(MOSCOW) — Alena Bykova is determined to prevent her country from being stolen. On a recent evening, after a long day of work, she and several dozen citizens crowded into a university classroom in Moscow to learn how to catch fraud at the March 4 presidential election.
They learned how to spot ballot stuffing and voter intimidation and how to report it. Perhaps just as important, they learned how to prevent being intimidated themselves and which laws protect them from being arrested.
Bykova, a 20-something public relations manager for a large chain of electronic stores, is among a generation of young Russians who have taken to the streets by the thousands in recent months to protests a corrupt political system that appears poised to return Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the president’s office.
While few expect Putin to lose the election — even the country’s independent pollster Friday put his popularity at well over 60 percent — he will have to contend with a changing Russia that is more politically active and willing to challenge him in public.
Bykova’s generation has been mockingly referred to as the “office plankton” who have enjoyed the fruits of Russia’s economic boom of the last decade. They don’t remember the Soviet days and were only children during the turbulent 1990s. They came of age during a decade of Putin’s rule that saw Russia become rich on petrodollars that paid for vacations abroad, iPhones, and the most fashionable cars and clothes.
But recently, spurred by blatant fraud in recent elections and lessons in democracy learned overseas and on the Internet, they have awakened politically in large numbers for the first time.
Bykova and her peers were driven to the streets after last December’s parliamentary elections which were widely seen as fraudulent. Putin’s United Russia Party narrowly maintained its majority, but videos emerged on YouTube showing officials blatantly stuffing ballot boxes.
Many of those videos were the product of a group called Citizen Observer that organized the election monitoring class. Interest in their work has exploded since December. They now hold two classes a day during the week and three a day on weekends training hundreds of monitors for next month’s election.
Alena Bykova is preparing for trouble on election day. She has loaded up her Amazon Kindle with legal documents that defend her right to observe the polling station where she has been assigned and says she studies it every day on the Metro ride to and from work. She’s watching tutorials on YouTube on how to catch fraud.
“On my little level of public observer on the vote, I can change something and I will try my best to. And there’s a new wind and everyone feels it. It’s a new wind, probably not in the whole Russia but in Moscow and in big cities, people are getting interested,” she said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Andreas Preuss and Joe Sutton, CNN
Greg Botelho, CNN Newswire