Russia’s regional elections: who is to blame and what to do

Sep 17 2015

Democratic Coalition campaign manager Leonid Volkov summarized the results of the election campaign into the Kostroma Oblast Duma in the following way: “We received 4% in Kostroma, 1.5%-2% in county centers, and almost nothing in the countryside”. In total across the oblast, the party Parnas, on behalf of which the candidates from the opposition forces were running, received 2.28%.

These elections were not a common occurrence: a substantial part of what can be called the Europe-oriented democratic opposition were hedging their bets on Kostroma.

In May of this year, in anticipation of the 2015 regional elections and the 2016 State Duma elections, several opposition movements merged to create the Democratic Coalition in order to nominate a list of candidates from the unified opposition. This alliance was formed on the basis of the existing RPR-Parnas party, which has the right to participate in Russia’s Parliamentary elections in 2016 without collecting signatures.

Initially, the activists wanted to run for regional parliaments in three oblasts: Novosibirsk Oblast, Kaluga Oblast, and Kostroma Oblast. In Novosibirsk the team of candidates was denied the right to participate in the elections, in Kaluga the coalition members chose not to participate, and so it was the Kostroma campaign that overwhelmingly attracted the attention of the liberal opposition. The full force of the coalition was devoted to the region: the list of candidates was headed by the deputy chairman of Parnas party Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Russian opposition Alexey Navalny visited Kostroma several times to campaign for the coalition, and his colleague Leonid Volkov took campaign management upon himself. Volunteers and paid campaigners were invited to Kostroma from all over the country. One can judge the scale of the campaign from the following fact – the party was able to cover all precinct elections commissions: 545 observers from the Democratic Coalition were working in the region’s 400 precincts.

So why was the result 2% and not 10% as was initially planned by the opposition? Why did the Kostroma elections end up being a public whipping of the democrats and Kremlin’s revenge for 2013, when the leader of the democratic opposition Boris Nemtsov was elected deputy of Yaroslavl Oblast Duma, and Alexey Navalny, although he lost the election, was able to gather 27% of the votes in the Moscow mayoral election?

Maybe it was a difficult region? Yes, but Yaroslavl Oblast, where Boris Nemtsov won, was not much easier. Kostroma Oblast and Yaroslavl Oblast are very similar. Both of them are in Central Russia, both are 96% populated by ethnic Russians, both receive subsidies from the federal budget, and the level of urbanization in these regions is also similar: in Kostroma Oblast 71.3% of the population live in cities and towns, while in Yaroslavl this measure is 81.7%.

Did the government interfere with campaigning, disrupt events, send “nashists” (former members of Nashi, a pro-Putin youth organization that uses particularly repulsive methods). Yes, but the same happened in Yaroslavl. Didn’t have enough time for campaigning? Boris Nemtsov’s campaign lasted a month, while Democratic Coalition had 25 days. It is doubtful that 5 extra days could have radically changed the outcome of the voting.

Or maybe there wasn’t enough money for organizing a quality campaign, as claimed by a deputy to the State Duma Dmitry Gudkov? Let’s calculate. The election fund of Parnas in Kostroma was $84,811 (using the exchange rate of September 8, 2015), the number of voters in Kostroma Oblast is 545,447 people, so 16 cents was spent per voter. The number of voters in Yaroslavl Oblast in 2013 was 1,045,217 persons, the election fund of the RPR-Parnas party was $119,796 (using the exchange rate of September 6, 2013), so 12 cents was devoted to every voter. So while Boris Nemtsov spent a third less money per voter, his result was two and a half times better.

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One of the main reasons behind the bad result was that the Kostroma people did not accept outsiders: the first person on the candidate list was from Moscow, the campaign manager was an outsider, and a substantial portion of the campaigners was not from Kostroma Oblast. “But what about Yaroslavl Oblast”, – you might say, – “Boris Nemtsov was not from there either”. That is not entirely so. Boris Nemtsov was viewed by the inhabitants of the region as someone who used to be the governor of a neighboring region, the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, the First Deputy Prime Minister of the federal government, and was a former leader in the State Duma, a federal politician with extensive experience. With all due respect, nothing like this can be said about Ilya Yashin, whom the Kostroma people viewed as an intelligent young man, about whom they had heard nothing even yesterday. Additionally, Boris Nemtsov announced from the first days of the campaign that he is staying in the oblast seriously and for a long term, and that he is going to buy an apartment in Yaroslavl.

There is another reason. Evidently Alexey Navalny’s thesis “we are against crooks and thieves” doesn’t work. People have become cynical: “so what if they are thieves, who are you, saints? You will also steal if you get the power”.

