Nothing funny about Russia’s election farce
September’s elections for Russia’s legislative assembly offered no prospect of change. The Putin-aligned United Russia party continues to enjoy a huge majority. Alexei Navalny, the politician who presents the biggest challenge to Putin, was jailed in advance of the vote and many of his supporters were prevented from standing. Most of the other parties running were pseudo-opposition parties that also support Putin. A range of tactics – opaque online voting, coerced voting of public-sector workers, ballot stuffing and the exclusion of election observers – ensured United Russia’s win. There was nothing democratic about this election, and channels for Russians to express dissent continue to narrow.
In September, Russians went to the polls to vote for the 450-seat Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly. But there was no point speculating about who might win. United Russia, the ruling instrument of autocratic President Vladimir Putin, had full control of the Duma going into the election and retained it afterwards. There seemed little point in voting.
So far was this from being a free and fair election that to provide any breakdown of results would risk being complicit in the pretence that there was genuine political choice on offer. Suffice to say that at 324 seats, United Russia kept its Duma super-majority, and most of the other parties that won seats are token opposition parties that also support Putin. As a result, Putin can continue to do whatever he wants.
Putin’s main threat locked away
The election was preceded by the systematic suppression of opposition. Putin’s arch-foe, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was jailed immediately on his return to Russia in January, following Russia’s attempt to assassinate him through poison the year before.
Navalny might have presented a credible threat to United Russia had he been allowed to lead a party, but as the election came and went, he was locked up in one of Russia’s harshest jails, serving a prison sentence of two years and eight months; following the election, further charges were brought against him. The intention to keep him locked away from voters long-term seems clear. His presence should not be expected when he is awarded the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament’s award for human rights and freedom of thought, this December.
In June, Navalny’s organisational base was attacked when his Anti-Corruption Foundation and related organisations were designated as ‘extremist organisations’ – an increasingly common tactic to silence those who scrutinise Putin; the organisations had already said they would dissolve to protect staff and supporters. Even a group of lawyers who defended the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Team 29, had to close, having been labelled as associated with ‘undesirable foreign organisations’.
Conveniently, anyone who has participated in the activities of an ‘extremist organisation’ is banned from running for office for several years. As a result, many individual candidates associated with Navalny were prevented from standing.
Nor was there any Navalny-associated party to vote for: his repeated attempts to register political parties have been blocked, often on the grounds that spoiler parties have been set up by Putin allies with identical names, clearly with the aim of preventing registration.
Dirty tricks are nothing new, but this year they were so absurd as to make headlines. In September, Boris Vishnevsky, a candidate standing in the St Petersburg municipal election, found that two people with identical names and similar appearances had registered to run against him. The intention to confuse voters and divide his vote was clear, and the genuine Vishnevsky lost the vote. Little surprise that the real Boris Vishnevsky is opposed to Putin.
The last thing Putin wants is well-informed voters making rational choices.
To complement these spoiler tactics, parties that position as opposition parties but don’t oppose Putin have never found it difficult to register. In 2021, these included New People, a party that markets itself to appeal to the many young people who support Navalny, but which has never criticised Putin. For what it’s worth, it picked up a handful of seats in the election; it will be no surprise if it offers a pliable parliamentary presence.
Putin doesn’t want smart voters
Among Navalny’s latest acts that provoked Putin’s ire was the release of a documentary, Putin’s Palace, detailing the lavish lifestyle Putin secretly enjoys, and the vast corruption fuelling it. But in the context of the election, perhaps an even greater annoyance was the Smart Voting app and website promoted by Navalny and his supporters.
Smart Voting encouraged tactical voting, enabling voters to navigate the bewildering maze of spoiler parties to pick the candidates with the best chance of defeating United Russia. A similar tactic had been used with some success in city-level elections in 2019.
Predictably, Putin’s state machinery had zero tolerance of smart voters. The website immediately fell under Navalny’s ‘extremist organisation’ ban. Under pressure, Russia’s top search engine Yandex dropped the site from its search results ahead of the election. The foreign ministry summoned the US ambassador to complain that US tech companies were interfering with the election.
The foreign ministry’s complaint was made on the basis that Apple and Google both offered the Smart Voting app in their app stores. Criticism was reinforced by the visit of an armed group to Google’s Moscow offices and threats of prosecution. The app duly disappeared from both services ahead of the election; it was a test of courage that the tech giants failed.
It was clear that the last thing Putin wants is well-informed voters making rational choices.
