Election postmortem

Mar 22 2018

In the wake of the presidential elections in Russia, experts in Washington came together this week at the Atlantic Council and the Kennan Institute to discuss what the future may hold. While observers largely expect further stagnation, confrontation with the West and increasing authoritarianism, some believe Russia’s civil society may take people by surprise.

Views on the “elections”

All of the presidential candidates running in Russia’s elections understood exactly what kind of game they were playing – “Putin fighting with no one but himself,” said Lilia Shevtsova of Chatham House, speaking at the Atlantic Council on Monday.

With eight names on the ballot, said Vladimir Kara-Murza of Open Russia, “in reality, there was still the one.” “It is not difficult to win an election when your opponents are not actually on the ballot,” he said, referring to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, who was banned from participating in the election.

While the true opposition candidates were kept away from the election, the alternatives offered to voters on the ballot could not be taken seriously, said Ekaterina Schulmann of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, speaking at the Kennan Institute on Tuesday.

Experts have widely said that voting fraud, such as ballot-stuffing and multiple voting, were commonplace in Russia’s elections, even if there were fewer reported irregularities than in previous years. However, as political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted, the tactics have changed, with less of a focus on the ballot box and more on the manipulation of people, which is very similar to Soviet methods.

There has been a “mobilization” of regional leaders and employers, said Schulmann, referring to pressure put on employees at both state and private companies as well as students to vote. This “dependent electorate” helped boost turnout, which was more of a concern for the Kremlin than the outcome of the election, added Schulmann.

Alexander Vershbow of the Atlantic Council said that although there is some genuine support of Putin, it remains “shallow” and this election wasn’t a “very impressive performance” in light of the absence of the competition, ridicule of other candidates and coercion to boost turnout.

A new level of dictatorship

Experts speaking at the Atlantic Council and the Kennan Institute this week agreed there haven’t been democratic elections in Russia since 2004, when Putin was re-elected for his second presidential term. The Kremlin has increasingly gained control over the country’s regional powers since then, said Oreshkin, with the regions beginning to compete for Putin’s favoritism. Oreshkin characterized the regions where local elites are highly supportive of Putin as “electoral sultanates,” with 19 such regions in this election, although in the USSR power was even more absolute. “What we have now,” said Oreshkin, “is USSR in miniature”. Looking ahead, the regime will continue using Soviet methods, including a confrontation with the West, he said.

Sergey Parkhomenko of the Kennan Institute described a process of “vote harvesting”. After delivering strong results for Putin, the authorities start to believe in their cause, reinforcing their enthusiasm, said Parkhomenko. “This enthusiasm,” he said, “will become an important factor for Russia after the elections […] The tightening grip that we expect from the Russian regime is to some extent rooted in this strange psychological feeling.”

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said Putin’s official election result of almost 77% is something new for Russia and reflects the degree to which authoritarianism has developed. Rogov said the Kremlin has reached “mature authoritarianism,” where institutions have become so entrenched that the role of a particular leader is secondary. Rogov said that one should look beyond the idea of Putin’s widespread popularity. “It is not about the popularity of one person – it is an institutional issue,” said Rogov.

From left to right: Matthew Rojanksy, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Ekaterina Schulmann, Senior Lecturer (associate professor) at the School of Public Policy of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA); Kirill Rogov, Political Analyst, Liberal Mission Foundation; Dmitry Oreshkin, political analyst and political geographer; Sergey Parkhomenko, George F. Kennan Expert.

The current political system depends much less on one person than it appears, said Schulmann. “The personalization of the regime, as it seems to me, is highly overestimated,” she said, adding that during the Medvedev’s time as president, there were no major changes to the “political machine”.

Kara-Murza said dictators are known for producing strong elections results, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu garnering 89 percent and 98 percent of the votes in elections. However, these numbers neither reflect the reality nor really help the dictators themselves, Kara-Murza said. The Kremlin appears to be terrified of mass protests on the one hand, and on the other hand they ironically leave their citizens no other choice but to take to the streets, he said.

What next?

The Kremlin has found a role for Putin as a “defender of the fatherland,” said Shevtsova, but it has created a conflict between Putin’s agenda and the system. This system is largely dependent on Western finance, resources and technology, and the system also consists of the cronies in the West and “Londongrad”. “Putin has started to undermine the key principles of the current Russian state and the system’s survival,” said Shevtsova. “I would say that President Putin will be presiding over his last chapter”.

Putin also cannot change this system, said Anders Åslund of the Atlantic Council, because the system, with $1 trillion of private money hidden offshore, supports him and those “lower down in the bread line” will stop supporting him if he tries to change it.

Rogov said that the assets owned by political and business elites close to Putin are not secured by anything but Putin’s power. However, Putin himself and his elite are also facing a generational shift, which further complicates the transition dilemma for Putin. Rogov ruled out the idea of a successor for Putin since “even a hand-picked successor such as Medvedev proved to be a difficult model because it provoked polarization among elites and society.”