Another reason for Parnas’ misfortune is the radical change in the public sentiment in the last two years. In 2013, there was none of this aggressive pro-Putin hysteria, neither on TV or among the people. “Crimea is ours” syndrome has taken over the country. Those who advocate for participating in Putin’s pseudoelections often say that elections provide a platform that gives opposition activists an opportunity to deliver their position to the masses. But in reality, it is very dangerous for an opposition activist participating in regional elections to talk about the annexation of Crimea, Russian soldiers in Donbass, or about who shot down Boeing MH17. It’s dangerous because this honest position can repel over a half of potential voters, zombified by the TV propaganda. For example, here is a recording of how the second person on the party’s Kostroma Oblast election list, Vladimir Andreychenko, initially tries dodging a question about Crimea, and then talks about an occupation of a region of a neighboring country in the following way: “legally speaking, these measures were not executed in a completely clean way”.

A democrat who runs for a regional election is faced with only two options. Either you talk exclusively about overpriced rent and utilities, broken down roads and low salaries, and then you have a chance at winning. Or you tell the full truth about the war with Ukraine, and that the sanctions against Russia were completely fair and justified, as a response to Russia’s violations of its international obligations. In that case, your chances of getting elected into a regional Duma approach zero. In Kostroma Oblast, precisely the first strategy was picked, and so Ilya Yashin did not talk about the white paper report “Putin. War”, and Vladimir Andreychenko stayed silent about Crimea. But then, where is that platform for the opposition, if it is forced to avoid all acute and relevant political questions?

In stark contrast, in August 2013 Boris Nemtsov could afford the luxury of talking to Yaroslavl voters about the topical oppositional concerns, such as corruption and stealing during the construction of sports objects for the Sochi Winter Olympics and the personal enrichment of Vladimir Putin.

So what is there to do for the opposition activists who want to have a platform but refuses to participate in Putin’s imitation of elections? The answer is simple: to campaign Russians aside from Kremlin’s agenda and their fabricated elections.

To back my words with actions, I will reveal what I plan on doing. In the near future, I plan on resurrecting the YouTube project “Lies of Putin’s Regime”, which was created at the end of 2009 by Boris Nemtsov and I. The project will have two main directions.

The first will be devoted to the annexation of Crimea, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the economic crisis as a result of Putin’s military endeavor. Boris Nemtsov voiced the idea as early as in January 2015 that it is necessary to promote the thesis: “Putin is war and crisis”. Within the last 8 months, his idea has become even more relevant and timely, and I am sure it will become even more acute as the consequences of the sanctions exacerbate. There is a lot of work to be done with the population: according to public opinion surveys conducted by Levada Center, only a quarter of the population agrees with the statement that there is a war going on between Russia and Ukraine, while 60-70% categorically deny that assertion. But Putin is the cause of the economic crisis and the widespread poverty of the Russian population. Putin started the war with Ukraine, turned Russia into an increasingly isolated country, and brought about sanctions. About half of the videos will be about that.

The second direction will be about the advantages and the value of a democratic system. About the fact that fair elections, free mass media, separation of power and rule of law make individuals wealthier and make the society more just. The problem in Russia is unfortunately not only with Putin, his gang, and corruption. Russians have a very poor political education. For example, according to a recent poll, the number of Russians who associate democracy with procedures that guarantee the accountability of the government to its people does not exceed 20% of the total population. The Russian society is ill: with a lack of confidence in its own strength, with cynicism, apathy, and simultaneously with aggression towards neighboring countries and people. If my videos contribute even a little bit to the healing of this nation, I will know that my project was not started for nothing.

by Leonid Martynyuk

These elections were not a common occurrence: a substantial part of what can be called the Europe-oriented democratic opposition were hedging their bets on Kostroma.

In May of this year, in anticipation of the 2015 regional elections and the 2016 State Duma elections, several opposition movements merged to create the Democratic Coalition in order to nominate a list of candidates from the unified opposition. This alliance was formed on the basis of the existing RPR-Parnas party, which has the right to participate in Russia’s Parliamentary elections in 2016 without collecting signatures.

