- By Josh Rogin
The State Department issued a report Friday that detailed widespread accusations of fraud and abuse in the March 2012 election that brought Vladimir Putin back into the Russian presidency.
U.S.-Russian relations have been in a tailspin since Putin’s return as head of state in Moscow, following his four years as prime minister under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. The United States and Russia have been at odds over a U.S. list of Russian human rights violators, the Russian decision to ban U.S. adoptions of Russian children, Russian persecution of international NGOs, the expulsion from Russia of USAID, and Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program.
In the run-up to Putin’s election, huge protests swept Moscow and Putin blamed then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for "inciting" the crowds that had protested the Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011where fraud and abuse were also widely reported.
On Friday, the State Department released its annual list of human rights reports and the section on Russia lays out extensive reporting on Putin’s own election and the irregularities that surrounded it.
"Domestic and international observers described the presidential campaign as skewed in favor of the ruling party’s candidate, Vladimir Putin… Procedural irregularities marred voting, with reports of vote fraud, administrative measures disadvantaging the opposition, and pressure on election monitoring groups," the report stated. "The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully in regularly scheduled national and regional elections. However, citizens could not fully exercise this right as the government limited the ability of opposition parties to organize, register candidates for public office, access the media, or conduct political campaigns."
In the period leading up to the election, international observers pointed out that Putin had unfair access to the media and some press outlets were harassed or otherwise warned to cover pro-Putin rallies favorably. Opposition candidates were prevented from appearing in the media.
"Prior to the elections, independent observers, media, and opposition parties reported widespread irregularities, including abuse of administrative resources such as pressuring students, state budget employees, employees of state-owned companies, and others to vote for the ruling party," said the report. "On election day, March 4, independent election monitors observed procedural irregularities in one-third of the polling stations they visited."
During the election period and the period of Putin’s inauguration, some media and civil society groups were the victims of cyberattacks, preventing those groups from spreading information about political developments including protests. Targeted sites included the radio station Ekho Moskvy, the newspapers Novaya Gazeta and Kommersant, independent election monitoring organization Golos, the Internet television station Dozhd, and live-event broadcaster UStream.
Voters were added to voter lists just before or on election day and "special polling stations" were established at the last minute in some places through a process that was not transparent.
The elections results themselves were suspect. According to Russia’s own Central Election Commission, the North Caucasus region, where Russia has been fighting a bitter insurgency, was the region that submitted the most votes for Putin and had extremely high turnout.
"In Chechnya, where recorded turnout was 99.59 percent, Putin won 99.82 percent of the vote. In Dagestan, where recorded turnout was 91 percent, Putin won almost 93 percent of the vote. In Ingushetia, recorded voter turnout was 86 percent, and Putin garnered 92 percent of the vote. In Karachay-Cherkessia, Putin won 91 percent of the vote, while in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria, Putin received 78 percent of the vote," the report said.
Protests erupted in Moscow following Putin’s election, including a huge protest that included 30,000 protesters on May 6 in Bolotnaya Square. Four hundred protesters were arrested that day. After the elections, independent monitoring organizations reported they were receiving pressure from the Russian government as they attempted to publicize the results of their monitoring. One monitoring group, Golos, was particularly harassed.
"Golos was evicted from its central office in Moscow when the landlord terminated its lease early. In January Roskomnadzor began monitoring Golos’ newspaper. Several of Golos’ regional divisions were subjected to unscheduled audits of their financial records. On January 18, Aleksander Kalashnikov, the head of the FSB in the Komi Republic, called Golos and Memorial ‘extremist organizations… directed from abroad, often financed by foreign NGO funding, and designed to transform the political system of the Russian Federation.’ He also asserted that Golos’ main goal was to disrupt the presidential elections in the country," the State Department report said.
The election irregularities were only one subset of the many types of human rights abuses reported in Russia in 2012.
"Other problems reported during the year included: allegations of torture and excessive force by law enforcement officials; life-threatening prison conditions; interference in the judiciary and the right to a fair trial; abridgement of the right to privacy; restrictions on minority religions; widespread corruption; societal and official intimidation of civil society and labor activists; limitations on the rights of workers; trafficking in persons; attacks on migrants and select religious and ethnic minorities; and discrimination against and limitation of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons," said the report. "The government failed to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity."