Opposition member pulled from Russian presidential race

The Russian Central Election Committee has refused to register Grigory Yavlinsky — founder of the Yabloko opposition party — as a presidential candidate. Yabloko did not reach the seven per cent minimum in the State Duma elections, but according to electoral law, the party should still have been able to register Yavlinksy as a presidential candidate with two million signatures in support. The committee rejected 25 per cent of the signatures he collected, deeming them to be defective.

Yavlinsky said that according to the committee’s documentation, less than three per cent of signatures were fraudulent, while the other 23 per cent contained “other infringements of paper execution.” The law says the number of defective signatures must not exceed five per cent.

The party denies the allegations, and continue to insist that the majority of signatures were authentic. Many well-respected artists and public figures signed in support of Yavlinsky, including former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev.

“The committee’s decision is politically motivated,” Yavlinsky told journalists, expressing concern that authorities are compromising voters’ right to choose a candidate. “Clearly this is not a decision celebrating the rule of law and allowing citizens to influence the election process,” he concluded.

A number of Russian opposition politicians said that refusal to register Yavlinsky could delegitimise the upcoming elections. The organisers of the 4 February “rally for fair elections” condemned the Committee’s decision.

Russian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency it is “absurd to protest against the Central Election Committee’s decision.”

Yabloko’s watchdogs are preparing to monitor the presidential elections on 4 March. In December’s Duma elections they reported mass fraud and election law violations, but only a few succeeded in fighting those violations in court. Most judges simply denied allegations and refused to bring law violators to justice. Yabloko activists claim that Russian courts are not independent, leaving the violations unprosecuted.

Russia’s leading independent election monitors’ association, GOLOS, also questions the independence of Russian courts. Deputy director Grigory Melkonyants told Index that election results cannot be disputed in court, as judges refuse to take evidence of violations into consideration.

In the run up to the parliamentary elections, GOLOS was targeted by pro-government media for launching an interactive online map of election violations. The propaganda war against GOLOS is now restarting as they gear up for the presidential elections. After launching a new map of violations, the organisation received a document demanding that they vacate their Moscow offices on 16 January. Police visited a joint event held by GOLOS and Memorial for the first time, and activists from both organisations viewed their presence as an act of “psychological pressure.” A few days before the incident, the head of the Federal Security Service department, in the Komi republic of Russia labeled the organisations as “extremists” aiming to “wreck the upcoming elections.”

With millions angered by Yavlinsky’s removal from the race, and the inability of activists to bring election law violators to justice through biased courts, many believe that the mass protests on 4 February will garner more participants than the last two demonstrations against fraudulent parliamentary elections.



Hacked websites and fraud mark Russia’s parliamentary elections

Parliamentary elections were held in Russia yesterday (4 December). Several independent media websites were hacked on election day; journalists and rights activists claim this was to prevent coverage of electoral violations.

With 96 per cent of votes processed by 5 December, United Russia has polled 49.54 per cent. That’s a 15 per cent decrease since the 2007 elections. Consequently, United Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, has lost its constitutional majority. It now has just 238 out of 450 seats in the Russian State Duma.

The other seats were taken by the Communist Party (which polled 19.16 per cent), A Just Russia (13.22) and LDPR (11.66). Three parties, including the opposition Yabloko led by noted Russian economist Grigory Yavlinsky, didn’t get over the threshold of seven per cent necessary to enter the Duma.

Every major party bar United Russia complained of violations. Observers and journalists reported vote fraud and “carousels” when a group of the same people voted several times at different poll stations in an organised way.

Monitors said they were removed from polling stations after trying to complain, or that their complaints were not logged. At one polling station in Moscow the head of a district election comission ostentatiously poured hot tea on complaints filed by an observer.

Russia’s leading independent watchdog — GOLOS Association — reported over 5,000 violations. Yabloko and Communist Party observers said that in Moscow alone they logged no fewer than 50 incidents. The Interior Ministry said there were 2,000 election law violations registered, none of which were likely to affect the elections results.

Protests were held in Moscow and St Petersburg against “unfair elections” by several opposition movements. Most of the participants (about 100 people in each city) were detained.

