— As the March 2024 presidential election is approaching, the question is being asked again, if it’s necessary to participate in it. It is asked both by those who stayed in Russia and those who left the country. Why do we participate in the presidential election, if the result is predictable?
— It’s hard to answer this question in brief. I’ve been hearing this question since at least 2011. Then people started asking often: why participate in the elections, if they are manipulated? From my point of view, manipulated elections have not yet reached the end of their development. We know that in the Era of Stagnation there were elections with only one candidate on the ballot. And I wouldn’t like to get to this point as the ultimate one. Also this question engenders a feeling that the whole thing doesn’t make sense: how people vote varies, but the result remains one and the same.
But before we succumb to this feeling because of mistrust in the elections, we need to understand that nothing happens in social life without human effort. It is hard, because this capacity has been extinguished in the population for decades. In this situation it’s hard to believe that something depends on you. It’s an option, of course, to abandon everything and turn to your own private business, but it’s not really possible when everything is being controlled and there’s dictatorship in the country.
Sometimes we encounter the opinion that it’s time to stop engaging in elections and turn to violent methods of changing the situation. But those who uphold this position can’t say what they’re planning to do the next day after the armed coup. If we really want democratic transformations and not the establishment of a junta regime, then in any case we’ll need democratic elections after the coup. If we want democratic transformations, then the path to them lies through the democratic institution of elections.
Even though we know the predictable result of the presidential election in 2024, we must still engage in it. The thing is, given the vast depoliticization of Russian society, it is only elections that open a window of opportunities for conveying political information. Because it is the best time for people to receive it, make conclusions and change their political opinions.
— We know that any elections in political systems of the kind that there is in Russia are potentially dangerous for these systems, because they open a window of opportunity for repoliticization of people. But we see that elections still take place. Why does this system still hold elections, when they present such risks for it? Why doesn’t it cancel elections, with reference to martial law, and just prolong the president’s term?
— The absence of an electoral process leads to the loss of legitimacy of a regime, at least in the eyes of the international community. If we analyze how the electoral process was transformed in Russia in recent decades, we will see that by now nothing is left of elections. Elections in contemporary Russia rather resemble a renewal of the oath of institutions of power to the one heading the system. Oaths are made by electoral commissions, and through them – by institutions of education, administrative power, judicial power, and the police. Elections imply that there is choice, that there are various candidates and, naturally, voters. Alas, we see that in reality all the necessary elements of elections are replaced and distorted. Russian electoral legislation works in such a way that it violates the passive electoral rights of millions of people: they can’t run as candidates in elections. Voters also pose a problem for this electoral system. Everybody knows that the lower the turnout, the easier it is for the ruling power to produce the voting result most favorable to it.
Often it is the case that people living in regional cities don’t know anything about elections taking place in their cities. There’s no promotion that would call people to come to elections, no promotion of either parties or candidates (even those who represent United Russia, because their electorate come to vote of their own accord). All of this turns elections into a big secret for citizens. Frequently candidates win with 12% turnout and gain offices.
— To an outside gaze it might seem that the power is actively promoting the election among citizens, especially in Moscow. There’s a quite widespread advertising of a lottery for those who participate in electronic voting. Our next question will concern the REV (Remote Electronic Voting). There is an opinion that the electoral system significantly changed after electronic voting was implemented. Did the REV really transform the electoral procedure?
— The REV is a black box, because it is technically impossible to check the results of elections without breaking the secrecy of the ballot. The REV doesn’t provide any system of monitoring the electoral procedure. The best thing that can be done with the REV is to cancel it. No legal guarantees can secure its reliability. When monitoring the elections in Estonia I noticed that the electoral commission puts in a great effort to make this system as transparent as possible. For instance, the links to the information about electoral commissions were in open access. Apart from that, it was possible to ask questions about the work of the electoral commissions and the electoral procedure in real time. This is possible if there is a demand in society for openness and transparency of the process of elections. The danger is that when a state undergoes antidemocratic transformations, these same procedures (e-voting) begin to work against society. Thus, e-voting is viable only in states where it is certain that the political course won’t change.
— Which complications did independent observers encounter, when the REV was first implemented in the Moscow elections?
