The buildup to Russia's legislative elections has been filled with intrigue and accompanied by some downright absurd headlines.
Spoiler candidates bearing the same names as rivals, opposition candidates debarred for "extremism," leaked recordings apparently testifying to planned falsifications -- the campaign period ahead of the September 17-19 nationwide vote has had it all.
Now, another bombshell recording has shed light on the widespread practice of political parties fielding their own election monitors -- and in this case, encouraging them to ignore violations.
Previously, at a meeting of polling station heads in a Moscow suburb, a woman identified as a local administration official was heard explaining how the upcoming elections for the State Duma should be conducted.
The latest recording -- this time from Khakassia, a rural region in Siberia close to the border with Mongolia -- features an election official in the village of Koptyevo and purported member of United Russia appearing to instruct monitors from the ruling party to ignore violations of electoral law.
"Even if you happen to see some violation or you think it may be a violation, don't try to immediately file a complaint," a voice identified as Irina Karabutina's can be heard saying in the recording obtained by the regional news outlet Taiga.Info. "Any situation that you consider a violation will most likely have to be arbitrated in court. And that's not very pleasant for anyone. We all live in villages -- why ratchet up tensions?"
The recording has caused an uproar among government critics, who fear that the instruction of election monitors by political parties essentially invalidates their purpose as objective observers. But there are indications that the practice is spreading amid a dearth of independent monitors.
According to an investigation by the independent news outlet Znak, Russia's Communist Party, the second-largest force in parliament, is fielding 300,000 election monitors and officials. United Russia told the outlet it has trained 100,000 throughout the country.
The team of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, which is now mainly composed of activists living in exile, says that 70,000 people have registered on one of its websites to become election monitors, though Navalny aide Leonid Volkov told Znak that the team didn't have the infrastructure to train them.
Impartial observers have traditionally been trained by the NGO Golos, Russia's only independent election monitor. But last month the organization was branded a "foreign agent" by the government, a label that increases the bureaucratic burden of functioning in Russia.
In a statement the day after its designation on August 18, Golos said that "the attack on the largest community of independent election monitors just a month before an election is an attempt to prevent Russian citizens from using the right to [election] monitoring."
On August 4, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced it would not send observers after Russia approved only a fraction of the body's requested monitoring team.
In a statement, the OSCE said that Russian authorities had cited the coronavirus pandemic as a reason for limiting the number of observers permitted into the country, but it noted that no entry restrictions were in place that could prevent the deployment of a full observation mission.
"I am very disappointed that limitations imposed by the national authorities prevent the OSCE from providing the Russian voters with a transparent and authoritative assessment of their elections," said the president of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, Margareta Cederfelt.
It will be the first time since 1993 that OSCE -- widely considered the most respected international authority on elections -- will not monitor an election in Russia, where new laws restricting public access to polling-station cameras and extending the number of voting days have fueled speculation that the vote will be neither free nor fair.