It is also questionable whether the public’s acceptance of Putin’s role as “defender of the homeland” will prove sustainable, as the polls show a majority of people would like to see Russia as an economic power first and as a military power second, said Shevtsova. She said there are signs that society is fatigued with the regime and that a “regime without an idea, vision and mission cannot exist for a long time.”

Vershbow said that Putin’s policies will continue to exploit nationalism, at least in the short-term, which is still perceived as a “winning strategy,” based on the perception that Russia is a “besieged fortress” under attack by Western enemies. But, he said, people are becoming more “cautious” about the costs of this policy approach. “The Russian people may buy this in the short term, but I am not sure they are comfortable with this going forward,” said Vershbow. Although economic stagnation could also create public discontent, he doesn’t believe society will “boil to a degree of making changes.”

Kara-Murza and Shevtsova said Russia’s civil society should not be underestimated in their ability to respond to the current regime, although Shevtsova said that “people are demoralized in general after so many years of this zombie propaganda.” She expects political change could happen when the older generation of politicians retires and the Kremlin tries to “fill the vacuum”. A lot depends on the ability of civil society and the new Russian opposition to create resistance, she said.

Kara-Murza noted there are a lot of people, including the young generation, who reject the current regime. “Even if we forget about abuses and corruption, there are those who are tired of the same face on TV […] Don’t underestimate civil society,” he said, pointing to the protests of 2011. Russian history shows that changes may happen rapidly, said Kara-Murza.

By Valeria Jegisman

Views on the “elections”

All of the presidential candidates running in Russia’s elections understood exactly what kind of game they were playing – “Putin fighting with no one but himself,” said Lilia Shevtsova of Chatham House, speaking at the Atlantic Council on Monday.

With eight names on the ballot, said Vladimir Kara-Murza of Open Russia, “in reality, there was still the one.” “It is not difficult to win an election when your opponents are not actually on the ballot,” he said, referring to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny, who was banned from participating in the election.

While the true opposition candidates were kept away from the election, the alternatives offered to voters on the ballot could not be taken seriously, said Ekaterina Schulmann of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, speaking at the Kennan Institute on Tuesday.

Experts have widely said that voting fraud, such as ballot-stuffing and multiple voting, were commonplace in Russia’s elections, even if there were fewer reported irregularities than in previous years. However, as political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted, the tactics have changed, with less of a focus on the ballot box and more on the manipulation of people, which is very similar to Soviet methods.

There has been a “mobilization” of regional leaders and employers, said Schulmann, referring to pressure put on employees at both state and private companies as well as students to vote. This “dependent electorate” helped boost turnout, which was more of a concern for the Kremlin than the outcome of the election, added Schulmann.

Alexander Vershbow of the Atlantic Council said that although there is some genuine support of Putin, it remains “shallow” and this election wasn’t a “very impressive performance” in light of the absence of the competition, ridicule of other candidates and coercion to boost turnout.

A new level of dictatorship

Experts speaking at the Atlantic Council and the Kennan Institute this week agreed there haven’t been democratic elections in Russia since 2004, when Putin was re-elected for his second presidential term. The Kremlin has increasingly gained control over the country’s regional powers since then, said Oreshkin, with the regions beginning to compete for Putin’s favoritism. Oreshkin characterized the regions where local elites are highly supportive of Putin as “electoral sultanates,” with 19 such regions in this election, although in the USSR power was even more absolute. “What we have now,” said Oreshkin, “is USSR in miniature”. Looking ahead, the regime will continue using Soviet methods, including a confrontation with the West, he said.

Sergey Parkhomenko of the Kennan Institute described a process of “vote harvesting”. After delivering strong results for Putin, the authorities start to believe in their cause, reinforcing their enthusiasm, said Parkhomenko. “This enthusiasm,” he said, “will become an important factor for Russia after the elections […] The tightening grip that we expect from the Russian regime is to some extent rooted in this strange psychological feeling.”

Political analyst Kirill Rogov said Putin’s official election result of almost 77% is something new for Russia and reflects the degree to which authoritarianism has developed. Rogov said the Kremlin has reached “mature authoritarianism,” where institutions have become so entrenched that the role of a particular leader is secondary. Rogov said that one should look beyond the idea of Putin’s widespread popularity. “It is not about the popularity of one person – it is an institutional issue,” said Rogov.

From left to right: Matthew Rojanksy, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Ekaterina Schulmann, Senior Lecturer (associate professor) at the School of Public Policy of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA); Kirill Rogov, Political Analyst, Liberal Mission Foundation; Dmitry Oreshkin, political analyst and political geographer; Sergey Parkhomenko, George F. Kennan Expert.

