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

Lukashenka’s Ryanair Hijacking Proves Human Rights is a Global Security Issue

May 24 2021

The forced diversion and landing in Minsk of a May 23, 2021 Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania, and the subsequent arrest of dissident Roman Protasevich who was aboard the flight, by the illegitimate Lukashenka regime pose an overt political and military challenge to Europe, NATO and the broad global community.  NATO members must respond forcefully by demanding (1) the immediate release of Protasevich and other political prisoners in Belarus, and (2) a prompt transition to a government that represents the will of the people of Belarus. 

The West’s passivity in the face of massive, continuous and growing oppression of the Belarusian people since summer 2020 has emboldened Lukashenka to commit what some European leaders have appropriately termed an act of “state terrorism.”

The West has shown a manifest disposition to appease Putin’s regime —Lukashenka’s sole security guarantor. It has made inappropriate overtures for a Putin-Biden summit and waived  Nord Stream 2 sanctions mandated by Congress. These actions and signals have come against the backdrop of the 2020 Russian constitutional coup, the assassination attempt against Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment on patently bogus charges, the arrests of close to 13,000 Russian activists, and the outlawing of all opposition movements and activities. All this has led Putin and Lukashenka to conclude that they eliminate their political opponents with impunity.  

Today’s state-ordered hijacking of an international passenger airplane—employing intelligence agents aboard the flight,  and accomplished via an advanced fighter-interceptor—to apprehend an exiled activist, underscores that violation of human rights is not only a domestic issue, but a matter of international safety and security.  Western governments unwilling to stand up for the victims of Putin’s and Lukashenka’s regimes are inviting future crimes against their own citizens. 

Absent a meaningful and swift response, the escalation of violence and intensity of international crimes committed  by Lukashenka’s and Putin’s regime will continue, destabilizing the world and discrediting the Western democratic institutions. 

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS – THE KREMLIN’S INFLUENCE QUARTERLY

May 20 2021

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlin’s 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 Kremlin’s 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 Kremlin’s 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.

Criminal operations by Russia’s GRU worldwide: expert discussion

May 06 2021

Please join Free Russia Foundation for an expert brief and discussion on latest criminal operations conducted by Russia’s GRU worldwide with:

  • Christo Grozev, Bellingcat— the legendary investigator who uncovered the Kremlin’s involvement, perpetrators and timeline of Navalny’s assassination attempt. 
  • Jakub Janda, Director of the European Values Think Tank (the Czech Republic) where he researches Russia’s hostile influence operations in the West
  • Michael Weiss, Director of Special Investigations at Free Russia Foundation where he leads the Lubyanka Files project, which consists of translating and curating KGB training manuals still used in modern Russia for the purposes of educating Vladimir Putin’s spies.

The event will take place on Tuesday, May 11 from 11 am to 12:30pm New York Time (17:00 in Brussels) and include an extensive Q&A with the audience moderated by Ilya Zaslavskiy, Senior Fellow at Free Russia Foundation and head of Underminers.info, a research project on post-Soviet kleptocracy

The event will be broadcast live at: https://www.facebook.com/events/223365735790798/

  • The discussion will cover Russia’s most recent and ongoing covert violent operations, direct political interference, oligarchic penetration with money and influence; 
  • GRU’s structure and approach to conducting operations in Europe
  • Trends and forecasts on how data availability will impact both, the Kremlin’s operations and their investigation by governments and activists; 
  • EU and national European government response and facilitation of operations on their soil; 
  • Recommendations for effective counter to the security and political threats posed by Russian security services. 

YouTube Against Navalny’s Smart Voting

May 06 2021

On May 6, 2020, at least five YouTube channels belonging to key Russian opposition leaders and platforms received notifications from YouTube that some of their content had been removed due to its being qualified as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

They included: 

Ilya Yashin (343k YouTube subscribers)

Vladimir Milov (218k YouTube subscribers) 

Leonid Volkov (117k YouTube subscribers)

Novaya Gazeta (277k YouTube Subscribers) 

Sota Vision (248k YouTube Subscribers)

Most likely, there are other Russian pro-democracy channels that have received similar notifications at the same time, and we are putting together the list of all affected by this censorship campaign. 

The identical letters received from YouTube by the five account holders stated:

“Our team has reviewed your content, and, unfortunately, we think it violates our spam, deceptive practices and scams policy. We’ve removed the following content from YouTube:

URL: https://votesmart.appspot.com/

YouTube has removed urls from descriptions of videos posted on these accounts that linked to Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting website (votesmart.appspot.com).

By doing this, and to our great shock and disbelief, YouTube has acted to enforce the Kremlin’s policies by qualifying Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting system and its website as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

This action has not only technically disrupted communication for the Russian civil society which is now under a deadly siege by Putin’s regime, but it has rendered a serious and lasting damage to its reputation and legitimacy of Smart Voting approach. 

In reality, Smart Voting system is not a spam, scam or a “deceptive practice”, but instead it’s a fully legitimate system of choosing and supporting candidates in Russian elections who have a chance of winning against the ruling “United Russia” party candidates. There’s absolutely nothing illegal, deceptive or fraudulent about the Smart Voting or any materials on its website.

We don’t know the reasons behind such YouTube actions, but they are an unacceptable suppression of a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the Russian people and help the Kremlin’s suppression of civil rights and freedoms by banning the Smart Voting system and not allowing free political competition with the ruling “United Russia” party. 

This is an extremely dangerous precedent in an environment where opposition activities in Russia are being literally outlawed;  key opposition figures are jailed, exiled, arrested and attacked with criminal investigations; independent election campaigning is prohibited; and social media networks remain among the very few channels still available to the Russian opposition to communicate with the ordinary Russians.

We demand a  swift and decisive action on this matter from the international community, to make sure that YouTube corrects its stance toward Russian opposition channels, and ensures that such suppression of peaceful, legal  pro-democracy voices does not happen again. 

FRF Lauds New US Sanctions Targeting the Kremlin’s Perpetrators in Crimea, Calls for Their Expansion

Apr 15 2021

On April 15, 2021,  President Biden signed new sanctions against a number of officials and agents of the Russian Federation in connection with malign international activities conducted by the Russian government.

The list of individuals sanctioned by the new law includes Leonid Mikhalyuk, director of the Federal Security Service in the Russian-occupied Crimea.

A report issued by Free Russia Foundation, Media Initiative for Human Rights and Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union in December 202, identified 16 officials from Russian law enforcement and security agencies as well as the judiciary operating on the territory of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula currently occupied by the Russian Federation. These individuals have been either directly involved or have overseen political persecution of three prominent Crimean human rights defenders – Emir-Usein Kuku, Sever Mustafayev and Emil Kurbedinov.

Leonid Mikhailiuk is one of these officials. He has been directly involved and directed the repressive campaign in the occupied Crimea, including persecution of innocent people on terrorism charges and massive illegal searches. The persecution of Server Mustafayev was conducted under his supervision. As the head of the FSB branch in Crimea, he is in charge of its operation and all operatives working on politically motivated cases are his subordinates. 

Within the extremely centralized system of the Russian security services, Mikhailiuk is clearly at the top rank of organized political persecution and human rights violations.

Free Russia Foundation welcomes the new sanctions and hopes that all other individuals identified in the report will also be held accountable.