Russian election monitors reported a series of irregularities as voting began in the country’s parliamentary elections on Sunday. Those complaints will test the government’s pledge to block the kind of electoral fraud that triggered street protests five years ago against president Vladimir Putin. Non-governmental election monitoring movement Golos said it had received 164 reports by phone and 335 reports via an online platform of rule violations or suspicious incidents. The largest number of complaints came from Moscow, followed by the Stavropol region in southern Russia and Altai region in southern Siberia. In Barnaul, capital of the Altai region, civil rights and opposition activists observed people being instructed to vote using ballots of pensioners who were not going to turn up — an alleged example of so-called cruisers or carousel voting. “They have little stickers on their passports,” said Alexander Lebedev, a municipal deputy of the A Just Russia party who posted videos of what he said were the preparations for illegal voting on Twitter.
Five years have passed since the street protests that erupted following what were widely perceived as rigged parliamentary elections in Russia. But recent events have already made clear that anyone hoping that the next election to the Duma, Russia’s lower house, on Sunday will be significantly freer and more open is set for disappointment. Just two weeks before the ballot, Russian authorities blacklisted the Levada Centre, the country’s last independent pollster, as a “foreign agent”, leaving it barely able to function. This was ostensibly for receiving foreign funding. More likely it was because Levada’s polls showed falling support for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Memories of the 2011 demonstrations are still fresh in President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. So Moscow has taken steps to make this poll appear a little more transparent and competitive. It is reverting to a mixed system for the first time since 2003. Half the seats will come from party lists, half from single-member districts, to restore local representation.
It has been described as the most boring election of 2016, a parliamentary race set for Sunday that is largely devoid of drama and unlikely to change Vladimir Putin’s Russia very much. But among the country’s citizens faith in the democratic process has never been stronger. A report published in January by the Moscow-based Levada Centre has found that 62% of Russians believe the country is truly democratic, compared with just 36% five years ago. Putin’s personal approval rating has risen to 82%, underlining just how much the Kremlin has cemented its power since 2011, when the previous parliamentary elections degenerated into the biggest protests since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In Moscow there have been fewer election posters and banners on view than in previous years. Last week one Russian newspaper joked that the Duma election had been classified “Top Secret”, since voters did not know the names of the candidates. And yet, in theory, this election should have been more exciting than previous polls. A change to the law has permitted more parties to participate than in 2011 and even a handful of Kremlin critics have been allowed to run.
What’s more, this time half of the 450 Russian MPs will be elected – not by party lists – but in single-mandate districts: the return to a system in which Russians can vote for a candidate of their choice in their own constituency. However, the timing of this vote has kept public interest low. The Duma election had been scheduled for December. Instead the authorities brought it forward by three months, closer to the summer. As a result, Russians have been more concerned with holidays, harvesting fruits and vegetables on their allotments and preparing for the new school year than with electing a new Duma.
Russian opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov said on Thursday parliamentary elections next month were being rigged against his party, meaning it would have to win up to three times more votes than legally necessary to get into parliament. Starved of air time, vilified by Kremlin-backed media, and physically attacked on the stump, Kasyanov and his allies in the People’s Freedom party or PARNAS face an uphill struggle to break into the 450-seat lower house of parliament on Sept. 18. Despite an economic crisis, the main pro-Kremlin United Russia party is expected to comfortably win the elections, which are seen as a dry run for Vladimir Putin’s presidential re-election campaign in 2018. The crisis means United Russia’s margin of victory may be slimmer than recent years however, giving PARNAS, which currently has no seats in parliament, a glimmer of hope.
Over the past few years, the Russian authorities have been gradually rolling out a strategy for managing the upcoming State Duma election. What are the elements of this strategy, and will it help the Kremlin achieve its objectives? Like most modern authoritarian regimes which organise elections, the regime in Russia aspires to be viewed as broadly legitimate while keeping political pluralism highly constrained. These two objectives, evidently, are difficult to reconcile. In order to increase legitimacy, the regime allows more electoral competition, but at the same time it has an incentive to minimise competition, to which end it resorts to heavy-handed tactics including fraud, undermining its legitimacy. Electoral authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s employ idiosyncratic strategies to balance the dual objectives of maintaining legitimacy and limiting competition. They thereby face inevitable trade-offs in crafting their strategies and must regularly adapt them to account for changing circumstances. In the previous Duma election of 2011, the authorities sought to bank on the perceived strength of the ruling United Russia party and on the administrative capacity of the authorities (at different levels) to deliver required election results. This strategy had several flaws. Fewer people than anticipated were ready to vote for United Russia. Analyses of the voting results show that in many areas where no major election fraud was committed, only a quarter to a third of votes went to the ruling party. In order to get a (slight) majority of seats in the Duma, major election fraud was necessary. It was met by significant upheaval, mainly in the form of a wave of popular protests that drew the biggest crowds in Russia since the early 1990s. The fallout from the 2011 election was viewed in Russian political circles as a serious crisis.
