Sverdlovsk regional forum of election observers, March 2018. Source: For Fair Elections.I stand here like a model civic activist, a rights defender in my white coat, while the presidential elections are taking place around me. Colleagues standing nearby are proudly declaring that human rights and politics are far removed from one another, and never cross paths. After all, NGOs try to help people whatever the political priority of the the day is. Our business is policy (defending the public’s interests) not politics, which is a power struggle. And all of us, including the most loyal NGO, are united: there’s no intrigue, the election result is known in advance, but still they flap and bustle around, drumming up volunteers out of nowhere, signing agreements with Public Chambers to send observers to polling stations on election day.
There’s an incredible fuss in Russian civil society about what the right stance is to take on the elections – no one has seen this kind of fuss in 15 years, and there was no sign of it just a year ago. And only a handful of stressed out (but proud!) rights activists are watching this celebration of civic and political life from afar, getting on quietly with their everyday tasks. No one even turns their head towards the noise of the election: elections are a momentary commotion, but we want to talk about timeless things... And this gives us double protection from the “foreign agent” register.
For the last ten years, the trend has been clear: politics and elections are one thing, NGOs quite another
You’ll say I’m exaggerating. Perhaps. But I’ve taken leave for the duration of the election campaign, so as not to put any NGO colleagues at risk. And this is despite the fact that for as long as I remember working in the voluntary sector, I have always observed elections. But for this campaign, the entire coalition of organisations belonging to the Voronezh Human Rights House have decided to stress their distance from the process. Any project with the slightest connection to politics has been banned from our premises, even our discussion space, for many years on principle. The only exception is if some opposition activist is beaten up or searched. Our NGOs’ avoidance of politics isn’t just formal, it’s total. We won’t take part, for example, in the election boycott proposed by Alexey Navalny. This distancing is conscious and even reasonable in our seriously risky situation, so for those people who couldn’t resist the lure of politics, taking leave seemed a sensible decision.
Over the past decade, NGOs have been systematically excluded from the election campaign period all over Russia, and Voronezh region is no exception. The first amendments to electoral legislation, in 2006, removed NGOs from the list of bodies that could send observers to national elections and propose candidates. Later, NGOs with the “foreign agent” status (which applies to most decent organisations) were left with only one clear limitation – a ban on observing. The trend has been clear: politics and elections are one thing, NGOs quite another.
The Voronezh Human Rights House. Source: Facebook.In 2017, however, things changed. In December, the Russian president announced that 2018 was going to be “Year of the Volunteer”. As it turned out, we were no longer restricted to caring for orphans and the elderly, but even monitor the elections. The imitation Public Chambers that had grown up over the previous decade acquired the right to train and send observers to polling stations. The chambers immediately and collectively announced that they would find volunteers for every polling station, even two for each. Voronezh region has 1715 polling stations. We’ve never seen so many volunteers. I just wonder how much each of them will cost the taxpayers.
The entire might of Russia’s system of imitating public life has been directed at a massive Potemkin election monitoring exercise. Our public chamber reports success: 26 NGOs that have been in existence almost since Soviet times – representing war veterans, trade unions and women’s councils – have signed a cooperation agreement with the chamber and immediately produced 1,500 volunteers. In those parts of the region where it’s hard to find a functioning NGO (and not a nominal voluntary organisation under the aegis of the local administration), all the polling stations have already closed. It’s more difficult in towns and cities, where volunteers can be drummed up by public officials. More than 100 members of district public chambers have been coming together to discuss election issues as part of a “Civil Development Congress” initiated and supported by the Voronezh regional government.
The “For Honest Elections” observers, working with the Lawyers of Russia Association, has no compunction about its involvement in politics or problems with the mobilisation of volunteers. In Voronezh, it works from a regional state-funded young people’s organisation, and its coordinators are actually bringing hundreds of observers together and training them. These are good guys: active young people who are really trying to make the lives of their peers more interesting. A system of “decurions” and “centurions” who have gone round the local universities collecting “volunteers for victory” is centralised and effective. More than 400 students have attended a series of seminars on the electoral system, and the project coordinators have even invited specialists from the Golos election monitoring organisation to train them.
There is just one small contradiction here: this entire movement has been created as a positive and uncritical alternative to Golos, a venerable monitoring organisation founded in 2000. It has even copied Golos’ election violations map. And it stands to reason that neither Golos, which the Public Chamber, for want of legal status, couldn’t send anyone to a polling station even if it wanted to, nor even the political parties are capable of fighting official youth policy.
Activists loyal to the regional authorities can adjust their positions in sync with the party line, while still claiming to be “outside politics”, at least on paper
At one point, “administrative resources” squeezed politics out. Now the same administrative resources have been elevated to administrative-public status.
Where there are too few independent observers, efforts are being made to mobilise more. The Belgorod section of the Russian Union of Youth, for example, is running a competition to sign up volunteers, with prizes including iPhones and bicycles for those who recruit the most. It’s a great scheme, if you ignore the fact that the organisation’s local coordinator is also the head of the region’s cultural department.
Activists loyal to the regional authorities can adjust their positions in sync with the party line, while still claiming to be “outside politics”, at least on paper. But if NGOs can still be removed from politics, the same can’t be said for hardened activists employed by the state. An old friend of mine, a political analyst who works with the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), a so-called public movement initiated and led by Vladimir Putin, insists that it is not a political organisation. Of course it’s not: it’s simply the public avatar of one political party, created personally by the president and working behind the scenes at his command.
The members of these “neutral” public chambers, by the way, from Moscow to Russia’s farthest borders, are trusted officials of the president: Natalya Narochitskaya, president of the Historical Perspective Foundation and a member of Russia’s central Public Chamber, for example, or Alexey Lazarev, who heads the Kursk region’s Public Chamber. During election campaigns they also take leave, out of politeness – in the past only candidates for election did this, and not even all of them.
This makes me, on leave in my white coat, feel a bit embarrassed. But at least I have the time to observe what is happening.