There may be no one to vote for in Russia’s elections, but they will be well monitored!

A tussle over election monitors in northwestern Russia reminds us of a simple truth: electoral authoritarianism takes a lot of effort. 

Anna Yarovaya
16 March 2018

15 March: Vladimir Putin takes questions on the campaign trail. (c) Alexei Druzhinin/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.Russia’s election monitoring community has formed in the years since independence. Today, it’s the Golos, Sonar and Citizen Observer movements that conduct independent (that is, non-partisan) observation, as well as other less well-known initiatives.

The federal authorities have done all they could in recent years to make independent electoral observation more difficult by law. The Golos association — the main monitoring force in the country — was registered as a “foreign agent”, basically paralysing its activities. (That said, a civic movement without foreign funding emerged to take on Golos’ tasks.)

For several years now, not a single civic organisation has had the right to send election observers to polling stations. The opportunities for other potential monitoring structures have also been severely weakened. For instance, only journalists from registered media organisations — and only those on permanent contract — can be present at polling stations.

Restrictions to monitoring have become particularly topical this March. Several weeks before the elections, the Central Electoral Commission refused to issue accreditation to two publications: Molniya (Lightning) and Leviathan. Eight hundred and fifty people from Golos were due to act as election monitors on behalf of Molniya; 4,500 supporters of opposition politician Alexey Navalny were supposed to observe from Leviathan. Despite these impediments, both are determined to send as many observers as possible. 

It is surprising that, under such pressure, Russia’s monitoring community didn’t collapse, but rather strengthened. Collaboration between several monitoring projects has been arranged, forums of social observers have been organised, as well as collective training for all those willing to monitor elections. 

The authorities enter the field of election monitoring

In response, the Russian authorities decided once again to make observers’ life harder, launching their own election observation project. In autumn 2017, the Russian parliament adopted changes to the legislation on presidential elections, allowing Russia’s Public Chamber (a civil society institution designed to analyse draft legislation and monitor state activity) and its regional counterparts to send their own observers on election day.

Independent observers reacted with scepticism to the initiative. “Trust in elections is low, and the Public Chamber isn’t much trusted either. So you end up with sticking together two institutions people do not trust,” remarked Grigory Melkonyants, vice-president of Golos. 

“There can be no question of genuine election monitoring because it is separated from widespread practices of unlawful election agitation”

In various regions, the process of enrolling people in the official “Team of observers” association enjoyed brief success, although insistent calls to local and regional NGOs helped get the right number of people. Far from all recruits managed to go through training, but in this case the Central Electoral Commission has prepared textbooks — the so called “Golden Standard of Election Observation” distributed in all regions of the country. The “Golden Standard” is a very clear and precise method to monitor polling stations, according to Maxim Grigori, vice-chairman of the Public Chamber’s working group on election monitoring. 

In Karelia, the co-chairman of the Public Monitoring Team called this document a “typical instruction for the passive contemplation of the simplest violations of the electoral procedure, which, in fact, never occur.”

“In this regard, unfortunately there can be no question of genuine election monitoring,” explained Oleg Reut, “because it is separated from widespread practices of unlawful election agitation, pressure from management, monitoring of turnout by public officials, compelling people to vote the right way, potential violations and even falsifications by member of electoral commissions and so on.”

Karelia: the opposition under pressure.

Karelia is considered one of the most opposition-minded regions of Russia. The party of power, United Russia, traditionally receives a lesser share of the vote than on average elsewhere in Russia. In the 2012 presidential elections, Vladimir Putin received a modest result here, which led the region’s governor to be sacked.

Several experts explain these political tendencies by the high level of education in the republic, its closeness to Europe, the fact that residents are in some sense “Europeanised”. This sort of framing apparently irritates the authorities, which has led law enforcement to react unreasonably.

Together with the regional directorate of the FSB, Karelia’s authorities tried to fire the regional coordinator of the Golos movement from the university where he works. The pressure on campaigners for Alexey Navalny is also more serious here.

It’s all the more surprising that independent observers haven’t once criticised the regional electoral commission in the last few years. It’s rather the contrary: several missions by the “Observers of Petersburg” group and Golos have been concluded with statements of gratitude to the electoral commissions for their professional work.

No serious violations in the work of the electoral commissions during the parliamentary and local elections in 2016 and 2017 have been reported. Indeed, the Central Election Commission’s recently formed Public Council is made of civic campaigners loyal to the authorities, representatives of Golos and members of the regional Public Chamber who aren’t under the control of the Karelian authorities.

Self-trained observers

In February 2018, a month before the presidential elections, Karelia’s Central Electoral Commission welcomed the opening of the Public Monitoring Team’s office and took part in the press conference dedicated to the event. The team became the first independent monitoring project in Karelia. Its chairpersons are representatives from the Golos movement, as well as two internet media, Capital by the Onega and 7x7 Karelia (where I work).


Alexey Bakhilin, head of Karelia's CEC, welcomes the opening of an election monitoring service in Petrozavodsk, Karelia. Source: 7x7.ru.In one month, this initiative has recruited and trained observers. Its main working principle has been collaboration with all parties interested in the electoral process. Social activists have laid out collaboration not only with candidates’ staff, but also Navalny’s Voters’ strike — whose activists are ready to go to polling stations on 18 March to monitor voting and count turnout. Several dozens of people have been trained by the staff.

However, according to these same experts, that number of activists is not sufficient to cover all polling stations in the region. But in all polling stations of Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia, there will be at least one observer using the professional tools devised by Golos: the “Violations Map”, a hotline and an app for smartphone, allowing to receive efficient information on voting in polling stations.

Oleg Reut explains: “Several mobile groups will be active, in coordination with the staff of the Central Electoral Commission in the polling stations, in Petrozavodsk and the neighbouring district. Operational information will be released on Telegram, Vkontakte. Observers will use a mobile app built by the Golos movement and other tools.”

Karelia’s Public Chamber also announced that it has enrolled the required number of observers. However, due to lack of the necessary materials, some training was conducted remotely, with the help of video- and audio-lectures. In other words, these observers will actually be self-trained. Independent political observers have not taken yet to evaluate the level of training of these observers, their motivation, and can’t yet predict the quality of their work on election day.


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