Initially, the activists wanted to run for regional parliaments in three oblasts: Novosibirsk Oblast, Kaluga Oblast, and Kostroma Oblast. In Novosibirsk the team of candidates was denied the right to participate in the elections, in Kaluga the coalition members chose not to participate, and so it was the Kostroma campaign that overwhelmingly attracted the attention of the liberal opposition. The full force of the coalition was devoted to the region: the list of candidates was headed by the deputy chairman of Parnas party Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Russian opposition Alexey Navalny visited Kostroma several times to campaign for the coalition, and his colleague Leonid Volkov took campaign management upon himself. Volunteers and paid campaigners were invited to Kostroma from all over the country. One can judge the scale of the campaign from the following fact – the party was able to cover all precinct elections commissions: 545 observers from the Democratic Coalition were working in the region’s 400 precincts.

So why was the result 2% and not 10% as was initially planned by the opposition? Why did the Kostroma elections end up being a public whipping of the democrats and Kremlin’s revenge for 2013, when the leader of the democratic opposition Boris Nemtsov was elected deputy of Yaroslavl Oblast Duma, and Alexey Navalny, although he lost the election, was able to gather 27% of the votes in the Moscow mayoral election?

Maybe it was a difficult region? Yes, but Yaroslavl Oblast, where Boris Nemtsov won, was not much easier. Kostroma Oblast and Yaroslavl Oblast are very similar. Both of them are in Central Russia, both are 96% populated by ethnic Russians, both receive subsidies from the federal budget, and the level of urbanization in these regions is also similar: in Kostroma Oblast 71.3% of the population live in cities and towns, while in Yaroslavl this measure is 81.7%.

Did the government interfere with campaigning, disrupt events, send “nashists” (former members of Nashi, a pro-Putin youth organization that uses particularly repulsive methods). Yes, but the same happened in Yaroslavl. Didn’t have enough time for campaigning? Boris Nemtsov’s campaign lasted a month, while Democratic Coalition had 25 days. It is doubtful that 5 extra days could have radically changed the outcome of the voting.

Or maybe there wasn’t enough money for organizing a quality campaign, as claimed by a deputy to the State Duma Dmitry Gudkov? Let’s calculate. The election fund of Parnas in Kostroma was $84,811 (using the exchange rate of September 8, 2015), the number of voters in Kostroma Oblast is 545,447 people, so 16 cents was spent per voter. The number of voters in Yaroslavl Oblast in 2013 was 1,045,217 persons, the election fund of the RPR-Parnas party was $119,796 (using the exchange rate of September 6, 2013), so 12 cents was devoted to every voter. So while Boris Nemtsov spent a third less money per voter, his result was two and a half times better.

eeb4a8700f754178bde2afc3e34118c8-2

One of the main reasons behind the bad result was that the Kostroma people did not accept outsiders: the first person on the candidate list was from Moscow, the campaign manager was an outsider, and a substantial portion of the campaigners was not from Kostroma Oblast. “But what about Yaroslavl Oblast”, – you might say, – “Boris Nemtsov was not from there either”. That is not entirely so. Boris Nemtsov was viewed by the inhabitants of the region as someone who used to be the governor of a neighboring region, the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, the First Deputy Prime Minister of the federal government, and was a former leader in the State Duma, a federal politician with extensive experience. With all due respect, nothing like this can be said about Ilya Yashin, whom the Kostroma people viewed as an intelligent young man, about whom they had heard nothing even yesterday. Additionally, Boris Nemtsov announced from the first days of the campaign that he is staying in the oblast seriously and for a long term, and that he is going to buy an apartment in Yaroslavl.

There is another reason. Evidently Alexey Navalny’s thesis “we are against crooks and thieves” doesn’t work. People have become cynical: “so what if they are thieves, who are you, saints? You will also steal if you get the power”.

Another reason for Parnas’ misfortune is the radical change in the public sentiment in the last two years. In 2013, there was none of this aggressive pro-Putin hysteria, neither on TV or among the people. “Crimea is ours” syndrome has taken over the country. Those who advocate for participating in Putin’s pseudoelections often say that elections provide a platform that gives opposition activists an opportunity to deliver their position to the masses. But in reality, it is very dangerous for an opposition activist participating in regional elections to talk about the annexation of Crimea, Russian soldiers in Donbass, or about who shot down Boeing MH17. It’s dangerous because this honest position can repel over a half of potential voters, zombified by the TV propaganda. For example, here is a recording of how the second person on the party’s Kostroma Oblast election list, Vladimir Andreychenko, initially tries dodging a question about Crimea, and then talks about an occupation of a region of a neighboring country in the following way: “legally speaking, these measures were not executed in a completely clean way”.

