Report

Russia’s Crazy Sham Election

To retain control in this weekend’s Duma elections, the Kremlin has reached very deep into its bag of tricks.

By , an investigative editor at Meduza.
Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov
Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov meets with supporters at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow on Sept. 15. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Voting in the Russian parliamentary elections begins on Friday and ends on Sunday, and it’s one of the strangest elections Russia has seen in a long history of rotten elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party is struggling to preserve its absolute majority in the Duma, with the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center recording a historic low of 29 percent public support. Putin’s party is still far ahead of the second place Communist Party, at almost 17 percent, but is anticipated to get a much lower share of the vote than in 2016, when it won 343 of the Duma’s 450 seats.

To retain control, United Russia has gone all out—and taken election shenanigans in Putin’s sham democracy to another level. Within the party, the last vestiges of independence have been purged. Oksana Pushkina, the lone progressive member who spent her last term in the Duma campaigning for women’s rights and legislating against domestic violence (which made her the target of a relentless harassment campaign), isn’t running. She has been replaced in her district by a nationalist, pro-Putin singer, who, barring an upset, will gain Pushkina’s seat.

Pushing out professional legislators, United Russia has filled its ticket with assorted celebrities and pro-Kremlin activists. One is Maria Butina, who famously liaised with the U.S. National Rifle Association ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, spent several months in a U.S. prison for failing to register as a foreign agent, and was deported back to Russia. United Russia’s list also contains some political heavyweights, such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Neither is campaigning; their presence on the ticket can be understood as an attempt to impart some of their personal popularity on the increasingly unloved ruling party.

Voting in the Russian parliamentary elections begins on Friday and ends on Sunday, and it’s one of the strangest elections Russia has seen in a long history of rotten elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party is struggling to preserve its absolute majority in the Duma, with the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center recording a historic low of 29 percent public support. Putin’s party is still far ahead of the second place Communist Party, at almost 17 percent, but is anticipated to get a much lower share of the vote than in 2016, when it won 343 of the Duma’s 450 seats.

To retain control, United Russia has gone all out—and taken election shenanigans in Putin’s sham democracy to another level. Within the party, the last vestiges of independence have been purged. Oksana Pushkina, the lone progressive member who spent her last term in the Duma campaigning for women’s rights and legislating against domestic violence (which made her the target of a relentless harassment campaign), isn’t running. She has been replaced in her district by a nationalist, pro-Putin singer, who, barring an upset, will gain Pushkina’s seat.

Pushing out professional legislators, United Russia has filled its ticket with assorted celebrities and pro-Kremlin activists. One is Maria Butina, who famously liaised with the U.S. National Rifle Association ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, spent several months in a U.S. prison for failing to register as a foreign agent, and was deported back to Russia. United Russia’s list also contains some political heavyweights, such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Neither is campaigning; their presence on the ticket can be understood as an attempt to impart some of their personal popularity on the increasingly unloved ruling party.

To the mix of strangeness and shenanigans, add a creative new campaign to undermine support for United Russia. It’s run by supporters of Alexey Navalny, the widely popular opposition politician. After he was jailed in January and his Anti-Corruption Foundation was declared an extremist organization, he and all his supporters were officially barred from running.

Called “Smart Voting,” the campaign by Navalny’s supporters is basically an internet-based tactical voting scheme. On a website or an app, a voter can enter his or her address and get the name of the non-United Russia candidate with the highest odds of winning in that district based on most recent polling—no matter from which party. It caused significant contention with the liberal opposition crowd when the list was unveiled just days before the election because 60 percent of the candidates recommended by Smart Voting were on the Communist Party ticket. That even dismayed some of Navalny’s own supporters who see the Communist Party’s Soviet nostalgia and Stalinist sympathies as irredeemable.

Dirty tricks like doppelgänger candidates on the ballot have long been a part of Russian elections, but the intensity of election shenanigans seems to have reached new heights.

Smart Voting is a neat little wrench in the Putin system but not as awesome a weapon against United Russia as its creators hoped. It had promising results in local elections in Tomsk and Novosibirsk last year, giving a boost to opposition candidates. But in this weekend’s Duma elections, it only covers single-mandate constituencies, which comprise only half of the Duma’s 450 seats. The rest are distributed via nationwide party lists, where United Russia is expected to dominate. The candidates supported by Smart Voting have a viable chance at winning a few dozen seats at most, mainly in Moscow.

