Perspectives on elections in Russia
On 17 September 2016 Russia organizes elections to the 450 seats of the Federal Duma. Unfortunately, restrictions on election observation and candidate registration are already being put in place. Despite the bleak picture normally presented regarding elections in Russia, there exist however many independent voices in politics, academia and civil society that speak out for democratic values and procedures. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee invited some of them to Oslo to debate new perspectives on Russia’s elections.
The debate took place on 3 May, and included Lev Shlosberg, a well-known opposition politician in Russia and a member of the Federal Political Committee of the Yabloko Party. Ekaterina Schulmann is assistant professor of public administration and columnist with expertise on hybrid regimes. Lilia Shibanova is a board member of the European Platform for Democratic Elections and the former Director of the election watchdog Golos. Head of the Russia Department of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Lene Wetteland, also participated.
The participants described a political environment in which it is getting increasingly difficult to observe elections, to register as a candidate, and for people to get access to information in order to make an informed choice. Even so, the participants also had some optimistic comments and underlined the need to encourage people to take part in the vote and the wider electoral process.
Currently the seats of the Duma, or the Lower House of the Federal Assembly of Russia as is the full name, are allocated as follows: United Russia 238 seats; the Communist Party of the Russian Federation 92 seats; A Just Russia (Social Democrats) 64 Seats; and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (Far Right) 56 Seats. Even if the three last parties sometimes are categorized as opposition parties, they do not represent fully independent political forces from the Kremlin. The real political opposition is mostly excluded from political power, although represented in regional dumas.
Lev Shlosberg presented a pragmatic approach to the political playing field, estimating that of a population entitled to take part in the vote of around 112 million, 10 million would vote for “democrats”. However, the problem is that only 20 % of them will actually vote. This reduces the number of voters that support a divided opposition to only 2 million.The opposition consists of three parties, Yabloko, Parnas and Civic Initiative. None of these parties have ever had a chance to gain experience from being part of a ruling coalition.
– Still, we have to persuade voters and candidates to participate in elections to gain experience. From the international community I ask not to give up on Russia. People in Russia and Norway need to have high quality information about what is really going on. There is a demand for knowing the truth, Shlosberg concluded.
Lilia Shibanova described an increasingly difficult situation for election observers in Russia following recent law amendments made by the Federal Duma. Any organization which is registered as a foreign agent is banned from observing. However, legislation also makes it hard to observe as a journalist, and introduce requirements that limit the possibility for unannounced observation. Finally, an increasing number of fake election observation organizations have emerged. They create an image of conducting observations, but in reality they are not. They are binding up resources and their reports and statements serve to legitimize fraudulent elections.
– The worst problem is the ongoing persecution of independent observers, according to Shibanova. They are prosecuted, fined, threatened, beaten, fired from work or expelled from universities. It is encouraging that despite these repercussions, there are still many dedicated and diligent observers. There is hope for democracy in Russia.
Ekaterina Schulmann pointed that Russia has a lot of the necessary institutions in a democratic state in place. However, they are mere imitations since the people in power see their positions as a life-long appointment rather than as a position given them by the voters. Any real opposition is seen as a threat. The authorities are afraid to violate laws directly, and therefore they still relate to the institutions – parties, elections, division of powers, etc.
– For this reason there are still possibilities to use these institutions to gain experience and make the most of the opportunities they represent for the future, Schulmann said. Activism is necessary and important to change the political system of Russia today. There are three necessary elements for activism to achieve results: Developing organizations on different levels, getting publicity and access to media, and providing adequate legal assistance for activists that are attacked by authorities or private actors.
Lene Wetteland followed up on the Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s strategy to support activists and human rights defenders. She referred to the young election observers present in the room and their dedication to observe elections as an important example of activism in today’s Russia. Despite various kinds of pressure, activists keep up their activities all over Russia, forming networks and develop organizations.
A growing number of Russian citizens are active in organizations, online campaigns or in various grass root initiatives. Lately truck drivers, farmers and pensioners have joined forces to protest unfair conditions.
– There is increasing activism all over the country, and these voices need our support more than ever, Wetteland concluded. We should not give in to efforts and measures by Russian authorities to make such support more difficult.
The Russian guests also visited a range of institutions related to elections and local administration in Norway, during their visit. They took part in exchanges and discussions with the Ministry for Local Administration and Modernization, the city administration of Oslo, the youth branches of the Liberal and the Conservative Parties, the Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs in the Parliament, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
They also had a tour of the Norwegian Parliament (“Stortinget”), guided by the head of the Liberal Party in Norway, Trine Skei Grande.
Help an election observer!
One of the cases that illustrate the pressure on election observers in Russia is the large fine given to Liudmila Kuzmina of Golos Povolzhye. On 7 July 2015, GOLOS-Povolzhye was liquidated by a court order. The tax authority claimed back taxes from the organisation's former director, Liudmila Kuzmina. In November 2015, a court in Samara rejected the tax authority's claim.
However, the tax authority appealed, and on 14 March 2016, the Samara regional court ruled that the foundation's former director, Liudmila Kuzmina, had to pay 2.225 million Russian roubles (equivalent of 30 000 Euro) in profit tax. The decision is final and cannot be appealed.
As Liudmila Kuzmina is an ordinary pensioner and has no money to cover the fine, it will lead to the arrest and confiscation of her only apartment and her monthly pension. In order to assist Ms Kuzmina in this and avoiding her losing her apartment, a crowd funding process has started online, and all are encouraged to take part: http://kuzmina.golos.help/en
Lev Shlosberg is member of Yabloko’s Federal Political Council and Chair of the Pskov branch of the Yabloko party. In his hometown Pskov he was elected to the Regional Legislative Assembly and gained a reputation as a fair and easily accessible politician. As editor of the newspaperPskovskaya Guberniyahe investigated the deaths of several Russian paratroopers in Eastern Ukraine, which led to an attack on his person in the street and removal of his mandate in the Duma.
Pskovskaya Guberniya received the Fritt Ord/Zeit-Stiftung Press Prize for Russia and Eastern Europe in 2015 upon nomination from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. Shlosberg is also a 2014 laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for Human Rights, and in 2016 he was awarded the first Boris Nemtsov Prize for efforts to the advancement of democracy in Russia.
Ekaterina Schulmann is a Russian political scientist, specializing in legislative processes in modern Russia, parliamentarism and decision-making mechanisms in hybrid political regimes. She has a Ph.D. in political science and holds a position of senior lecturer (Associate Professor) in Public Administration Institute of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). Mrs. Schulmann is the author of the books "Law-making as a political process" and a collection of articles "Applied Political Science: a Guide to Reality". She is a regular columnist for Vedomosti daily newspaper and a lecturer at the Moscow School of Civic Education.
Lilia Shibanova is board member of the European Platform for Democratic Elections and founder of the Russian election observation network GOLOS. She is also member of the Presidential Human Rights Council of the Russian Federation and a highly respected election observation expert internationally. GOLOS received the 2012 Sakharov Prize from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and has been nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize several times.