Russia’s forced referendum
Russian elections always run on "administrative mobilisation" of public sector workers. But ahead of a nationwide referendum next week, the Kremlin is scaling up its methods.
Over the past month, the Kremlin’s proposed constitutional referendum has dominated the political agenda in Russia. The proposed changes, among other points, would allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power past his current term.
After Putin announced that the vote, previously set for April, would take place on 1 July, regional authorities began removing quarantine restrictions. It seems they’re not compatible with celebrations for the new edition of the constitution. Miraculously, the official statistics for coronavirus infections began to improve simultaneously, provoking concerns over falsification and tampering from some experts. Regardless, the coming plebiscite has won over public discussion and even taken over from the pandemic. The referendum is widely discussed online. More than 80% of Russian citizens knew about the vote two weeks in advance, polls say.
Yet Russia’s debate on the constitutional amendments has clearly not evolved how the Kremlin planned. There’s practically no broad discussion over the content of the amendments. Instead it’s the fact that every day more evidence emerges of an aggressive campaign to force employees in Russia’s public sector - and companies loyal to the Kremlin - to vote. Certain regions are voting online - the first time an electronic voting system is being used at this scale in Russia. But still, the focus is increasingly on “administrative mobilisation” and how it affects millions of people across the country.
Of course, the use of public sector workers in Russia’s elections are nothing new. Every election involves mobilising a “reliable electorate” to ensure turnout numbers and the right result. But the pressure and manipulation ahead of the referendum differs from previous elections - not by methods, but scale. This time, the Kremlin’s political technologists have clearly tried to go outside of the reliable public sector electorate and bring in people they’d previously left alone.
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The reason and the potential results of this phenomenon are linked: without mobilising “loyal” voters it’s practically impossible to get an appropriate turnout for a national referendum in Russia, but the administrative machine can burnout at a grassroots level - and play an evil trick on its owner.
Old methods scaled up
On 18 June, a Moscow school teacher, Alexey Galin, wrote on Facebook that school management was pressuring him after he refused to register for online voting in the referendum - he posted about it on an online map of voting violations. “Today, the deputy principal visited. And said that it’s a catastrophe. The principal is being forced out. It’s a catastrophe, basically,” Galin wrote.
This is a familiar situation for Russian school teachers. Ahead of elections, the principal sends a request to all school employees to “register themselves and report back” - as the principal is expected to send a list of people who have registered to the department of education. But when one teacher doesn’t think this is normal and sends a complaint to the central election committee, the school management quickly becomes angry, accuses the individual of shaming the school, and promises consequences.
Galin’s post was shared widely, and the next day school management apologised, withdrew its request to the teacher and explained that this was “purely personal” initiative by the deputy principal, and was in no way connected with the education department.
It’s hard, however, to believe that this was a “personal initiative”. Across Russia, independent trade unions and politicians have been receiving an endless stream of identical complaints about forced registration and voting at workplaces. This is why a local community in Zyuzino, Moscow (disclaimer: the author is a member of the group) launched an anonymous complaints box, which has received dozens of complaints so far.
Here’s an example:
“They didn’t threaten [us] with problems, but the bossy tone forces the majority of people to register [to vote]: ‘Colleagues, we need to reach 100% of our co-workers who have applied to register to vote online… For people not from Moscow you need to apply to vote for constitutional amendments at the polling station at address XXX [...] I have to account for everyone by name. Deadline is 4pm on 11.06.2020.”
Most of the time, mobilisation happens via gentle requests from management to send photos of registration and voting documents, without direct threats of firing or wage cuts. Sometimes, management forces workers more directly (and rudely). Subordinates aren’t just ordered to register to vote, vote and then send evidence of the vote, but also bring with them three other people to vote.
This may be a violation of Russia’s labour code, and the criminal code on electoral rights, but many people don’t realise this forced mobilisation is against the law, nor are there any public legal precedents to go by.
In certain cases, the pressure on teachers finds its way into parents’ chat groups, where teachers, it seems, think that pushing people to vote is the same as the semi-legal informal fees charged for repairing classrooms and school trips.
“There’s a shameless campaign of administrative pressure on voters going on in the country. And I still have to think how to act. I hope you won’t ask me to report back on this”
Another innovation involves the new target groups for mobilisation. For example, a university professor in Moscow talked on Facebook about pressure on lecturers to vote. University lecturers aren’t used to this kind of assault on their civic rights, and so the professor’s reaction was as expected: “There’s a shameless campaign of administrative pressure on voters going on in the country,” the professor wrote on Facebook. “And I still have to think how to act. I hope you won’t ask me to report back on this.”
A particular form of hidden agitation that people faced en masse during Russia’s 2018 presidential elections was election advertising by commercial institutions. Banks, airports and aeroplanes joined the list of familiar places where you could find election propaganda, alongside cafes, shops and malls. Even receipts from certain private petrol stations can remind you of the referendum date. It seems the trade departments of local authorities are “working” with businessmen, bringing official electioneering material to barbershops, cafes and commercial centres.
There’s no reliable statistics, so we can only judge the scale of administrative pressure in general terms. But it’s clear that the referendum’s organisers are very concerned about turnout. The constitutional amendments are so far away from the problems which really worry Russian citizens that it’s not going to be easy to encourage people to go to the polls. And that’s without the health risks posed by COVID-19.
Playing catch up
The current constitutional referendum is not provided for by any laws on elections or referendums, and is being held according to special rules passed in an ad hoc separate federal law and orders by the central election commission.
