The “March against Scoundrels” recently held in Moscow demonstrated that protest sentiments in large Russian cities have not decreased, and that the rallies’ success is largely determined by their subject. As the 2011–2012 protests have shown, election fraud is becoming of the most topical issues for Russia’s civil society. For the first time in years, the opposition is trying to take part in the formation of precinct electoral commissions that organize the voting. Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the analytical department at the Center for Political Technologies and an IMR advisor, considers what may come out of it.
The protests that took place in the last political season forced the regime not only to take certain steps toward political liberalization, but also to cover its bases in case of an increased competition with the opposition – which corresponds well to the Kremlin’s logic. Changes to the process of forming the precinct electoral commissions (PECs) have become one of the tools for strengthening administrative control over elections.
Russia has a complicated system of organizing elections that consists of six administrative levels. The Central Electoral Commission (CEC) represents the highest (federal) level and is headed by loyal Putinist Vladimir Churov. After the last parliamentary elections, then-President Dmitri Medvedev called the CEC chairman a “magician.” This nickname stuck ever since, especially with the news reports of a 146-percent voter turnout, as happened in the Rostov region. The next level down is represented by regional electoral commissions that are supervised by the CEC. It is here that territorial, district, and municipal electoral commissions are formed.
The PECs organize and supervise the actual voting at polling places. Since it is social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and community centers that usually serve as polling places, PEC members are most often teachers, utility workers and other state employees: the most vulnerable social groups in Russia. School workers, for example, receive one of the lowest salaries in the country, and are too dependent on their principals – who, in their turn, greatly value their relationship with the local authorities.
To ensure “correct voting,” the authorities make use of a whole series of administrative resources, ranging from quasi-legal to criminal.
Electoral commissions at all levels are exceedingly loyal to the government, even if they consist of representatives from all four parliamentary parties. Such representation is usually a formality, and genuine ideological members of the opposition are rarely admitted to a PEC. The Kremlin places responsibility for “correct” voting upon the regional authorities, which do their best to assure maximum results for the regime’s party. For that purpose, they make use of a whole series of administrative resources, ranging from quasi-legal to criminal. These include the organized busing of students and state employees to polling places to guarantee their “correct” voting; the so-called carrousels, when groups of people vote several times by absentee certificates; ballot-stuffing; early voting in state institutions, under surveillance and under the threat of sacking; and, of course, the commonplace rigging of the final vote-tallies.
Most instances of manipulation can be detected at the PEC level. Here, several factors play an important role. Chief among them is the presence of independent observers at the polling places. It was they, who in December 2011 became the main newsmakers by reporting cases of election fraud to the media and publishing them online. The regime usually ignores such revelations, or its reaction is so inappropriate that it only irritates society further. The aforementioned Vladimir Churov, while commenting on the video reports of ballot-stuffing in favor of United Russia, declared that they were fabricated in the United States. It is evident that the observers’ reports will not have any legal implications; the regime will continue to disrespect their work. However, their efforts take on an enormous significance for the maturing civil society that is ready to go out in the streets to protect its political rights.
In December 2011, Dmitri Finikov (pictured), an election observer for the liberal Yabloko party, documented the fraud in Moscow’s voting precinct # 6. After a “correction” in the official vote-tally, United Russia’s result was changed from 128 votes to 515, while Yabloko’s 134 votes were reduced to 4.
Secondly, there are government-installed video cameras at polling places, which have backfired against the regime. In 2011, after the protest rallies, Vladimir Putin came forward with the initiative to equip all of Russia’s polling places (which number more than 90,000) with cameras in order to be able to watch the proceedings, including the vote count, online. However, the authorities quickly realized that they had gotten ahead of themselves. Apart from the fact that billions of rubles were “eaten” by those responsible for this “modernization,” the cameras did not help the Kremlin at all. In the October 2012 regional elections, cameras were only installed in those five regions that were voting for governors. Elections of regional and municipal legislatures in other parts of Russia did not have any video monitoring. But even where the cameras did record violations, the courts refused to accept these recordings as evidence. It was just another blank round.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the composition of the precinct commissions. Federal law #157 on the “Single Voting Day,” put into effect on November 1, 2012, stipulates the formation of PECs that will function on a permanent basis. Their composition will stay unaltered until April 2018. Through this law, the Kremlin has tried to strengthen control over electoral commissions, which have become the source of periodic scandalous revelations. The story of Tatiana Ivanova, a St. Petersburg teacher and PEC member who refused to take part in the rigging during the Duma elections in December 2011, evoked a wide response. She gave a detailed interview about the internal “kitchen” of election fraud, and accused Natalia Nazarova, head of the education department of Vasileostrovsky district of St. Petersburg, of organizing it. Nazarova filed a lawsuit against Ivanova, but the court ruled in favor of the teacher.
