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Elections In A Vacuum: Russians Prepare For Duma Vote With Dearth Of Independent Information

A woman casts a ballot at her home during early voting in Russia's parliamentary elections at a deer camp about 2,200 kilometers northeast of Moscow in the Tyumen region on September 9.
A woman casts a ballot at her home during early voting in Russia's parliamentary elections at a deer camp about 2,200 kilometers northeast of Moscow in the Tyumen region on September 9.

Russia's electoral authorities have provided a live-streamed air of transparency during elections for nearly a decade, broadcasting video feeds from polling stations accessible to anyone who cared to tune in.

Scrutinizing seemingly endless footage of voters and election workers milling about was a mundane task, but ultimately the collective efforts of online sleuths and opposition activists panned out.

During the 2018 presidential election, cameras captured scenes of people stuffing ballot boxes, carousel voting, voters using others' documents, and the manipulation of voter lists, leading Russia's Central Election Commission (TsIK) to cancel the results of seven polling stations.

It was far from enough to alter the results -- Vladimir Putin won his fourth term in office by a landslide -- but it showed that the authorities were interested in lending some semblance of legitimacy to the electoral process.

That does not appear to be the case going into the September 17-19 balloting for the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, and local elections around the country.

The campaign is headlined by the nationwide vote that will determine the shape of the 450-seat Duma at a time when the ruling United Russia party is suffering from historically low popularity.

But voters will head to the polls in a virtual information void thanks to pressure on independent media, pollsters, monitors, and other checks and balances to the Kremlin line that could help accurately assess the political landscape and electoral results.

Public access to the video-monitoring feeds is among the cuts that can be attributed to the raft of changes to electoral procedures in the past year. Electoral officials have defended the move as a cost-saving measure necessitated by the extension of the voting period to three days, a decision that was purportedly made to limit voters' exposure during the coronavirus pandemic but which itself has come under scrutiny as an expanded opportunity for vote fraud.

As a result, only candidates, political parties, and TsIK members will be allowed to watch, closing one of general public's few windows into potential irregularities and contributing to the loss of many checks and balances that can help assess the political landscape and electoral results.

'Don't Look, We Have Something To Hide'

Russia's sole independent election monitor, Golos, was among those to harshly criticize the TsIK's decision to deny public access to video feeds from polling stations.

"The decision is nothing more than an attempt to hide from the public the events that will take place for three days and two nights at the polling stations," Golos co-Chairman Grigory Melkonyants said when the restrictions were announced in July. "They are clearly insuring themselves against the fact that video monitors will reveal falsifications that will fly around the Internet again. So now we are shown a new logic -- don't look, we have something to hide."

A man walks past a campaign billboard of the United Russia party in St. Petersburg.
A man walks past a campaign billboard of the United Russia party in St. Petersburg.

Another electoral staple, monitoring by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), will also be absent. The OSCE's request for 420 short-term observers, 80 long-term observers, and a team of analysts -- based on the recommendations of a needs-assessment mission in May -- was denied by the Russian authorities, who cited COVID-19 concerns. Failing to receive clarity on "why the limitations were needed to prevent the spread of the virus when other preventative measures could be taken," the OSCE opted against sending observers at all.

Golos, meanwhile, was declared a "foreign agent" in August for receiving funding from an Armenian citizen, effectively neutering its ability to effectively monitor the elections, although it has vowed to try. The "foreign agent" label, which requires entities and individuals who bear the mark to identify themselves as such in campaign and media publications among other things, has also increasingly been applied to opposition candidates and foreign media outlets, including RFE/RL.

To date, the Justice Ministry has placed 47 entities and individuals on its registry of "foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent" -- 37 of them in the past seven months.

And amid rising Kremlin rhetoric alleging without evidence that the West is attempting to influence the election campaign by way of election monitors, media, and support for the movement of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, Russia's media watchdog recently blocked six providers of virtual proxy networks (VPNs), which people can use to circumvent government restrictions on the Internet.

Critics have expressed alarm at what they see as an attempt by Russia to significantly limit the scope of electoral choices and media coverage that might be critical of United Russia and Putin.

"This is so-called full-scale authoritarianism, the kind of regime that Putin enshrined in the constitution a year ago," Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in written comments to RFE/RL regarding changes made to electoral procedures in the past year. "Repression and lack of shame over the outright suppression of society is not a tactical line but a strategic one."

Moscow Defends 'Transparent System'

The Kremlin has hit back at knocks on its electoral procedures, which have been heavily scrutinized due to constitutional changes that paved the way for Putin to potentially remain in office until 2036, the jailing of Putin's chief political rival, Navalny, in February, and clampdowns on his supporters and the banning of his political organization.

Much of the ire has been directed at the OSCE, which said that some members of its needs-assessment team saw the extended voting period "as a positive measure to prevent overcrowding at polling stations and decrease the risk of COVID-19 transmission," but also suggested it could negatively affect the "integrity and transparency of the [voting] process."

Among the concerns were that the extra time could be used to exert pressure on voters to turn out to vote, while others were "related to the secure storage of the election material at night. Most political parties that met with the OSCE mission "stated that it poses additional challenges in recruiting observers for the extended period."

Following the OSCE's decision to not send a monitoring team, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is running for the Duma on the United Russia ticket, accused the West of using "international organizations to make it difficult to hold elections in every possible way."

TsIK head Ella Pamfilova, for her part, has attempted to offer assurances that "foreign agents" would not be impaired in their efforts to monitor or journalistically cover the elections, asserting that they enjoy the same rights as any other Russian citizen.

And as regards the recent emergence of leaked audio in which a local administration official appeared to be advising polling station heads in a Moscow suburb how to prepare for election fraud, Pamfilova defended the process for rooting out corruption.

"We have created such a transparent system that everything secret immediately becomes apparent," she was quoted as claiming. "In the end, it is necessary to put things in order there so that there is no shadow of suspicion, so that no one has any thoughts to do such things that can be called a crime against voters."

That has done little to assuage concerns among the opposition and experts, however. Suspicions continue to run high that there is ample room for vote fraud, particularly with the addition of electronic and mail-in voting that critics warn could be manipulated by the authorities.

There is a lack of independent polling in Russia -- just weeks before the 2016 legislative elections won by United Russia, the prominent Levada polling center was named a "foreign agent," a move it described as "political censorship" that was "devastating" to its work during campaigns.

But even pollsters with close ties to the state show the ruling party at its nadir. Whereas United Russia took 54 percent of the vote in 2016, state-funded pollster VTsIOM forecast on September 10 that it would receive 42 percent this time.

And while approval of Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 helped United Russia offset voter apathy and economic woes in the 2016 Duma elections, this year the ruling party faces a tougher challenge.

Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said there was much in common with the 2016 vote, including "low confidence in the Duma, the campaigns are boring, few people are interested, the finale is foregone, the authorities do not want scandals and want to appear honest."

But while "the Crimean consensus worked in the last election...United Russia is having a harder time now," he said.

This time the party is burdened by economic woes, public backlash to the authorities' decision in 2019 to raise the retirement age, discontent over the crackdown on mass protests following Navalny's imprisonment, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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