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'Not Without Our Pitchforks': Is Russia Pulling Out Stops To Tamp Down Protest Vote?

Protesters step on a sticker with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally against the government's proposed reform hiking the pension age in Moscow in July.

Russia holds local elections this weekend amid unusual public discontent -- even hostility -- aggravated by a stumbling economy and sparked by a massively unpopular government plan to raise retirement ages.

"I am a mother with many children," says Nadezhda Devyashina, a resident of the village of Solnechny, about 25 kilometers west of the Khakasia capital, Abakan, "and I'm not getting any subsidies. Not for heat, not for communal services."

She says she's clear-eyed about the usefulness of the September 9 vote.

"Will we go to vote? Only if we can take our pitchforks or something like that! No other way!" Devyashina tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "We don't even have any hospitals. Who are we going to vote for? Even our children understand that something has to change."

The sour mood of voters threatens to boost various forms of protest voting, possibly tempting local officials to redouble efforts to get out the vote and secure the results the Kremlin demands.

"In this situation, the authorities are interested in suppressing turnout a bit and making sure only 'their' electorate shows up and votes the way they are supposed to," says Stanislav Andreichuk, an elections analyst with the independent Golos election-monitoring group. "They will do what they can to get protest voters to stay home."

Golos has recorded the refusal of local election boards to register Communist Party candidates in Altai Krai and Omsk Oblast, Andreichuk says.

Genuine opposition movements, such as Aleksei Navalny's unregistered Progress Party, are barred from putting up candidates through capriciously applied administrative barriers.

At the same time, he says candidates from "official" or "systemic" opposition parties such as the Communists, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and the left-center A Just Russia party "are not using the pension-reform issue as actively as they might."

"Often we see even in those rare television debates where regional officials participate, they are not even asked about the issue," Andreichuk tells RFE/RL. "This is an indicator of a 'simulated' election campaign. It is understood that those candidates who were allowed into the race -- at least at the level of governor -- were allowed only if an agreement was reached about how they would behave. Only ritualistic criticism of the authorities is allowed. Candidates from the Communists or the LDPR have to criticize, but their criticism is much more cautious than you would expect in this situation."

People hold up a poster reading "Pension reform" during a Communist Party rally against the retirement-age hikes in St. Petersburg on September 2.
People hold up a poster reading "Pension reform" during a Communist Party rally against the retirement-age hikes in St. Petersburg on September 2.

'Administrative Resources'

The lack of competition and real campaigning is perceived by some as a strategy to reduce turnout.

At the same time, officials around the country are "using tried-and-true methods through employers and their own networks to mobilize people -- and we are talking primarily about state-sector workers and regional pro-Kremlin activists -- who are dependent on the current system," Andreichuk says.

In the Siberian city of Barnaul, local tourism companies received a letter from the head of the Zheleznodorozhny district election commission ordering them to submit personal data on all "residents of Barnaul who will be on vacation outside the city on election day."

The Central Election Commission in Moscow has promised to investigate the letter, which commission Deputy Chairman Nikolai Bulayev has denounced as "illegal."

Andreichuk agrees, saying the ploy seems aimed at generating information that can be used to falsify the election. "When election commissions know precisely which voters will not show up at the polls, it creates the opportunity to use that data to falsify the results," he says. "That is, they can cast those votes for whomever they like. Unfortunately, in recent years such episodes have been documented in Altai Krai."

Altai Krai is regularly listed by Golos as one of the most egregious regions of Russia in terms of election-law violations and the illegal use of "administrative resources" by the executive branch.

Unpopular Reform

Earlier this summer, the ruling United Russia party and the government of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sponsored a bill in the Duma that would raise the retirement age for men to 65 by 2028 and for women to 63 by 2034.

Later, after public outcry, President Vladimir Putin proposed raising the age for women to just 60 (currently, the retirement age is 60 for men and 55 for women; workers in law enforcement, the military, and the secret services are eligible to retire at age 40, which would not be affected by the proposed reform).

The reform proposal set off a wave of protests across the country. Opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has called for another round of rallies to coincide with the voting on September 9.

According to polls, up to 90 percent of Russians oppose the reform. According to the most recent Levada Center poll, 53 percent of people say they are prepared to participate in demonstrations against the proposal, a rate of discontent that has not been seen since the 1998 ruble default and economic crash.

"Dissatisfaction has definitely been growing," Levada Director Lev Gudkov says. "This isn't a one-time thing but a steady pattern since after the March elections [to the State Duma]."

Moreover, Gudkov adds, Russians are not considering pension reform in isolation, but as part of a complex of government policies that they perceive as harming their interests, including military operations in the Middle East and alleged support for separatist militants in neighboring Ukraine.

"When the government is raising retirement ages while at the same time conducting various foreign-policy adventures like the war in Syria or the undeclared war in [Ukraine's] Donbas region and is raising expenditures for the military and for the bureaucracy, people start thinking...the government is trying to solve the budget-deficit problem at their expense," he said.

Nikolai Lyaskin, head of Navalny's Anticorruption Foundation, says the pension-reform proposal has "finally opened people's eyes."

"People have begun to look around and to think that the rising prices they see are not the whim of some aliens from outer space but rather the consequence of the inept policies of United Russia, of Putin and Medvedev," he tells RFE/RL.

Emilia Slabunova, chairwoman of the liberal Yabloko party, expresses hope citizens will "actively present their opinion using all possible means," from protests to appeals to their Duma representatives to the ballot box.

"We need to use our votes during the September 9 elections to protest against those political forces, first of all United Russia, that are pushing such an ill-considered proposal," Slabunova says.

Voters in 22 Russian regions (including the city of Moscow) will be asked to choose executive-branch heads. Sixteen regions will select legislatures. In addition, some single-mandate seats in the State Duma will be up for grabs, and mayors will be selected in several administrative centers in Siberia.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Lyubov Chizhova of RFE/RL's Russian Service. Mikhail Sokolov, Ksenia Smolyakova, and Svetlana Pavlova of RFE/RL's Russian Service and Igor Chigarskikh of the Siberia Desk