Russia will elect a new parliament three months earlier than planned after a majority vote in mid-2015 to move the elections up from December 4 to September 18 of this year. The initiative from the Duma chairman Sergey Naryshkin was supported by President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, as well as Just Russia and the Liberal Democrats. Like the Communists, who are more or less loyal to the Kremlin, these parties are sure to remain in parliament. Meanwhile, a coalition between the two main opposition parties has fallen apart. The “Russian Democratic Party” (Yabloko) and the “People’s Party of Freedom” (RPR-PARNAS), co-founded by Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician who was murdered in February 2015, will now go into the election independently from each other. Polls say that these “outlier” parties barely stand a chance of crossing the 5 percent threshold for representation.
The thrilling spectacles offered by the U.S. presidential election, the U.K. referendum on leaving the European Union and even Austria’s cliffhanger presidential vote have overshadowed an election campaign in Russia, which will get a new parliament on Sept. 18. That’s because, even though they have all the the trappings of democracy, the Russian elections are mostly theater, whose actors are shadows from the country’s brief experiment with competitive politics. In theory, the elections shouldn’t be boring. The previous ones, in 2011, gave rise to the most meaningful and vigorous protests against Vladimir Putin’s corrupt system of his more than 15 years in power. Then, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest what they saw as the falsification of vote results: Statistical analysis suggested that United Russia, the pro-Putin party, owed its majority to widespread ballot-stuffing. It even appeared briefly that the Kremlin — occupied then by Putin’s stand-in, Dmitri Medvedev — was unsettled enough to change a few things. Gubernatorial elections, which had been abolished, were allowed again, and the authorities took care to make voting more transparent for the 2012 presidential election, organizing a live video feed from every polling station and making sure not to obstruct observers’ work. Putin, however, saw the protests as a U.S.-inspired threat of a revolution like the one would shake Ukraine in 2013-2014. As soon as his third presidential term began — after he pulled off an undeniable electoral triumph — he started tightening the screws, using the parliament — the State Duma — to pass legislation that sharply limited the freedoms of assembly and expression. The chamber came to be known as an “amok printer” because of the speed at which it spewed out repressive laws.
Russia’s liberal opposition has been subjected to all kinds of pressure in the last few months, from leaked clandestine sex tapes to dubious court cases and physical violence. As parliamentary elections approach in September, the authorities appear to be throwing every dirty trick in the book at them. But the opposition is also engaged in a fight with enemies who are proving even more destructive than the Kremlin: each other. Parliamentary elections on 18 September will set the tone for a presidential election in 2018, in which Vladimir Putin is expected to stand and win another six-year term in office. Currently, the Russian Duma is made up of just four parties: the pro-Kremlin behemoth United Russia, and three smaller parties known as the “systemic opposition”, which provide a semblance of competition but do not oppose the Kremlin on any substantive issues. Lying outside the system are the other opposition parties, ranging in spectrum from liberals to nationalists. They are not given airtime on television and are often struck off the ballot in elections. With the political system carefully controlled and state television only ever covering the opposition in negative terms, there is little public support for rocking the boat. However, when the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny was allowed to stand for mayor of Moscow in 2013, he won 27% of the vote, showing there is appetite for new faces among a certain section of urban Russians.
Regional deputies in Russia’s republic of Karelia have passed the first reading of a bill to reinstate mayoral elections in the region’s cities after they were canceled last year, the Kommersant newspaper reported Thursday. City council deputies in Petrozavodsk, the region’s capital, ousted Mayor Galina Shirshina from office after canceling mayoral elections in the republic. Petrozavodsk was one of the few Russian cities with an elected mayor not from the ruling United Russia party. The small, industrial city, built on the shores of Lake Onezhskoye, had hosted a battle between its opposition mayor and its legislative assembly.
The September 18 Russian parliamentary elections will take place amidst a deep economic crisis, with oil at $30 a barrel, and with election rules deliberately designed to blunt and conceal voter disaffection. The Putin regime incurs risks with this strategy because it creates an opportunity for political forces to emerge that actually address the deep concerns of the people. It is virtually impossible for the scheming Putin to know from whence such a threat will come. Russia’s last parliamentary election (December 2011) sent tens of thousands of protesters into the streets calling for “Russia without Putin,” in outrage over the flagrant election fraud on the part of Putin’s United Russia (dubbed the “party of crooks and thieves”). The demonstrations shook Putin, who responded by cracking down hard on dissent.