— We can be sure that the REV influences the outcome of the election, when there is an independent candidate, and also the results of the REV differ a lot from the results produced with paper ballots. For example, this happened with Roman Yuneman, an oppositional candidate in the Moscow City Duma in 2019. Before the day of the election it was already clear why in the district where an oppositional candidate was running, the REV was implemented in the voting offices. It was precisely because of the results of the REV that Yuneman didn’t get enough votes. In 2021 the same situation happened again with candidates of the Communist Party [CPRF candidates were leading in 7 out of 15 constituencies in Moscow, including Mikhail Lobanov. Before the results of e-voting were published, he was ahead of the United Russia candidate, propagandist Yevgeny Popov, by 10,000 votes; other independent candidates were leading in two other constituencies]. Unfortunately, the results of the REV proved its effectiveness to the CEC (Central Election Commission).
The REV doesn’t include any procedure to monitor the process of an election. The only option left to independent observers is to compare the results of the voting offices using the REV with those with paper ballots, and then share the results of these comparisons with the public.
Due to the intransparency of all procedures, including the procedure of voting, citizens lose control over what’s happening. The implementation of the REV only further increased the degree of lack of control over elections.
— Under the auspices of COVID-19 restrictions three-day voting was implemented. How did these innovations in the voting procedure influence the elections and monitoring?
— Three-day voting was a major blow against independent monitoring. It’s hard to find an observer able to do monitoring for three days in a row. Many are prepared to work in electoral offices on Saturday and Sunday, but voting on a working day remains a problem for most. We know for sure that it is on Fridays that the main manipulations take place. While previously we were worried about the safekeeping of ballots in the nights between the voting days, now we are worried about the manipulations that are committed on Friday. On this day there is a lack of observers in offices, or there are none at all. Three-day voting significantly increased electoral manipulations.
— We see that in recent years the Russian electoral system went through substantial changes. What caused these changes?
— Every time it’s becoming harder to secure the reelection of Putin. The general discontent, tiredness of him, his decision to start the war in 2022 — all of this reduces people’s willingness to vote for him. The system strives to secure its victory by means of repressions, distorting the legislation and closing opportunities for the emergence of an alternative position in the society. It’s obvious that independent candidates won’t be allowed to run in the presidential election in March 2024.
While Vladimir Churov was the chair of the CEC, electoral manipulations were carried out in a very crude manner. They were easy to trace, register and prove, because what was happening in the offices was recorded on video and documented, and the videos and documents were available. When Ella Pamfilova took up the office, the technology of manipulations changed. Now we see that after each election some articles in legislation are altered in response to how independent observers acted in this election. For instance, in 2012 there were cameras in offices, and anybody could watch how the election was happening. After the Saint-Petersburg independent observers’ report and Tatyana Yurasova’s article in Novaya Gazeta dedicated to video-monitoring in the elections, video-monitoring practically became impossible. Now there is no access to cameras and records. Special regulations regarding access to the video-monitoring system in electoral offices were implemented, and restrictions were imposed on who can have this access. Personal video-recording is forbidden.
Another major blow for independent observers was the removal of the status of member of electoral commission with consultative capacity, because this status guaranteed the observers’ right to access all the commissions’ documents, which often contained violations. While formerly the media could also monitor elections, now the legislation substantially obstructs the admittance of representatives of the media into electoral offices, demanding that journalists have accreditation.
The authorities study the independent observers’ successful actions so as to legally inhibit them in the next electoral season. Or, conversely, when electoral commissions violate the law, and we manage to prove it in court, then before long this violation ceases to be a violation thanks to an alteration in legislation.
Based on the abundance of fraud and manipulations, with the law altered so as to produce the result required by the authorities, we can assert that since 2018 the ruling power has not been legitimate. We have enough proof of manipulations with votes for Putin. Consequently, we are right to say that he came to power illegally. The 2021 parliamentary election also involved a vast complex of manipulations, so we have the right to say that the parliament is illegitimate, too.
— We are now witnessing an expansion of repressive measures against independent observers. How did the situation change for them in recent years? Is it safe now to be an independent observer? Can we say that repressions had an impact on the strategy of monitoring elections?