These rules make independent monitoring of the vote practically impossible. First, only regional civic chambers - official civil society instutitions - can send election observers to polling stations. If journalists want to visit polling stations, they have to show they have a special contract with their newsroom - signed two months before the vote. Second, a week of advance voting began the day after the Victory Parade, held on 25 June. This process allowed people to vote from home without specific grounds or even application. Obviously, there were not enough activists in the country to organise independent monitoring for these six days of voting. Third, the procedure of voting according to your location (rather than registered address) has been simplified extensively.
The main focus of the mobilisation programme, however, is the online voting system - introduced in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod. There’s no independent monitoring of electronic voting at all, which is why we already have a scandalous case from last year’s Moscow city council elections, when a United Russia candidate beat an independent candidate by 84 votes. The independent candidate, Roman Yuneman, later showed evidence that technical failures had affected the results, and filed a lawsuit.
Beyond the falsification of results that several experts expect from online voting, it will also allow public officials to monitor turnout of their subordinates much more easily. Hence, opposition politician Alexey Navalny published documents showing that the Moscow mayor’s office had been monitoring turnout for online registration by employees in departments under its control.
These new technical capabilities of monitoring administrative mobilisation don’t only throw shade on the coming referendum - the result of which is clear - but also the coming Moscow elections. In two years, the capital will hold elections for 146 municipal councils - which given current trends could see the opposition win big. This is a big problem for the mayor’s office: in 2017, almost 300 independent deputies made it into local office, paving the way for the successes at the city council elections in 2019.
Other regions are also developing similar systems of monitoring turnout. Even where it’s impossible to vote online, employees of “loyal” entreprises are registered in a special electronic system which records their turnout at polling stations. And these enterprises are part of the biggest employers in the country - the postal service, Russian Railways, Rostelekom, Lukoil, Rostech and so on. The system of complete “mobilisation” for public sector workers to vote online may have been built for the referendum, but it will not disappear after 1 July and will definitely be used for the next parliamentary elections in 2021.
Overheating the system
But everything has its price. The constitutional amendments are not as popular as Putin’s rating at the 2018 elections. Which is why we’re starting to see more and more people who may register to vote under pressure from their employer, but then choose to vote against the amendments. And given the levels of pressure in some places, it’s logical to expect a hidden protest vote, too.
I managed to speak anonymously to employees of one public sector branch in Moscow, and I asked them how they are being mobilised at their workplace. Each senior employee is allocated a group of 10-20 people who have to hand over the passwords for their online voting accounts. People who aren’t registered in Moscow have to register to vote at their workplace polling station. Ahead of the start of the early voting in June, all the “foremen” in the process received the following reminder from their managers (text changed to preserve anonymity):
“Colleagues, the voting begins tomorrow from 8am. We all need to vote on the same day. You yourselves and your subordinates. Call everyone, use your time. Immediately afterwards report back that you and your colleagues have voted. This is very important and serious.”
My interlocutor was deeply annoyed by this “obligation” and is now preparing to vote - himself and all his colleagues - against the constitutional amendments. Many people are not ready to challenge their employers and openly resist the forced voting, but there’s some readiness to vote against what the Kremlin elite wants.
Another important group in the Putin system - members of electoral commissions - have also started expressing their dissent. According to the law, electoral commissions are meant to work elections and referendums, but a “popular vote” on constitutional amendments does not fall into this category. Meanwhile, these people will be exposed to the greatest risk: including the early voting, they have to meet people en masse for a total of seven days, which will greatly increase their chances of getting coronavirus. There’s 900,000 people who work for election commissions at all levels in the country, which means it’s statistically impossible that some people will not be able to avoid the virus. Which is why there’s no point being surprised that hundreds of electoral commission members have openly refused to participate and called on their colleagues to do so too.
That said, it seems the Kremlin management knows the possible risks of “overheating” its administrative machine and the negative reaction of people they’re currently subject to open psychological violence. As my interlocutor in the Moscow public services told me, their management is in a very nervous state due to poor turnout numbers for electronic voting at their polling stations. In Moscow, several officials are clearly resorting to back-up plans. The TV channel Dozhd released an investigation showing the sale of sim cards registered to elderly citizens in order that others could register “dead souls” in the online voting process.
Unsurprisingly, Russia’s opposition has not developed a unified strategy to deal with what seems like an obvious situation. Several politicians, such as urbanist Maxim Kats, insist that people should go and vote against the amendments, while Alexey Navalny believes that voting against is a good move, but not the only way of protesting. He has not called on his supporters to vote, and has left it up to them to decide. Several movements have called for an open boycott.
Most likely, the lack of a unified strategy is less about personalities, than the “political technology” at hand. It’s a sad fact but not one opposition force in the country has a nationwide agitation network that could build a 110 million voter campaign in a month. Navalny has a system of regional offices, but he did not deploy it in these circumstances. First, the opposition can reach at most 15 million people - this is a good job at the regional level and even the national parliament, but not a nationwide referendum. Second, given the opposition’s lack of technical capacity to monitor vote counts and prevent falsifications, the real motivation behind any agitation falls away. It’s hard to convince people en masse to visit polling stations if you don’t have any way of protecting their votes. This is especially true during the pandemic, when the health risks are all too serious.
Perhaps it would make sense for the opposition to focus attention on public sector workers who will have to vote anyway - and who are now under brutal pressure from their employers. But the opposition isn’t technically ready for this either. It’s not straightforward to bring these people into your audience, especially if you’re only working on your liberal electorate and look down on the public sector. But either way, the new tools brought in by Kremlin political technologists for the referendum are only going to become more important in Russia’s elections - and are, therefore, a serious challenge for the opposition.
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