The Kremlin is putting “unprecedented” pressure on opposition activists as President Vladimir Putin prepares for his toughest electoral test amid Russia’s longest recession in two decades, according to his former prime minister. “The authorities understand that 2016 will be decisive because the economic and political situation is acute,” Mikhail Kasyanov, who was premier from 2000 to 2004 and is now one of Putin’s harshest critics, said in an interview in Moscow. “They are tightening the screws, and if they don’t allow the opposition to engage in politics and compete in elections, all this will soon lead to a revolution.” Kasyanov said pro-Kremlin activists are hounding him and supporters of his opposition Parnas coalition across the country ahead of parliamentary elections in September. He’s also facing death threats, including an Instagram video posted last month by the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, that showed him in the crosshairs of a scope sight. Kadyrov later added a picture of himself with a sniper rifle.
Thousands of people rallied on the streets of Moscow on Sunday to demand fair elections and challenge Vladimir Putin’s 15-year-old rule, in the first significant opposition protest in the capital for months. The gathering was restricted by authorities to a district of southern Moscow. Police said no more than 500 took part, while a Reuters witness said there were some 3,000 protesters. “Putin is a bureaucrat, not the czar,” one poster said. Opposition leaders, including anti-Kremlin figurehead Alexei Navalny, said they were protesting against what they called Putin’s “lifelong” rule. “Russia will be free!” Ilya Yashin told the rally. “We will not depart from the country and leave it in the mercy of ‘crooks and thieves’,” he said, referring to a phrase coined by Navalny to describe Russia’s ruling party.
Thousands of people gathered in Moscow Sunday evening calling for greater political freedoms and a change to the country’s ruling powers after opposition parties failed to win representation in regional elections this month. Between 8,000 and 10,000 gathered at the rally just outside of the center of the Russian capital, said Leonid Volkov, one of the organizers, by telephone on Sunday. Prior to the rally as many as 8,400 people had registered their interest on Facebook while Moscow authorities gave permission for up to 40,000 demonstrators to congregate. Moscow police press-service said that about 4,000 people turned up. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny called the rally after his party failed to win parliamentary seats in the one region where it was allowed to stand in elections on Sept. 13.
After watching the local and gubernatorial elections in Russia on Sunday, one cannot help wondering: Why bother? Why does the Kremlin need to push the illusion of democracy when the results are predetermined? The only region where an opposition force worthy of the name was allowed to participate — in Kostroma oblast east of Moscow — saw voting marred by bullying and the arrests of anti-Kremlin candidates. No one could figure out why the Democratic Coalition, the only grouping of parties openly critical of President Vladimir Putin, was even allowed to run. All municipal, regional and gubernatorial elections in Russia are held on the same day, and in nearly all of them United Russia, the main pro-Kremlin party, was victorious. How could it lose when its candidates enjoyed access to unlimited resources and dominated the airwaves while their challengers were vilified as traitors?
As Russians voted in local and regional elections on Sunday, democracy advocates in the only region where they were allowed to run accused the authorities of fraud and said the police had blockaded an apartment where opposition activists were tracking the vote. Although candidates from President Vladimir V. Putin’s United Russia Party were widely expected to win, Sunday’s vote was being viewed as a dress rehearsal for 2016 parliamentary elections and a test of voter turnout amid an economic downturn and Western sanctions. Results were expected on Monday. In the Kostroma region, about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, a coalition of opposition politicians, including Aleksei A. Navalny, fielded candidates under the banner of Parnas, or People’s Freedom Party. Boris Y. Nemtsov, a political reformer who was shot dead near the Kremlin in February, was the party’s co-founder. Kostroma’s electoral commission granted Parnas approval to run only last month, after several attempts to keep its candidates from running for the regional legislature.
Russia: Can Russia’s only independent election monitor survive Kremlin pressure? | Christian Science Monitor
Golos, Russia’s only grassroots election-monitoring organization, has been fighting an exhausting battle to prove it does not receive foreign funding. Otherwise, it would have to self-describe as a “foreign agent” – a term that connotes “spy” in Russian. But even though the organization has won some significant court victories, including a Constitutional Court order to lift the onerous label they were saddled with, Golos seems no closer to fielding its usual teams of observers when Russia’s next cycle of elections kicks off, with regional polls in October. Now, members of Golos and other nongovernmental organizations in similar conflict with the government are asking: Are there any terms under which the Kremlin will allow such a group to do its appointed job? “The basic problem is that authorities are not happy with what Golos does,” says Andrei Buzin, an analyst with Golos. “It’s this type of activity, making conclusions, publishing results, that they just don’t like.”