The current political system depends much less on one person than it appears, said Schulmann. “The personalization of the regime, as it seems to me, is highly overestimated,” she said, adding that during the Medvedev’s time as president, there were no major changes to the “political machine”.

Kara-Murza said dictators are known for producing strong elections results, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu garnering 89 percent and 98 percent of the votes in elections. However, these numbers neither reflect the reality nor really help the dictators themselves, Kara-Murza said. The Kremlin appears to be terrified of mass protests on the one hand, and on the other hand they ironically leave their citizens no other choice but to take to the streets, he said.

What next?

The Kremlin has found a role for Putin as a “defender of the fatherland,” said Shevtsova, but it has created a conflict between Putin’s agenda and the system. This system is largely dependent on Western finance, resources and technology, and the system also consists of the cronies in the West and “Londongrad”. “Putin has started to undermine the key principles of the current Russian state and the system’s survival,” said Shevtsova. “I would say that President Putin will be presiding over his last chapter”.

Putin also cannot change this system, said Anders Åslund of the Atlantic Council, because the system, with $1 trillion of private money hidden offshore, supports him and those “lower down in the bread line” will stop supporting him if he tries to change it.

Rogov said that the assets owned by political and business elites close to Putin are not secured by anything but Putin’s power. However, Putin himself and his elite are also facing a generational shift, which further complicates the transition dilemma for Putin. Rogov ruled out the idea of a successor for Putin since “even a hand-picked successor such as Medvedev proved to be a difficult model because it provoked polarization among elites and society.”

It is also questionable whether the public’s acceptance of Putin’s role as “defender of the homeland” will prove sustainable, as the polls show a majority of people would like to see Russia as an economic power first and as a military power second, said Shevtsova. She said there are signs that society is fatigued with the regime and that a “regime without an idea, vision and mission cannot exist for a long time.”

Vershbow said that Putin’s policies will continue to exploit nationalism, at least in the short-term, which is still perceived as a “winning strategy,” based on the perception that Russia is a “besieged fortress” under attack by Western enemies. But, he said, people are becoming more “cautious” about the costs of this policy approach. “The Russian people may buy this in the short term, but I am not sure they are comfortable with this going forward,” said Vershbow. Although economic stagnation could also create public discontent, he doesn’t believe society will “boil to a degree of making changes.”

Kara-Murza and Shevtsova said Russia’s civil society should not be underestimated in their ability to respond to the current regime, although Shevtsova said that “people are demoralized in general after so many years of this zombie propaganda.” She expects political change could happen when the older generation of politicians retires and the Kremlin tries to “fill the vacuum”. A lot depends on the ability of civil society and the new Russian opposition to create resistance, she said.

Kara-Murza noted there are a lot of people, including the young generation, who reject the current regime. “Even if we forget about abuses and corruption, there are those who are tired of the same face on TV […] Don’t underestimate civil society,” he said, pointing to the protests of 2011. Russian history shows that changes may happen rapidly, said Kara-Murza.

By Valeria Jegisman

Free Russia Foundation demands Navalny’s immediate release

Jan 17 2021

On January 17, 2021, Putin’s agents arrested Alexey Navalny as he returned to Russia from Germany where he was treated for a near-deadly poisoning perpetrated by state-directed assassins.

Navalny’s illegal arrest constitutes kidnapping. He is kept incommunicado from his lawyer and family at an unknown location and his life is in danger.

Free Russia Foundation demands his immediate release and an international investigation of crimes committed against him by Putin’s government.

The European Court of Human Rights Recognizes Complaints on Violations in “Ukraine v. Russia” as Admissible

Jan 14 2021

On January 14, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights published its decision on the case “Ukraine v. Russia”. The Grand Chamber of the Court has recognized complaints No. 20958/14 and No. 38334/18 as partially admissible for consideration on the merits. The decision will be followed by a judgment at a later date.

The case concerns the consideration of a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights related to Russia’s systematic administrative practices in Crimea. 

The admissibility of the case is based on the fact that, since 2014, the Russian Federation has exercised effective control over the territory of Crimea, and, accordingly, is fully responsible for compliance with the norms of the European Convention on Human Rights in Crimea. The Court now needs to determine the specific circumstances of the case and establish the facts regarding violations of Articles of the Convention during two periods: from February 27, 2014 to March 18, 2014 (the period of the Russian invasion); and from March 18, 2014 onward (the period during which the Russian Federation has exercised effective control over Crimea).

