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Russia's Opposition Leader Is Organizing Volunteers To Act As Election Observers

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Alexei Navalny is Russia's most vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin. Over the past year, Navalny built an unprecedented campaign network across Russia, but he was barred from running in the presidential election which will be held on March 18. As NPR's Lucian Kim found out, Navalny is mobilizing his supporters to spoil Putin's expected landslide victory.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Alexei Navalny isn't remarkable because he poses a real threat to Vladimir Putin. What makes the 41-year-old opposition leader remarkable is that he's done something no Russian politician has even tried to do - create a nationwide political organization with dozens of local offices and an army of volunteers. Having generated grass-roots enthusiasm, Navalny is now calling on his supporters to monitor the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: In a recent YouTube video, Navalny tells Russians to boycott the election but still turn up to count exactly how many voters show up. In towns across Russia, Navalny campaign offices are offering crash courses on how to uncover vote rigging at polling stations. The Moscow suburb of Korolyov, known as the home of Russia's space program, is no exception.

ARTYOM PROSYAKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Artyom Prosyakov is teaching an evening course on the ins and outs of the Russian voting system. The bearded 26-year-old engineer says he started monitoring elections three years ago out of a sense of civic duty. And now he volunteers his Wednesday nights to share his experience with others. Even though Russia's elections are predictable, they're governed by strict rules and allow for independent observers.

PROSYAKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: In his course, Prosyakov explains that election monitors can only be removed by court order. He hands out a checklist of possible election law violations. And he says it's a good idea for monitors to come equipped with water, chocolate bars and a portable phone charger.

PROSYAKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He says observing the vote is important because it raises his town's electoral culture by removing temptations to rig the vote. On this night, Prosyakov has three students. One of them, Firdinat Kutlukayev, is a 48-year-old construction engineer.

FIRDINAT KUTLUKAYEV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He says his vote won't make much of a difference, but that the actual process of election observing might. Kutlukayev says he wouldn't call himself a Navalny supporter per se, but that the politician's appeals to monitor the vote inspired him to volunteer. Korolyov may not exactly be a typical Russian town because of its concentration of space industry jobs. Alexei Golyshev, Navalny's local campaign coordinator, says the town's level of education explains why people are politically active.

ALEXEI GOLYSHEV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He says, "the main goal of observing the vote is to keep track of voter turnout." Nobody doubts that President Putin will win re-election, but Navalny's people want to show that support for the government is much lower than advertised. In Korolyov, they still have a long way to go. The town has 125 polling stations but, so far, less than half as many independent election observers. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Korolyov.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM SONG, "COOL DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.