Sometimes, even seasoned election observers can run into surprises and unexpected encounters in strange places. Take French National Assembly Deputy Jean-Pierre Kucheida, who was an OSCE observer for the March 26 presidential election, along with colleague Jean-Claude Lefort. Together, he said, they have monitored elections practically everywhere: Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Krasnoyarsk you name it.
Admittedly, monitoring the elections this time in Moscow was not supposed to be eventful. "They are not going to cheat here," Kucheida said. "Actually, I wanted to go to Vladivostok, but Jean-Claude thought it was too far away. Ah, well "
In fact, the morning started calmly, as Lefort went to inspect a polling station in a school in the Maryina Roshcha district, while Kucheida waited for a French diplomat at the Savoy Hotel, where both were staying. Lefort conscientiously wrote down the number of registered voters on files provided by the OSCE, as well as the number of actual voters.
The only disturbance he could report was actually caused by himself as all the women in the polling station began to clap and cheer upon being told a Frenchman was paying them a visit. Lefort was then assailed by hordes of female admirers who just had to have their photos taken with their visitor.
Then, when Lefort got back to the Savoy, Kucheida decided to spice it up a little by going to the infamous Butyrskaya prison. "Prisons, soldiers' barracks, hospitals that's where things always happen," he said. "I always go to such hotspots."
The prison staff was happy to meet Kucheida and to show him the various polling stations set up for inmates. As a whole, notwithstanding the strong, ever-present cabbage smell, Kusheida said that Butyrskaya was not particularly unusual, for a prison. "I know a prison in France that is very similar to this one," he repeated several times.
Only when he passed in front of a cell whose doors were open was he a bit disturbed. The guard told him 65 inmates were living in there, but one of the inmates corrected him, saying there were actually 76.
Kusheida then went to another polling station in the prison, where a stocky man wearing glasses seemed to be supervising the operations, and he started asking him the usual questions about the number of voters.
"Good morning," the stocky man answered. "I am the minister for justice of the Russian Federation. Do you have questions?"
"You mean, you are Mr. [Yury] Chaika?" gasped the French diplomat who was accompanying Kucheida.
"Yes, that is correct. Do you have questions?" After his moment of surprise, Kucheida asked the minister questions about the Russian judiciary system and the overall number of inmates in Russia, and left the Butyrskaya at about 11:30 a.m.
The rest of the observers' day was somewhat less eventful, and no cheating was to be reported. After having lunch with representatives of the Armenian community, Kusheida and Lefort asked their chauffeur to drive them to Danilovski market, where they looked for caviar but finally did not buy any, and then went back to their hotel, where they had a nap.
At 7 p.m., they got into their car again and drove to two polling stations, where they monitored the end of the voting day and the counting of ballots. At 9 p.m., they watched the first estimates of the results on TV, in the otherwise semi-deserted bar at the Savoy.
"You know," Lefort said, "the OSCE drew all these rules and regulations we are supposed to follow. Of course, they are necessary for young, inexperienced people. But we are seasoned observers, and we are professional politicians. We know all this stuff. When polling operations do not go by the book, we can just feel it."