Russia’s ruling parliamentary party, which has always based its policies on supporting Vladimir Putin, will not ask the president to allow them use his image in the 2016 elections campaign, a business daily reports. Kommersant newspaper quoted unnamed sources in United Russia as saying that its presidium has already chosen five people who will top the party’s lists in the forthcoming primaries, and the president was not among them. The sources did not disclose the names of these politicians. They also said that most of the places in the lists would be reserved for regional party leaders, as this would make the primaries “democratic to the maximum.” United Russia officials also told Kommersant that the party did not want to involve Putin in its election campaign in order to protect the president from possible damage to his political rating, because it was difficult to forecast how many voters would lend their support to the party this time around.
Russia’s joint Democratic Coalition, led by renowned anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny and the supporters of the late opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, have been refused the right to run for election across all the regions where they opted to campaign on the grounds of irregularities in their applications, Russian national daily Kommersant reports. Local council elections in Russia will be held in September and the Democratic Coalition, which is made up of several of the biggest opposition movements to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime, was due to contest four constituencies.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the only billionaire jailed by Vladimir Putin, is assembling an army of volunteers to challenge the electoral system that supports his nemesis. Accusations of murder and poisoning are already flying. Khodorkovsky, freed 18 months ago, has said he hopes to spark a palace coup from self-imposed exile in Switzerland, exploiting what he predicts will be rising discontent with a contracting economy. He’s starting with a project to hunt for violations in the first major elections Putin and his ruling United Russia party will face since the president returned to the Kremlin in 2012 after a four-year stint as prime minister.
Russia’s Constitutional Court has upheld the legality of early parliamentary elections, clearing the way for lawmakers to vote on bringing forward next year’s State Duma elections by three months. The court said the initiative was constitutional so long as election dates were not regularly shifted. The effort to bring forward the 2016 elections, from December to September 18, is expected to come to a vote on July 3. The bill has strong backing from deputies for the United Russia, A Just Russia, and ultranationalist Liberal Democratic parties.
The authorities have bumped up State Duma elections from December to September 2016 as nonchalantly as if they were merely doing a routine oil change on their car. It is obvious to everyone that the Kremlin administration made this decision, reasoning that the ruling authorities could achieve a stronger win in September before everyone has returned from summer vacation than in cold and gloomy December. The shorter time frame will make it more difficult for the opposition to mount a serious campaign, and the traditionally low voter turnout in fall will work to the advantage of the authorities, who can more easily mobilize their administrative resources. Many political analysts maintain that the ruling authorities will also benefit from the fact that half of the Duma deputies come from single-seat districts. According to the rules, such candidates are not required to state their party affiliation.
Senior ruling-party politicians are throwing their weight behind a proposal to move Russia’s next parliamentary elections up three months to September 2016, a shift that could put opposition candidates at a further disadvantage by relegating the campaign to vacation season. Sergei Naryshkin, leader of parliament’s lower chamber and a member of President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party, on Thursday called the rescheduling proposal “possible and even wise,” according to the Interfax news agency. The reason he gave was that budgets are passed in the fall and it would make more sense to elect new lawmakers beforehand.
On Sept. 14, Russia held a spate of local elections. Thirty of 85 Russian regions held gubernatorial elections, residents of Crimea elected a new regional legislature, and Muscovites voted in municipal elections. These elections are interesting because they provide a bellwether for current protest sentiment levels and perhaps even an early preview of parliamentary elections that are due to take place in 2016. Furthermore, this is also the first time that Crimea has voted as part of Russia since being annexed in March. Gubernatorial elections were reinstated in 2012 as a major concession to a mass protest movement that for a time sent tremors through Russia’s political establishment in 2011-2012 and seemed to threaten the very stability of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The current round of elections confirms once again that the level of protest sentiment remains low across Russia and that the federal government is able to keep a firm lid on inter-elite conflict in the provinces, which back in the 1990s threatened the country’s territorial integrity. First, local elections failed to generate much public interest or discussion even in the country’s capital where many residents pay close attention to politics. Turnout was low—rarely exceeding 40 percent—and candidates nominated by the ruling United Russia party won in 28 of the 30 provinces that held gubernatorial elections (an independent won in Kirov oblast and a Communist in Orlov). Notably, incumbents won in all 30 provinces, and all of them won in the first round with levels of voter support ranging from 50.6 percent in Altai to Soviet-style 91.3 percent in Samara oblast. In other words, government candidates ran almost unopposed; all of them had been endorsed by president Putin personally shortly in the run up to the election.