Far from free and fair
There was no chance that observers would be allowed to try to provide adequate oversight. Ahead of the vote, Golos, an independent election-monitoring group, was branded a ‘foreign agent’. Alongside the designation of ‘extremist organisation’, this is another badge the government frequently puts on organisations that scrutinise it, with the clear intent of discrediting them.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which customarily sends an observer team, announced it would not do so, because the government would only allow in a fraction of the number of people required to observe the election properly; presumably it knew that a half-hearted attempt would risk legitimising a fraudulent vote.
Voting was held over three days to encourage turnout, but it also made election observation harder. Those Golos observers who were able to be physically present faced threats and expulsion from voting stations. Livestreaming from voting stations, a feature of past elections, was not provided.
In some regions the option of online voting was introduced for the first time, with no clarity as to the security of the process and no possibility of independent monitoring. The authorities therefore encouraged it. In Moscow, raffle prizes were offered to encourage online voting rather than in-person voting.
The delayed announcement of online vote results in Moscow saw the Communist Party, a once-compliant opposition party that has recently become more critical, lose leads in multiple seats to United Russia at the last minute. The suspected fraud prompted over a thousand of its supporters to hold protests, although numerous party activists had been pre-emptively detained the day before.
State employees were forced to take part in workplace voting, and pre-election one-off cash payments were handed out to pensioners, police officers, soldiers and other public employees, in what seemed an attempt to buy their loyalty. There were accusations of ballot-box stuffing, confirmed by videos. Overall, Golos reported 4,525 possible violations at polling stations; the authorities responded that they had found only eight.
And hence United Russia, a party with only 27 per cent support in opinion polls days ahead of the election, recorded around 49.8 per cent of the final vote.
What route for disaffection?
It’s even possible that the undisguised nature of electoral fraud is at least partly deliberate, playing to Putin’s image as an arch provocateur and disrupter of the west. Any pressure that results from the west can be useful, since criticisms are packaged domestically as attempts at destabilisation that justify further repression.
And none of this was new: a near-identical suite of tactics was seen in the 2020 vote to rubber stamp constitutional changes designed to keep Putin in power and in the 2018 presidential election, where the result was also clear before voting started.
Given the lack of real choice on offer, many likely voted with their feet by staying away, although so untrustworthy is official data that turnout figures are hard to trust. Past elections have seen turnout figures boosted with the aim of lending legitimacy to the outcomes.
But lack of participation in ceremonial elections doesn’t necessarily reflect apathy. There are many things in Russia for people to be unhappy about. Putin’s iron-fist rule and the regime’s blatant corruption are only two of them. Poverty, poor infrastructure, economic inequality, falling incomes and rising prices of essentials are some more. People may well wonder why their president is so obsessed with projecting Russian power abroad, destabilising democratic countries and propping up fellow autocracies such as Belarus, rather than dealing with pressing domestic problems.
If people didn’t turn out to vote, it wasn’t because they had nothing to complain about: it was rather that the election offered them no way to express their unhappiness. When this happens, it’s usually only a matter of time before people take to the streets to make themselves heard through other means. But in Russia, protests are heavily restricted and violently repressed when they break out. Even solo protests are now hard, as are symbolic protests – a proposal for people to light candles and lanterns outside their homes in solidarity with Navalny in February led to stern warnings from officials that people should not join in.
Increasingly prevented from protesting, people are also finding it harder to see if others share their views via the media. Media freedom has been systematically eroded. Numerous media organisations and journalists have been added to the growing list of ‘foreign media agents’, both before and after the election. These include Russia’s biggest independent TV channel, Dozhd TV, media rights organisation Mediazona and OVD-Info, a human rights media project. In September, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project announced it was ending its activities in Russia to protect its local journalists.
Others have had the right to report taken away from them: in August, the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford was classed as a threat to national security and kicked out after more than 20 years of reporting from Moscow. In November Dutch reporter Tom Vennink was given three days to leave the country. This looks like the start of a dangerous trend in which non-Russian voices are also robbed of the right to tell the truth about Putin’s authoritarianism.
Through such means, dissent is being blocked. But at some point the dam is going to burst, and Putin will have to face the reality that he cannot enjoy eternal power.
Until then, there’s no point pretending that its fraudulent elections make Russia anything resembling a democracy. The purpose of these elections was never to give Russian voters a choice, but to minimise the threat to Putin’s ongoing power ahead of his next presidential coronation in 2024. What happened in September wasn’t democracy, and Putin’s autocracy should not be offered the patina of legitimacy that comes with that name.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The international community should continue to urge the immediate release of Alexei Navalny and the dropping of all charges against him.
International human rights institutions, including the United Nations Human Council, should monitor and report on Russia’s violations of human rights and democratic freedoms on an ongoing basis.
International media should make clear in their reporting that elections in Russia are not remotely free and fair, and that Russia should not be called a democracy.
Cover photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images