It was difficult for journalists to report violations.  Many independent media websites were hacked early on 4 December and were inaccessible for the whole day. One couldn’t read about fraud on websites of Echo Moskvy radio station, Kommersant newspaper, The New Times, Forbes Russia and Bolshoy Gorod magazines, or the Slon.ru news portal. Blogging service LiveJournal, a popular discussion platform, was also down, having experienced biggest hacking attack in its history. Finally, GOLOS’ website and its remarkable Map of Election Violations — an online map with messages about elections fraud from all over Russia — were hacked.

With the cyber-attacks preventing observers reporting fraud online, journalists and rights activists instead used Facebook and Twitter to spread and exchange information.

But in spite of their efforts, the head of the Central Election Commission Vladimir Churov expressed confidence in the results, claiming that thousands of violations reports were “lies” and the elections were held in line with the law. The OSCE filed a report saying that the Duma elections were “technically well-administered”, but “marked by the convergence of the State and the governing party”.

Critics rallied on 5 December, with over 5,000 people in Moscow protesting against “illegitimate elections”. Russian TV has yet to report this.

Election monitor targeted in run up to Russian elections

Rights activists have said there has been an onslaught of freedom of expression violations in Russia as the country’s 4 December parliamentary elections draw closer.

Russia’s leading independent election watchdog, GOLOS (voice) Association, has become the focus of a a propaganda war, coming under sustained attacks from pro-government media and persecution from law enforcement agencies. At the end of November, NTV channel reporters stormed the association’s Moscow office with a video camera, shouting out questions about the activists’ connections to the CIA. GOLOS’s deputy director Grigory Melkonyants recorded the invasion on his mobile phone and then posted it on YouTube. While recording, Melkonyants repeatedly described NTV as a propaganda tool of Vladimir Putin’s chief strategist, Vladislav Surkov.

“The channel’s reporters interviewed us several days ago and had a chance to receive all the answers they sought”, Melkonyants explained. “The same day they invaded the office, they could have gone to an independent press centre in Moscow where GOLOS was giving a press conference”. The head of GOLOS, Liliya Shibanova, called this “administrative harassment in order to prevent the association from doing its job — stopping violations of law at elections”. One of the association’s regional offices in Altay was also searched by local prosecutors.

GOLOS was established in 2000 as an independent organisation to monitor elections and prevent fraud. It is being financed mainly by grants from Europe and the United States, which ensures its members are not dependent on the Russian government.

The harrassment of the organisation continues. Soon after the NTV incident, deputies from three political parties (United Russia, A Just Russia and LDPR) appealed to Russia’s general prosecutor to investigate GOLOS and establish if it intrudes on the electoral campaign. Moscow Meschanskaya Prosecutor’s office complied and filed an administrative case against GOLOS, saying the association violated elections law by publishing research and poll results less than five days before the elections. Prosecutors claimed the association “aims to create a negative image of one of the political parties” but did not provide any details. GOLOS denied these allegations, calling them a part of a discrediting campaign.

Rights activists assume that the one party most unhappy with GOLOS is United Russia, which is led by Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. The party may have been irritated by a special project from GOLOS titled The Map of Election Violations, which is a Google-based interactive map where all Russian internet users can leave messages about law violations during the electoral campaign. GOLOS experts check these messages and report violations to law enforcement agencies and election commissions. On 2 December, the map described almost five thousand incidents.

When prosecutors started investigating GOLOS’ activities, the organisations information partner, online news site Gazeta.ru, removed links to the map. The site’s deputy editor Roman Badanin resigned in protest.

According to the map, the most frequent subject of complaints is United Russia. The most common violation is using administrative resources to agitate for United Russia or against their opponents. Local authorities in Moscow and other cities told businessmen to make their employees vote for the party, and some offered money for votes.

Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin claimed it was absolutely fine that posters calling on citizens to vote were of a similar design to those calling for votes for United Russia. Several opposition members tried to hold an “elections funeral” in late November — a protest in front of the Central Election Commission in Moscow which was to symbolise the “death” of free election process. They were all detained, some of them fined. The head of the Central Election Commission Vladimir Churov also critisised GOLOS alleging the association agitated against United Russia.

As elections go ahead, those critical of the Kremlin have two strategies. One was proposed by a well-known blogger Aleksey Navalny, who suggests that people vote for any party except United Russia and work with GOLOS to report election law violations at polling stations.

Another was made popular by unregistered opposition People’s Freedom Party led by Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Ryzhkov. They say the best thing to do on 4 December is to protest election violations across Russia.