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.

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

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

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.