This incident (which was not the only one) raised a red flag for the regime, which decided that PECs needed to be controlled more rigorously. Federal and regional authorities can only entrust loyal and time-tested people with the task of doing the dirty work while organizing and holding the election and counting votes. By April 30 of this year, the usual state employees, such as teachers and utility workers, will be replaced by trained members of electoral commissions. “It is a step backward in the political reform. This innovation is aimed at preserving the party system as it is, at the very moment when the process of party registration has been simplified, and a whole spectrum of political parties has appeared in the country,” Andrei Buzin, head of the election monitoring department at the Golos Association, told Gazeta.ru. In his view, the qualitative composition of the commissions will not change, as the territorial electoral commissions, which appoint PECs, are not interested in dealing with “untested” people.
Territorial electoral commissions will soon begin forming PECs based on the proposals by parties, nongovernmental organizations, and groups of voters. As has happened in the last few years, the four parliamentary parties will have a priority quota of one representative in each PEC. Candidates from non-parliamentary parties and nongovernmental organizations will get into PECs by a leftover principle. Since PECs range from 3 to 16 members depending on the size of the electorate in the precinct, around 1 million commission members will be needed to cover the whole country.
This number, however, does not take into consideration the candidate pool that is being appointed for five years in case there is need to replace PEC members who drop out. It is here that the extra-systemic opposition has a real chance of beating the regime on its own turf. Finding a million people in a short time is not simple. Even parliamentary parties are faced with a personnel deficit. Andrei Klychkov, who leads the Communist Party caucus in the Moscow City Duma, told Gazeta.ru that the Communists will soon have to come up with more than 3,000 PEC candidates, and that they do not rule out the possibility of cooperating with liberal and human rights organizations. “It does not matter what your views are, left or right,” declared Klychkov, with a proviso that each candidature will have to be examined separately. As an example of possible cooperation, the Communist politician named representatives of the poll monitoring organization Citizen Observer, who “did very well defending the law during the elections.” The Communist Party is also ready to cooperate with multiple grassroots protest organizations, which appeared in Moscow after the City Hall had declared its plans to build direct main roads.
When the protest by an active minority reaches a critical point, election rigging becomes virtually impossible.
“There are in fact no parties in Russia, there are no people there, and so they are happy to have volunteers,” says Roman Udot, an expert at the Golos Association, adding that he is not referring to United Russia. He points out that rank-and-file party activists and former PEC members “do not want to do this nervous work after the rigged elections of December 2011 because of the indignation that flew out in the streets.” In Moscow, the main recruiting work for PEC members is done by the Communist Party in collaboration with A Just Russia.
The leaders of the protest movement, including Alexei Navalny, took the issue of PEC formation with utmost seriousness. In its November 24 meeting, the Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition has urged people to join the precinct commissions. “We opened a special website, where you can fill out a questionnaire for PEC candidates,” wrote Navalny. “Those who filled out the questionnaire will be put forward by the Coordinating Council, which will act as a voters’ assembly, and by parliamentary parties that are ready to cooperate. We cannot guarantee seats on PECs to those put forward by the voters’ assembly, therefore we will do our best to coordinate with parliamentary parties, but there will still be no guarantees – you know what our parliamentary parties are like.” You have to hand it to Navalny for launching several online services, which help people prepare and send competent complaints against the authorities without any specific knowledge or legal assistance. Projects such as RosVybory are a thorn in the side of government officials, and they help society to mature, to better understand its rights and freedoms, and to defend them. Additionally, the Golos Association has its own project, “Honest PEC.”
Election monitoring is becoming one of the most pressing topics for Russian society. According to a new law, elections will now take place only once a year, in September. With federal elections a long time away (parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2016, while the presidential vote is slated to take place in 2018), human rights activists, observers, civic activists and the opposition will have time to prepare for the next big electoral cycle by gaining experience, training people, and trying out technologies of voting and vote count monitoring. When the protest by an active minority reaches a critical point, election rigging becomes virtually impossible. The Kremlin will simply not be able to maintain the electoral status quo for decades.