— The Golos (Voice) Movement for Defense of Voters’ Rights continues to exist and continues its work, in spite of announcements in the media that it ceased its activities. Golos works only in Russia. So the detainment of Grigory Melkonyants, the co-chairperson of Golos, is completely absurd. He is accused of cooperation with the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO), banned in Russia as “undesirable,” although right after that organization was added to the list of undesirable ones, Melkonyants announced that he had stopped his cooperation with it. Representatives of Golos who left Russia decided to leave Golos; I am one of them. Those who left Russia are no longer members of Golos, but they continue to work in the sphere of independent monitoring of electoral procedures in other countries. In Russia independent observers from Golos continue to work. And we all assert that elections in Russia are manipulated. Russian electoral registration that restrains the institution of independent monitoring and impedes the access of observers to the electoral process and to electoral commissions’ materials, doesn’t accord with the norms of international legislation in this sphere.
— How does independent monitoring work now? What are the opportunities for this activity and what are the restrictions?
— To participate in elections as an independent observer is the small possibility and the small freedom that remain for us. If there are no independent observers in electoral offices, commissions will appoint their own observers as decorative figures to sustain the illusion of transparency and the democratic character of the electoral process. Golos often encountered reproaches, that the presence of its members in electoral offices legitimizes the whole process of elections. This is wrong, because our goal is to provide information about manipulations and gather documentary proof of them taking place. Legitimizing elections is precisely the task of their appointed observers.
Monitoring is most necessary in the offices where there are independent candidates. In the upcoming 2024 presidential election there won’t be any such candidates, so probably we won’t need observers. But we shouldn’t forget that apart from the presidential election there are regional and municipal elections, which are worth paying attention to. It is in them that there may be real candidates willing to represent their voters’ interests.
There are a number of restrictions on observers. Firstly, the legislation forbids monitoring in a region where one doesn’t live, that is, if you are registered in Moscow Oblast, you’re not allowed to monitor in another region, though on the other hand, there are no restrictions regarding observing in other cities and towns of your region. Secondly, monitoring by the media is only allowed for professional journalists who have an appropriate employment contract and accreditation.
I would recommend taking a look at reports on long-term monitoring which Golos publishes before elections. One can find in them information on the administrative life of cities and regions, on shifts in government personnel, on changes in the media, on representation of interests of big business. This information is also important for understanding the regional electoral process.
— What advice would you give to someone who’s willing to become an observer in elections?
— To become an observer you can appeal to a candidate’s electoral headquarters, where you can receive a referral to an electoral office. Another option is to appeal to a candidate’s party headquarters, because parties also have the right to appoint observers. Visiting a party’s headquarters offers a good opportunity to find out a lot about it: there were cases when parties promised to give referrals, but refused at the last moment. Also it’s advisable to have contact with a local coordinator of a candidate’s headquarters, who gathers all those willing to do monitoring and negotiates their appointment as observers.
It is important to remember that there’s the crisis map which continues to function and register violations. If your right to monitor is denied, you must report that in the crisis map. When you are in the office, remember that you’re not alone. Transmit all the information that you gather – what you see and hear – on social networks and in the violations map. A mark on the violations map motivates the electoral commission to eliminate the violation and inform the coordinators of the map that the violation has been eliminated. Commissions intend to preserve the perfect image of elections, because that’s what a winning candidate’s legitimacy is built on. We don’t delete postings on violations, but acknowledge that since the publication of the post the violation has been eliminated.
Although the repressions have been strengthening, it’s still possible to legally be an observer in elections. The observer status is affirmed by Russian law, so an observer in an electoral office acts on a legal basis, and he or she has a referral from a registered candidate. The aim of an observer is not to have more voters vote for his or her candidate, but to guarantee and defend the rights of the candidate’s voters. An observer watches that voters’ votes are registered correctly and without distortions.
— What fate awaits independent observers after the 2024 presidential election?
— I can’t make predictions. Whatever the outcome of the election, we all, and especially independent observers, mustn’t hope that the political situation will change easily. As I said in the beginning, nothing happens by itself. We must insist on our position and we mustn’t assert that everything has been decided for us, and elections don’t change anything. Because any power must be under the control of those who elect it.