What does "an election" mean in Russia?
Navalny has been charged with running an "extremist group." The designation is part of the Kremlin's complex scheme to ensure there will never be a free and fair election in Russia.
“Let’s not lose our sense of reality. This has nothing to do with reality.” —Vladimir Kara-Murza, describing Russian parliamentary elections
Monique Camarra, Siena
The past week saw fresh criminal charges levied against imprisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and his top aides. They stand accused of running an “extremist group.” According to Russia’s Investigations Committee, which deals with major crimes in Russia, Navalny and his top allies created their Anti-Corruption Foundation, or FBK for short, “to carry out extremist activity aimed at changing the bases of the constitutional structure of the Russian Federation, undermining the public security and state sovereignty of the Russian Federation.”
A curious charge. Simultaneously, Russia’s Justice Ministry added an array of people and media organizations to its list of “foreign agents,” including MediaZona and OVD-Info. Both outlets are critical of Russian authorities. OVD-Info documents politically-motivated arrests and violent assaults. The ministry designated MediaZona’s editor-in-chief, Sergei Smirnov, a foreign agent. Also a curious charge.
To understand these claims, we must understand the system Putin has erected to ensure there will never be a free and fair election in Russia—at least, not as citizens of Western democracies understand those words. Indeed, when The Cosmopolitan Globalist asked me if I’d write an article about the recent Russian elections, I replied, “Elections? There were no elections. What’s important is the ritual they call an election—and what it really means.”
The systemic opposition
Although termed “legislative elections,” the events that took place between September 17 and 19 should not be understood as a political contest in the Western sense, that is, one in which the outcome was genuinely uncertain. It is more useful to view the ritual as a table set for the Kremlingarchs. The term “Kremlingarch” is owed to Ilya Zaslavskiy, a researcher who studies Russia’s post-Soviet kleptocracy; he argues against the word “oligarch,” which might confuse readers by suggesting the men in question have independent wealth, or run private businesses, in a system with aspects of a market economy and an independent judiciary. Since this is not at all how Putin’s Russia works, Zaslavskiy invented the word “Kremlingarch.” He is right to say it better evokes the status of the wealth handlers orbiting the Kremlin among whom state favors are allocated.
Whatever we call them, the elections were designed to reinforce their position, and they were anything but free and fair. The conditions for such a contest simply didn’t exist. Last summer, when I interviewed Masha Gessen, author of The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, I naively asked whether Russia’s opposition parties might have a chance in the upcoming Duma elections. Masha rebuked me, telling me it was a Western conceit to speak of the Russian opposition. Yes, Russian voters have a menu of parties from which to choose. But they are all controlled by Putin and the Kremlingarchs.
This state of affairs was not achieved overnight. It was Vladimir Surkov, Putin’s former political technologist, who hatched the idea of the “systemic opposition.” It’s a neat scheme. Yuri Felshtinsky, who with Alexander Litvinenko wrote Blowing Up Russia—Litvinenko was subsequently poisoned with Polonium-210—explained the way it works to me. The Kremlin funds and controls both left- and right-wing parties. Russian Duma representatives don’t initiate legislation; they receive it from the Kremlin. Their job is to pass it and ask no questions. Russia’s democratically elected politicians, in other words, do anything but the job they were elected to do. Duma representatives warm their seats only to maintain a façade of democracy, providing a veneer of legitimacy before international bodies like the United Nations.
But Putin needs to control all of the parties in the Duma through any tool he and his cronies can devise because the Duma is there to protect his people, not the Russian people. How else could he ensure, for example, the passage of a law classifying the personal data of anyone under state protection—such as the one the Duma quietly passed in 2017?
Russian citizens are hardly blind to the problems plaguing the Russian state. They are well aware of Russia’s prolonged economic stagnation, the inflation, the mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, and a series of environmental disasters. This is why Navalny’s anti-corruption message was well-received—and why Russians have taken to calling United Russia the Party of Crooks and Thieves. God forbid they be allowed to vote for the candidates they really want. It is a risk Putin cannot afford to take.
After payrolling the systemic opposition, Putin further ensures no true opposition figure can make it onto the ballot through his control of electoral commissions, and—here is where the charges against Navalny come in—through an increasingly severe law against so-called foreign agents.