The Court has established that prima facie it has sufficient evidence of systematic administrative practice concerning the following circumstances:

  • forced rendition and the lack of an effective investigation into such a practice under Article 2; 
  • cruel treatment and unlawful detention under Articles 3 and 5; 
  • extending application of Russian law into Crimea with the result that, as of  February 27, 2014, the courts in Crimea could not be considered to have been “established by law” as defined by Article 6; 
  • automatic imposition of Russian citizenship and unreasonable searches of private dwellings under Article 8; 
  • harassment and intimidation of religious leaders not conforming to the Russian Orthodox faith, arbitrary raids of places of worship and confiscation of religious property under Article 9;
  • suppression of non-Russian media under Article 10; 
  • prohibition of public gatherings and manifestations of support, as well as intimidation and arbitrary detention of organizers of demonstrations under Article 11; 
  • expropriation without compensation of property from civilians and private enterprises under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1;
  • suppression of the Ukrainian language in schools and harassment of Ukrainian-speaking children under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1; 6 
  • restricting freedom of movement between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, resulting from the de facto transformation (by Russia) of the administrative delimitation into a border (between Russia and Ukraine) under Article 2 of Protocol No. 4; and, 
  • discriminating against Crimean Tatars under Article 14, taken in conjunction with Articles 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the Convention and with Article 2 of Protocol No. 4 to the Convention.

Cases between states are the rarest category considered by the ECHR. Almost all cases considered in Strasbourg concern individuals or organizations and involve illegal actions or inaction of the states’ parties to the Convention. However, Art. 33 of this Convention provides that “any High Contracting Party may refer to the Court the question of any alleged violation of the provisions of the Convention and its Protocols by another High Contracting Party.” In the entire history of the ECHR since 1953, there have been only 27 such cases. Two of them are joint cases against Russia, both of which concern the Russian Federation’s aggression on the territory of its neighboring states, Georgia and Ukraine.

New Year’s Blessings to All

Dec 30 2020

While 2020 gave us unprecedented challenges, it created transformative changes in the way we work and communicate. The hours of Zoom calls seemingly brought us all closer together as we got a glimpse into each other’s makeshift home offices along with interruption by kids and the family pets. Remote work also made us appreciate human interactions, in-person events and trips much more!

As 2020 comes to an end, we want to especially thank our supporters who continued to believe in our mission and the value of our hard work, and we hope the coming year brings all of us progress and growth for democracy throughout the world. We’d also like to thank our partners and staff in the U.S. and abroad, and we know how hard everyone has worked under difficult world changes to achieve so many of our objectives this year.

We send our best wishes to all who have stayed in the fight for democratic reforms and for the values of basic human rights. We look forward to a new year with the hope of many positive changes to come.

– Natalia Arno and the Free Russia Foundation team.

International Criminal Court Asks for Full Probe Into Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Dec 14 2020

On December 11, 2020, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Fatou Bensouda, issued a statement on the preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine by the ICC Office of the Prosecutor.

According to the findings of the examination, the situation in Ukraine meets the statutory criteria to launch an investigation. The preliminary examination of the situation in Ukraine was opened on 24 April 2014.

Specifically, and without prejudice to any other crimes which may be identified during the course of an investigation, Office of the Prosecutor has concluded that there is a reasonable basis at this time to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity within the jurisdiction of the Court have been committed in the context of the situation in Ukraine.

These findings will be spelled out in more detail in the annual Report on Preliminary Examination Activities issued by the Office and include three broad clusters of victimization:

1.     crimes committed in the context of the conduct of hostilities;

2.     crimes committed during detentions;

3.     crimes committed in Crimea.

These crimes, committed by the different parties to the conflict, were sufficiently grave to warrant investigation by Office of the Prosecutor, both in quantitative and qualitative terms.

Having examined the information available, the Prosecutor concluded that the competent authorities in Ukraine and/or in the Russian Federation are either inactive in relation to the alleged perpetrators, or do not have access to them.

The next step will be to request authorization from the Judges of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the Court to open investigations.

The Prosecutor urges the international community, including the governments of Ukraine and Russia, to cooperate. This will determine how justice will be served both on domestic and the international level.

We remind you that on September 21, 2020, Free Russia Foundation sent a special Communication to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (the Hague, the Netherlands) asking to bring Crimean and Russian authorities to justice for international crimes committed during the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Comment by Scott Martin (Global Rights Compliance LLP):

As Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda reaches the end of her tenure as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, she announced yesterday that a reasonable basis existed to believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed in relation to the situation in Ukraine. One of the most consequential preliminary examinations in the court’s short history, the Prosecutor will now request authorization from the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber to open a full investigation into the situation.

Anticipating that the Prosecutor’s request will be granted, the ICC Prosecutor’s office will be investigating the second group of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Russian Federation (the situation in Georgia being the other). This would make Russia the only country in the world facing two separate investigations at the ICC for crimes under its jurisdiction.

Call for Submissions – The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly vol. 3

Oct 26 2020

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlins Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.

We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.

Your contribution to The Kremlins Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.

Each chapter in The Kremlins Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: info@4freerussia.org. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.