Six months after Russia annexed Crimea, residents of the Black Sea peninsula cast their first votes in a Russian election – an election many of them are calling unfair and undemocratic. Campaigning before Sunday’s local and regional elections was characterised by favoritism towards the ruling party loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin and repression of its opponents, according to residents in Crimea who spoke to Reuters by telephone. Crimean politics has come to resemble the Soviet political landscape since Russia annexed Crimea in March, said Andrei Brezhnev, who leads new Communist Party of Social Justice, and is the grandson of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. “Now we have no political competition either,” he said. His party is competing in the regional parliamentary race and in a poll for one of the main cities, Sevastopol. People had been forced to sign up for membership in the pro-Putin United Russia Party before the vote, he said. “About two months ago everybody, wholesale, was forced to ‘voluntarily’ sign up for membership in United Russia here – officials, heads of local administrations, shops directors, medical workers,” he said. “Suddenly, in three months everything became United Russia here.”
A year ago, Russia’s opposition thought the elections taking place Sunday could be a game changer. After opposition candidate Alexey Navalny’s strong second-place finish in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race, Sunday’s city council elections seemed to present a rare opportunity to grasp a place in Russia’s political firmament. Winning a few seats could legitimatize the opposition as a real alternative to President Vladimir Putin and his allies. But that was before Navalny was put under house arrest on embezzlement charges, before Russia locked horns with the West over Ukraine, before new election laws took effect, and before the opposition fully fathomed the challenges of running local campaigns, in which anti-Putin messages hardly mattered.
Lawmakers from pro-Kremlin parties United Russia and LDPR have submitted to the State Duma a bill abolishing popular elections of mayors and city councils in major cities. Analysts said the legislation represents an attempt to increase the dependence of municipal authorities on the Kremlin and effectively liquidate their self-government. Some observers also interpreted the proposed measure as part of a Kremlin effort to consolidate power in reaction to the political crisis in neighboring Ukraine. The reform would apply to 67 large cities, including 56 regional capitals. The mayors of affected cities would be elected by city councils from among their members, while the city councils would consist of deputies delegated by newly created assemblies of city districts. City governments would be headed by city managers — executives appointed by commissions, half of which would be chosen by governors and the other half by city councils.
More parties have been banned from regional elections in Russia this year than in 2012, despite the Kremlin’s attempted liberalization of political legislation, a new study said Wednesday. In total, 9.2 percent of the candidate lists submitted by parties for the September 8 elections have been banned, compared with 2.4 percent last year, according to a report by the Civil Initiatives Committee think tank, founded by longtime Kremlin insider-turned-critic Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister.
Russia: United Russia doubts legality of Navalny election campaign funding scheme | The Voice of Russia
The funding scheme that a Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny has been using extensively is in direct violation of the election legislation, the deputy head of the United Russia Party’s Central Executive Committee, Konstantin Mazurevsky said. According to the official, the election legislation contains a clear-cut definition of a voter’s free-will contribution, which means a gratuitous donation by a Russian citizen of their own money resources. The money is transferred to the candidate’s election campaign account. The law thus prohibits the so-called two-stage donations to election campaign accounts, whereby the money first comes from unidentified third persons to the donors that the candidate is familiar with, and then these individuals transfer the contributions in question on their behalf to the candidate’s special-purpose election campaign account as their own money, although this is not their money, Mazurevsky said.The United Russia official added that court practice bears out the unlawfulness of this kind of donation.
The popular mayor of the Volga industrial city of Yaroslavl, Yevgeny Urlashov, has been detained on suspicion of corruption and extortion, just a few months before he was to head an opposition ticket in upcoming regional elections. Mr. Urlashov insisted Wednesday in an interview with the Internet TV station Dozhd that the charges against him are politically motivated. “I had been warned that they would get me out of the picture by any means possible,” he said. The Kremlin’s Investigative Committee said he and two aides are under suspicion of soliciting a $425,000 bribe from a private company in exchange for lucrative contracts to perform municipal services. Urlashov says his accuser is a prominent member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Urlashov left United Russia in 2011, complaining of the party’s high-handed tactics, and joined the Civic Platform party led by liberal billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Running as an independent in the April 2012 mayoral polls in Yaroslavl, he overwhelmingly defeated the Kremlin’s chosen candidate, Yakov Yakushev, with almost 70 percent of the vote.