Beginning in 2018, and accelerating in the runup to the recent elections, the Central Election Committee made a series of changes to the electoral law, giving Putin more power to filter out undesirable candidates. The Kremlin also tells election workers what to do, as we know, for example, from a recording leaked on September 3 to Novaya Gazeta. In the audio, Zhanna Prokopyeva, a municipal administration adviser, may be heard telling election workers to be “cold-blooded and calm.” She explains how to falsify election results to ensure the victory of a “certain party,” meaning United Russia. “We are interested in seeing a certain figure and a certain party—42 percent to 45 percent on the party-list voting,” she says.
Since 2012, and at a growing tempo since 2019, Russian authorities have systematically designated opposition figures “foreign agents,” a label reminiscent of the Soviet epithet, “enemy of the people.” Likewise, the Kremlin terms opposition civil society organizations and media outlets “extremist organisations.”
This serves a number of purposes. If you’re a foreign agent, you can’t run for office. Not only does the designation destroy a candidate’s reputation, it costs a fortune: Kremlin-controlled courts hand down steep fines—on average, US$4,000—per putative offense. Donors who might bankroll candidates are scared off by the prospect of coming under state scrutiny for donating to an “extremist group.” No one wants the hassle. If this message isn’t clear enough, there is of course prison and poisoning, both for the unauthorized candidates and their families. But it usually suffices to deem a candidate a foreign agent.
This doesn’t mean all opposition activity has come to a grinding halt. Sonya Grossman, for example, a journalist and activist who was placed on the list of foreign agents, now hosts a podcast describing the new and severe limitations on her life and career. It’s called “Hi, you’re a foreign agent.”
Navalny is the one Putin really fears. The lawyer and founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation has repeatedly exposed the ways Putin and his Kremligarchs steal anything that’s not nailed down. Navalny had to close the FBK because it was deemed it an extremist organisation—besides, political activism is hard to carry out, if not impossible, from his cell in the Vladimir Oblast labor camp. Yes, he’s been able to send editorials to Western publications. Vladimir Milov, an FBK activist in exile, still runs a YouTube channel called Why Russia Fails. But this doesn’t have the impact of running campaigns in person.
This is why Vladimir Kara-Murza, another vocal opposition figure, insists upon campaigning in Russia and won’t countenance the idea of going abroad, even though he’s been poisoned twice. “A Russian politician has to be in Russia … after both poisonings, after I was physically able to, I would go back as soon as I was able to and I did. It’s a question of principle,” he says.
A candidate who manages to get on the ballot despite these obstacles becomes the object of even more creative Kremlin machinations. To confuse voters, for example, the Kremlin puts other candidates with the same name—and once, the same appearance—on the ballot. Boris Vishnevsky, for example, was an opposition candidate running in St. Petersburg. He was not the only one:
The Kremlin also goes to great lengths to blindfold anyone looking for polling irregularities. In the recent election, Russian authorities barred OSCE observers as a hygienic precaution against Covid19. The Russian electoral watchdog Golos was shut out, too, ensuring there were no independent election monitors save a bogus array of pro-Kremlin EU observers such as the French far-right deputies Hervé Juvin, Jean-Lin Lacapelle, and Thierry Mariani; the German far-right deputy Gunnar Beck; and Slovak independent deputy Miroslav Radačovský. (For their pains, the deputies were disciplined by the European Parliament, which accused them of taking luxury trips in exchange for positive reports and barred them from going on further election observation missions on its behalf.)
What matters is who counts the vote
The force of authoritarian power was in full display during the three-day voting period in September. The results, interestingly, display two Russias: one expressed by the tally of paper ballots the other by electronic voting. The conflicting results tell us, as in the apocryphal quote from Stalin, that it doesn’t matter who casts the votes—what matters is who counts them.
The state’s electoral machinery and pro-Kremlin forces outdid themselves. From the crack of dawn, civil service workers formed long queues at polling stations throughout Russia’s big cities, even though citizens could vote over the whole three-day span. The theatrical display was meant to show voters that United Russia had firm support despite polling indicating it was hovering near 26 percent. Workers who hadn’t planned to vote electronically were intimidated or coerced by their employers to vote online for United Russia. Independent candidates were beaten and harassed at the polling stations when they pointed out irregularities. In St. Petersburg, the cloned Boris Vishnevsky, shown above, was beaten by unknown assailants for complaining about these voting procedures.
