On August 17, 10 of the 11 political parties registered to participate in the September 18 elections for a new Daghestani parliament signed a formal pledge to ensure an honest vote.
Whether that commitment is more than a pure formality is questionable, however, in light of an audio file recently uploaded to the Internet in which speakers tentatively identified as senior Daghestani officials instruct local mayors to bar opposition parties, including Motherland (Rodina), from the ballot in order to guarantee a resounding victory for the ruling United Russia party.
Rodina announced on August 3 the withdrawal of its prospective Daghestani candidates for both the Daghestani parliamentary ballot and the nationwide elections to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, citing alleged pressure, threats, and blackmail by the authorities. A second opposition party, People against Corruption (NPK), had pulled out two weeks earlier citing similar pressure.
The memorandum on abjuring so-called "black PR" and illegal manipulation of the vote was the initiative of Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov. It was under discussion even before the clandestine audio file surfaced and was thus not an exercise in damage containment in response to that leak.
On the surface, the signing of the memorandum conforms to Russian President Vladimir Putin's injunction that the State Duma elections should be free and fair, in accordance with the law. But according to Gadzhimurad Sagitov, chief editor of the independent Russian-language weekly Novoye Delo, whereas the federal authorities genuinely want the elections to be fair, the republican leadership in its efforts to sideline the opposition has already crossed the boundaries of what is permitted.
In his opening comments to the various party representatives who subsequently signed the memorandum, Abdulatipov said candidates should refrain from trying to reap political dividends by leveling unfounded accusations at the authorities, and he made clear his disapproval of those political forces that, even though they purportedly lack popular support, seek "to undermine the legitimacy of the election campaign by criticizing the authorities' undemocratic approach." He argued that for all those who truly care about their country, "the interests of the motherland should take precedence over narrow party interests."
The speakers in the audio clip, who commentators believe include parliament speaker Khizri Shikhsaidov and former Makhachkala Mayor Magomed Suleymanov, are more explicit, while showing a total disregard for legal procedure. The official chairing the meeting, who has been tentatively identified as first deputy presidential administration head Aleksei Gasanov (others present address him as "Aleksei Petrovich"), impresses on local mayors the need to do everything in their power to ensure that Rodina's candidates withdraw by August 2 but to do so in such a way that they do not lodge a formal complaint about official pressure. At the same time, "Aleksei Petrovich" evinces a total disregard for the consequences of such actions. ("Let the papers write whatever they like....")
That audio file was discussed in detail at a roundtable in Makhachkala on August 18 attended by journalists and representatives of opposition parties and NGOs. Participants subsequently addressed an appeal to top Russian officials, including President Putin and Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova, to take action to rectify the illegal actions of Daghestani leaders, specifically the refusal to register Rodina and the NPK to participate in the parliamentary elections, and journalist and human rights campaigner Maksim Shevchenko as an independent candidate for the Russian State Duma elections.
Commentator Rasul Kadiyev has observed that in Russian politics, as in Russian sport, you only get punished for cheating if you're found out. He predicts that Gasanov will be made a scapegoat for the leaked audio file, which is not entirely fair given that Deputy Prime Minister Rayudin Yusufov has been quoted as making very similar remarks ("Don't worry about the law, just do what I tell you.") when addressing local officials in the town of Dagestanskiye Ogni late last month.
On the other hand, if the Daghestani authorities' machinations result in the desired handsome majority for United Russia, the Kremlin may turn a blind eye to how those results were achieved.
Insofar as the scandalous audio file only serves to corroborate malpractice that many voters have long taken for granted, it is difficult to predict how it will impact on voter behavior, except perhaps by reinforcing the perception that there is no point in casting a ballot if all the parties/candidates you might have voted for have been excluded, which would result in a very low turnout. Whether popular anger and frustration will translate into mass protests, as commentator Suleyman Uladiyev has predicted, is questionable, however.