A democrat who runs for a regional election is faced with only two options. Either you talk exclusively about overpriced rent and utilities, broken down roads and low salaries, and then you have a chance at winning. Or you tell the full truth about the war with Ukraine, and that the sanctions against Russia were completely fair and justified, as a response to Russia’s violations of its international obligations. In that case, your chances of getting elected into a regional Duma approach zero. In Kostroma Oblast, precisely the first strategy was picked, and so Ilya Yashin did not talk about the white paper report “Putin. War”, and Vladimir Andreychenko stayed silent about Crimea. But then, where is that platform for the opposition, if it is forced to avoid all acute and relevant political questions?

In stark contrast, in August 2013 Boris Nemtsov could afford the luxury of talking to Yaroslavl voters about the topical oppositional concerns, such as corruption and stealing during the construction of sports objects for the Sochi Winter Olympics and the personal enrichment of Vladimir Putin.

So what is there to do for the opposition activists who want to have a platform but refuses to participate in Putin’s imitation of elections? The answer is simple: to campaign Russians aside from Kremlin’s agenda and their fabricated elections.

To back my words with actions, I will reveal what I plan on doing. In the near future, I plan on resurrecting the YouTube project “Lies of Putin’s Regime”, which was created at the end of 2009 by Boris Nemtsov and I. The project will have two main directions.

The first will be devoted to the annexation of Crimea, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the economic crisis as a result of Putin’s military endeavor. Boris Nemtsov voiced the idea as early as in January 2015 that it is necessary to promote the thesis: “Putin is war and crisis”. Within the last 8 months, his idea has become even more relevant and timely, and I am sure it will become even more acute as the consequences of the sanctions exacerbate. There is a lot of work to be done with the population: according to public opinion surveys conducted by Levada Center, only a quarter of the population agrees with the statement that there is a war going on between Russia and Ukraine, while 60-70% categorically deny that assertion. But Putin is the cause of the economic crisis and the widespread poverty of the Russian population. Putin started the war with Ukraine, turned Russia into an increasingly isolated country, and brought about sanctions. About half of the videos will be about that.

The second direction will be about the advantages and the value of a democratic system. About the fact that fair elections, free mass media, separation of power and rule of law make individuals wealthier and make the society more just. The problem in Russia is unfortunately not only with Putin, his gang, and corruption. Russians have a very poor political education. For example, according to a recent poll, the number of Russians who associate democracy with procedures that guarantee the accountability of the government to its people does not exceed 20% of the total population. The Russian society is ill: with a lack of confidence in its own strength, with cynicism, apathy, and simultaneously with aggression towards neighboring countries and people. If my videos contribute even a little bit to the healing of this nation, I will know that my project was not started for nothing.

by Leonid Martynyuk

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.

Free Russia Foundation’s Press Release on Submission of Article 15 Communication to the International Criminal Court

Oct 06 2020

On 21 September 2020, the Free Russia Foundation submitted a Communication to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s Office (in The Hague, Netherlands) seeking accountability for Crimean and Russian authorities concerning international crimes perpetrated during Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. The Communication was prepared in cooperation with Global Rights Compliance and Center for Civil Liberties and is based on a focused inquiry conducted over the past year. In our inquiry, we documented crimes as part of a systematic, planned attack by the Russian state against civilians and groups in Crimea in order to discourage them from opposing the illegal occupation of Crimea and to force their departure from the peninsula. Crimes against civilians included unlawful arrests, beatings, torture, enforced disappearances, and other inhumane acts causing severe mental and/or physical pain. In particular, the crimes targeted the Crimean Tatars, a native ethnic group who had only recently returned to their homeland, having previously been forcefully and brutally displaced by the Soviet Union in 1944.

One of the principal coercive acts was the illegal detention and concomitant violence before, during, and after the imprisonment of political prisoners. Most of those detained were arrested by Russian and Crimean authorities on terrorism charges, but it was their legal, pro-Ukrainian advocacy that led to their imprisonment. In addition, trials of those arbitrarily detained were conducted in wholesale disregard of their fair trial rights. For example, some of those illegally imprisoned were denied a speedy trial, access to independent lawyers, and the opportunity to defend themselves against their arrest in a courtroom.

In order to force those illegally detained to confess to crimes they did not commit, Russian and Crimean authorities also perpetrated acts of torture and cruel or degrading treatment, the levying of additional charges against them, even more inhumane prison conditions, denial of communications with their families and threats made against them, enforced disappearances, and even, in at least one case, a mock execution.

Other inhumane acts include “punitive psychiatry” and the denial of adequate prison conditions, including the following: (i) feeding people inedible food or, at times, no food at all; (ii) facing severe overcrowding in prisons; (iii) denial of regular water supply; (iv) threats of assault against them by prison cellmates; and (v) adding pork to food – prohibited for observant Muslims. Further, medical attention was systematically inadequate or denied for many individuals.