For foreign observers, the most shocking development—and one with sinister global ramifications—was the cooperation of major internet platforms with the fraud. At the request of a Moscow court acting on behalf of the Russian state internet regulator, Apple, Google, Telegram, and YouTube obediently removed Navalny’s smart-voting app, which was designed to help voters coordinate their votes for maximum impact. They also took down any content referring to it.
The app, devised by Navalny and his team, showed voters how to cast their ballot for the candidate with the most chance of winning against the Russia United candidate in their polling district. Doing so, Navalny explained, meant that in some districts, voters would have to hold their noses and vote for a candidate they disliked, all in the name of ousting United Russia. We’ll never know if the system might have worked because of the most consequential development in these elections: the inauguration of electronic voting.
According to the paper ballots, genuine opposition candidates won a number of districts in central Moscow. Andrey Pivovarov, the leader of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia party, managed to win his seat from prison. The paper ballot tally from Kara-Murza’s precinct in central Moscow showed the KPRF (Communist Party) winning 27 percent of the vote, while United Russia clocked in at 20 percent and Yabloko at 19 percent. These results were mirrored in the victory of Sergei Mitrokhin, the Yabloko candidate for the Moscow City Duma, who won his seat with 35 percent of the vote. But all of these victories were overturned when the results came in from the electronic votes.
In principle, electronic voting is a reasonable innovation. It’s used in many democratic countries, even in Europe. It’s convenient for citizens living abroad or in isolated communities, as well as disabled voters. It’s safer during a pandemic than voting in person, and it reduces the cost of holding national elections. Above all, it has the advantage of tabulating votes instantaneously.
But not in Russia. Somehow, the paper ballots were counted before the electronic ones. The electronic results remained uncounted eighteen hours after the polls closed. Even when they came in, no one had any idea how more than two million Moscow votes had been tabulated. There was no transparent explanation. Kara-Murza noted that the electronic and paper ballots, had “nothing to do with each other.”
The statistician Sergey Shpilkin drew up a preliminary analysis of early turnout results; he calculated that 50 percent of the votes for United Russia were falsified. As for the electronic results, he said, statistical analysis was pointless. The electronic votes were “an absolute evil—a black box that no one controls.”
It is a bleak picture, unrelieved save for a hope known to all serious observers of Russia: In this country, change can happen with lightning speed.
“I have a surprise for [Putin],” said Kara-Murza. “The incontrovertible truth is that in those countries where governments cannot be changed through the ballot box, they will, sooner or later, be changed on the streets.”
Monique Camarra, a language specialist at the University of Siena, is the co-host of the Kremlin File.
Cristina Maza’s reading list
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• Canada has doubled its Afghan refugee resettlement target to 40,000 people, the New York Times reports.
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• A cryptocurrency expert confessed to conspiring to help North Korea evade economic sanctions by using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to conceal illegal transactions, the Washington Post reports.
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• Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry announced that the country is expelling seven senior UN officials, accusing them of “meddling in the internal affairs of the country.” The United Nations has been warning for months of famine in the Tigray region, where Ethiopia’s government has imposed what the UN calls “a de facto humanitarian aid blockade.” Starvation is the latest misery imposed upon ethnic Tigrayans, who have been massacred, gang-raped and expelled.
• South Sudan’s government dismissed a United Nations report accusing the country’s leaders of corruption. Last week, the UN’s Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said a “staggering” amount of money had been diverted from public coffers and resources, with almost US$39 million stolen during just two months, Al Jazeera reports.
Cristina Maza covers foreign policy and defense for National Journal. Subscribe to the Lazo Letters here, and follow her @CrisLeeMaza.
Thierry Mariani, at least, was indignant. “The European Parliament needs a psychiatrist,” he intoned. “You have a paranoia against Russia. You see Russians everywhere, Russian disinformation everywhere. If a computer doesn’t work, it’s the Russians. … I have no cause to reproach myself, I fulfilled my mission as a parliamentarian, which is to check that democracy is respected.” In France, Mariani’s name is associated with the terms “caviar diplomacy,” “cash investigation,” “Azerbaijani laundromat,” and “the scandal spreads.”
After September 11th, I had a growing discomfort with the scope creep that "terrorist" began to take on. It started with some idiot shining a laser pointer at a passenger liner, then started to be used to describe drug dealers. Sadly, it took China and Russia calling people "terrorists" before I realized the implication of treating a label as a special case that overrides due process.
It's good that you point out that this sort of practice is nothing new to Russia. It's important for us to see it and recognize it, before it shows up in our halls again.