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December 19, 2001
Election Officials Plan Controversial Database
By Svetlana Nesterova

Russia's electoral authority, the Central Election Committee (CEC) has drawn up ambitious plans for managing the next national elections. The CEC intends to compile a list of the entire electorate including detailed information about each and everyone legible to vote. The CEC claims the information will allow voters to find out more about potential candidates, however, if successfully implemented the project could undermine the common voters' right to privacy.

On Tuesday, December 18, the Central Election Committee reviewed a programme for the further development and improvement of the so-called state automated system GAS Vybory -- a mechanism for processing ballot papers and counting votes.

Presenting the report to her colleagues, CEC official Olga Volkova claimed that in the six years since its introduction the GAS system has proved a success. Reportedly GAS has been used in over 5 thousand polls on federal, regional and municipal levels.

However, the CEC officials are convinced GAS requires comprehensive modernisation before the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2003 and 2004 respectively.

Over the next two years the CEC plans to drastically automate the whole voting process in Russia in order to facilitate the work of election officials and to limit the possibility of human error or foul play.

In addition by 2004 the CEC plans to fulfil an ambition of the Committee's chief Alexander Veshnyakov and create a single register containing personal data on all Russian voters. That register would be an integral part of the GAS Vybory system.

The CEC officials did not specify how detailed the personal information would be. It is therefore highly likely that civil rights groups will protest against the CEC's plans, for access to citizens' personal data could violate privacy rights.

The CEC officials claim that all data gathered in their register will be used solely in the interests of the state. But that claim is far from convincing for the wording "the interests of the state" is, to put it lightly, ambiguous.

The CEC officials say the issues concerning the modernisation of the GAS Vybory system will be spelled out in detail in a special federal law which they are currently elaborating and which they say will be submitted to parliament in the near future.

Not without good reason observers are questioning why the CEC should want a whole new law on the registration of voters and why amendments to the draft bill on GAS Vybory would not be sufficient.

Some claim that Alexander Veshnyakov wants President Putin's permission to create a detailed database of all Russian adults that not even any of RussiaÔ' special services can boast.

According to some sources, the Federal Security Service (the FSB) keeps files on no more than 10% of the population and simply does not have the resources to keep the track of each and every citizen.

The tax authorities have enormous databases, but by law they are not allowed to gather any information other than details about individuals' incomes.

Due to the specific nature of the CEC and the perseverance of its chief Alexander Veshnyakov, it is quite possible that the CEC will be granted the right to collect absolutely any information about adult Russian.

The CEC officials insist that the sole purpose of compiling such a detailed database is to enable them to inform the electorate and authorities about any person who expresses an interest in standing for a public post, whether that post be a seat in a regional legislature or the presidency of Russia.

But who will guarantee that the CEC's data would not be used for some other, even potentially evil purposes?

Veshnyakov has heightened those apprehensions by saying in previous statements that GAS Vybory could potentially be used "with the aim of rendering aid and assistance to the indigent population". Social welfare departments (the so-called "sobes") often fail to help those who really need help and Veshnyakov claims the electoral authorities could provide such information to social workers.

At the CEC session on Tuesday Veshnyakov refused to discuss other possible uses of the register, saying that the only purpose it would serve would be to ensure voters' rights.

On Tuesday the CEC officials announced that they plan to spend a total of 2,916 billion rubles (approximately 100 million USD) on modernising the state automated election system. They say that some of the money will come from the federal budget, but "extra-budgetary sources" will also be used.

On Tuesday Veshnyakov said he hopes that the draft law on GAS Vybory's further development will be submitted to the president for consideration before the end of this year and that the State Duma will pass the bill in the first half of next year.

And as is now the political status quo in Russia, if Putin likes the draft law, the State Duma will almost certainly give it their seal of approval.

After the CEC meeting, Alexander Veshnyakov appeared before the press to deliver a couple of important political statements.

Firstly the chief election official commented on the proposal put forward by certain parliamentarians and state officials to amend current electoral legislation to abolish the minimum turnout requirement.

The idea has been widely discussed after elections in many regions elections were nearly disrupted due to low turnouts. For examples, in the elections to the Moscow city legislature last Sunday, only 28% of those legible voted, and if less than 25% had voted the results would have been declared void.

Veshnyakov firmly asserted that the minimum turnout provision must be preserved. "That measure," he said, "constitutes a guarantee of citizens' rights to take part in elections and is a guarantee of the representative nature of elected bodies".

According to the CEC chief, if the minimum turnout requirement is abolished, "it could considerably isolate voters from the authorities".

Veshnyakov's other statement concerned the forthcoming elections for the presidency of the Republic of Yakutia. The intrigues and scandals surrounding the election campaign in the enormous diamond rich Siberian republic have been at the forefront of Russian news for several weeks now.

Veshnyakov dismissed the claims from some areas that by election day in Yakutia on December 23, there will be no candidates left on the ballot papers because they will all have been barred. "Those reports are not true," Veshnyakov said. "There will be real candidates and a real choice for voters".

Alexander Veshnaykov stressed that by law candidates who wish to withdraw from elections are required to do so not later than three days prior to the opening of the polling stations. Thus, the CEC chief hinted that the deputy chief prosecutor Vasily Kolmogorov had only one day left to submit his withdrawal to Yakutia's election authorities.

Kolmogorov flew to Yakutsk on Wednesday and submitted his application to be withdrawn from the elections on time.

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