was still midnight in Moscow. It was not the boring electoral procedures that people were excited about, as it was demonstrated by links and comments on social networks.
During the night, there were two hits. In Kirov, East Central Russia, where the polling station was located in the local House of Culture, it was a disco time as the cameras showed stroboscope-lit young men and women dancing to the sound of pop music.
Apparently the most popular though was a private house in the mountainous village of Mesedoi in Chechnya, where the portly head of the local electoral commission, Shaa Yunusov, simply lounged on his couch below the carpet hanging on the wall.
There have been screenshots of couples making out in the polling stations - the authenticity of which was difficult to verify - but which nonetheless made rounds on the Internet.
But as the polling stations opened, more familiar scenes were revealed – voters getting their bulletins, people voting, observers shuffling around.
But for the Russian Internet users, the fun showed no sign of ending. People tried to catch their friends and family in the other cities either voting or observing the elections. Judging from comments on the social networks, a lot of attention was concentrated on voting in the county’s southern republics, where people traditionally turned the voting day into a festival. One polling station that attracted attention was in the village store in Krivosheevka, Penza region, where two women sat amidst pickled fish and bananas with an occasional voter coming in rarely.
“I have seen my parents,” wrote Yevgenia Bogomyakova, a manager with the major media company, in a comment on Facebook. “It helps see all of Russia.”
Although curiosities prevailed, some videos from the broadcasts showing apparent violations have also been circulated, such as the video from the village of Tarumovka in Dagestan, where the video clearly shows two people inserting bulletins one after another into automated ballot boxes.
The webcams popularity reaffirms the new importance of Internet technologies in Russian elections. However, there is a palpable difference between the way it manifested during the parliamentary elections in December and now. Whereas during the State Duma elections Internet for the first time presented an alternative information channel to the government-controlled television, this time around, the government was able to hijack this trend, offering a stream of entertaining electoral information of potentially great, but immediately questionable practical use.
Many people spent a lot of time simply browsing the webvybory2012.ru website, where links to polling stations are superimposed on an interactive map of Russia, creating the illusion of traveling through the country’s expanses. A lot of Internet users simply hunted for their friends or celebrities.
According to the Russian election law, that bans publication of any results or exit polls until the last polling station in the country’s westernmost region of Kaliningrad closes, the broadcasts had to be stopped when voting ended and vote counting began – the period considered most dangerous in terms of election fraud.
After 9 p.m. Moscow time, the website began to show recordings from each polling station from the moment when the webcast had been interrupted.
The giant operation to install web cameras in all polling stations was ordered by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in December, amid widespread allegations of fraud in the parliamentary elections.
The allegations, which were mostly circulated on the social networks, did much to delegitimize the State Duma and trigger mass protests in Moscow and, to a lesser extent, in other big cities.
To forestall such allegations in the future, the government installed at least two cameras linked up into a system in each polling stations, estimated to cost the state budget about 15 billion rubles, ($500 million), RIA Novosti reported.
Communications Minister Igor Shchyogolev, who oversaw the operation carried out by the state-controlled Rostelekom company, became the hero of the day for a while, out-shining the Central Electoral Commission head Vladimir Churov in the television programs during the day.
“We think that the system worked in an ideal way,” Shchyogolev told Rossiya 24 television. Despite hacker attacks, he said, hitches were minimal. “The system has demonstrated resilience viz a viz the attacks,” Shchyogolev said.
Shchyogolev emphasized that the recordings from the polling stations can be used as evidence in courts if and when results are disputed.
Electoral commission boss Churov said earlier in the day that Russia was ready to export the technology to the United States and France – two countries that are also facing presidential elections this year.
The dean of the Media Communications Department at the Higher School of Economics, Anna Kachkayeva, said Sunday that the web broadcast of the elections was a new step in the development of the communication reality in the way elections are conducted.
“It is a new situation when everybody is addicted to this, due to natural inclination to voyeurism,” Kachkayeva said in a telephone interview Sunday. “It remains to be seen whether it helps the purity of the elections, but it has proved to be a good entertainment and a distraction from the essence of what this is about. Yes, the country has looked into each other’s eyes. But it appears to be another case when technology is used to imitate openness.”
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