Concerning acts of torture, it was perpetrated by different Russian authorities, including the FSB. Allegations include the use of electric shocks in an effort to get an accused to confess. One was beaten in the head, kidneys, arms and legs with an iron pipe. With another, fingers were broken. Still another endured spinal bruises and having a plastic bag placed over his head to the point of unconsciousness. Further, threats of sexual violence against a detained man were made. Murder as well. Hands were broken, teeth were knocked out in still another.

Trials were largely held behind closed doors for illegitimate reasons, and many of the witnesses were secret not only to the public but also to the Accused. Further, credible allegations exist that, at times, there were FSB or other agents in the room, silently instructing witnesses what to say and how the judges should rule. This adds credence to words, according to the Kyiv Post, heard by Arsen Dzhepparov from a senior FSB lieutenant who stated “I will prove by all possible – and impossible – means that [an Accused is] guilty – even if he isn’t guilty”.

Concerning the crime of persecution, nearly all of these deprivations of fundamental rights were carried out with discriminatory intent. Specifically, these groups were targeted due to their political view – namely, by peacefully opposing the illegal occupation of their country. Some were targeted on ethnic grounds or religious grounds on the basis of their Crimean Tatar background.

War crimes, another group of crimes punished at the ICC, were also perpetrated in addition to or in the alternative to the crimes against humanity. This includes the crime of torture, outrages against personal dignity, unlawful confinement, wilfully depriving protected persons of the rights of a fair and regular trial, and the transfer of the occupying power of parts of its population into the territory it occupies or the deportation of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory.

All these crimes had the ultimate objective of the criminal enterprise – the removal of pro-Ukrainian elements out of Crimea and the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation without opposition, including the installation of pro-Russian elements, which include the emigration of more than 70,000 Russians, the illegal imposition of Russian law in the occupied territory, forcing Russian nationality on many Crimeans, and the appropriation of public property.

Ultimately, we hope that all the information gathered by the ICC in the context of its preliminary investigation will lead the ICC to investigate mid- to high-level Russian and Crimean officials on this basis. The international community expects responsible global leadership that follows the rule of law and expects it – no matter the situation – to be respected, especially from a state that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. When this fails to happen, the international community must demand accountability. We hope that an investigation can be opened and responsible officials of the Russian Federation will be investigated. After an investigation that conforms to international best practices, responsible persons should be charged with the systematic perpetration of international crimes.

Novichok Use Implicates Putin’s Government in Navalny’s Poisoning

Sep 02 2020

Today, the German government has announced that Russian pro-democracy leader Alexey Navalny was poisoned by Novichok. Novichok is a deadly nerve agent developed by the Soviet government chemical weapons program and used on several occasions by the Russian government to kill its critics in the recent years.

To restate the obvious, Novichok is a poison that can only be accessed with the authority of the Kremlin. Therefore, today’s announcement by German officials  directly implicates the Kremlin and Putin in the high-profile assassination attempt on Navalny.

The choice of Novichok was not just a means  to silence Mr. Navalny, but a loud, brazen and menacing message sent by Putin to the world: dare to criticize me, and you may lose your life.

The announcement by the German government of its intent to formally notify the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (‘OPCW’) of the use of Novichok against Navalny is a meek bureaucratic half-measure that fails to acknowledge the extraordinary threat to human life posed by Putin’s regime everywhere. Taken together with Angela Merkel’s promise earlier this week to help Putin finish his Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite an international outcry amounts to condoning the poisoning and normalizing it into a new modus operandi where Putin’s murders go unpunished. Free Russia Foundation urges the leaders of the EU, its Member States and the U.S. Government to take an urgent and drastic action to punish the perpetrators of this heinous crime not only to serve justice, but to establish a powerful deterrent against new attacks by Putin’s regime globally.

Free Russia Foundation Statement on Kremlin’s Interference in Elections in Georgia

Aug 26 2020

We are deeply concerned with information recently distributed by the well-respected authoritative source Center “Dossier.” According to “Dossier,” the Kremlin is using Russian political expert Sergey Mikheev and consulting company “Politsecrets” to manipulate Georgian society, distribute disinformation and anti-democratic narratives, undermine Georgia’s Western aspirations, and interfere in free and fair elections in Georgia scheduled for October 2020.

More

Free Russia Foundation Calls for Investigation into Alexey Navalny’s Poisoning

Aug 20 2020

Free Russia Foundation is gravely concerned about the life and safety of Alexey Navalny. More