Nonetheless, the state’s backlash against Smart Voting has been truly unprecedented. First, the project’s user base was hacked, and voters who had entered their names received threats, spam, and fake voting recommendations. Then, police started knocking on some of the leaked voters’ doors—ostensibly to ask them to file complaints against Navalny’s team for the leak of its private data—but some saw it as a clear attempt at intimidation.

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contrary to its remit, is also getting increasingly involved in domestic politics. It handles the designation of Russian independent media and pesky nongovernmental organizations as “foreign agents” by the Russian Ministry of Justice. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs firebrand spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, also commented on domestic matters almost daily, denouncing the opposition and critical media as Western puppets. She has accused Smart Voting of being funded by the U.S. Defense Department—an allegation based on the fact that the Smart Voting iPhone app was uploaded to the Apple Store by Roman Rubanov, the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s former director who fled Russia for fear of criminal prosecution. Rubanov, a Foreign Ministry source told Kommersant, now works for Momentus, an aerospace start-up in California whose executive director, John Rood, is a former U.S undersecretary of defense.

The Russian Senate’s Sovereignty Commission then demanded Apple and Google explain their alleged interference in the Duma elections. The U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry—presumably for failing to prevent the U.S. tech giants from hosting Smart Voting on their platforms, which violates Russia’s “anti-extremism” law. Domestic platforms are far easier for the state to manipulate: Russia’s premier search engine, Yandex, stopped directing users to the Smart Voting website after Russian censorship agency Roskomnadzor added it to the list of blocked websites—alleging it “continue[s] the activities and conduct of an extremist organization.” State censorship also included a ban of some popular virtual private network services that allowed internet users to circumvent the block. Google Docs was also briefly shut down after Navalny supporters published a list of preferred candidates in a sharable Google file.

Dirty tricks like doppelgänger candidates on the ballot have long been a part of Russian elections, but the intensity of election shenanigans seems to have reached new heights. As the closest challenger, the Communist Party and its candidates have been a target of multiple disinformation campaigns. State media outlets ran news items about the party’s supposed endorsement by a serial rapist. A bizarre performance was staged in front of the Duma in Moscow, supposedly in support of the Communist Party, featuring two women in underwear on leashes—an attempt to associate the party with loose morals. Another stunt covered in the tabloid Express Gazeta featured a group of topless women with placards in support of Nina Ostanina, a veteran lawmaker and one of the Communist Party’s top cadres. The article portrayed Ostanina, a 65-year-old veteran of Russia’s left-wing politics, as a radical feminist—anathema to conservative voters. Other parties with candidates supported by Smart Voting have not been spared: The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, a far-right populist party, was the target of a homophobic smear campaign in loyalist media.

Other ways Russian elections are usually manipulated—such as busing supporters to the polls—have taken on a new twist. Earlier this week, authorities in the unrecognized breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine announced they would be sending almost 900 busloads and rail routes of newly minted Russian citizens across the border to Russia to vote in the elections.

The Duma elections are also taking place following the most brutal crackdown on Russian civil society in recent years. Dozens of independent media outlets, individual reporters, and civil society organizations—including the highly respected, independent pollster Levada-Center and the election monitoring group Golos—have been declared “foreign agents” by the government, severely hampering their work. Prominent opposition activists have been put under house arrest and faced other legal restrictions on spurious grounds like violating COVID-19 restrictions after tweeting about protests. Facing persecution, others were forced to flee Russia.

It’s tempting to dismiss the election as fake and the new Duma as wholly illegitimate. But despite the relentless slide into despotism, Russia is still formally a democracy; both Putin and his loyal Duma derive their authority from elections and will be bound by at least a semblance of democratic norms—even if they disdain most of them. And it’s true that most of Russia’s recent repressive laws were steamrolled through a compliant Duma; the law against “foreign agents” passed with only one dissenting vote. But even a sham democracy leaves room for wild cards like Navalny’s Smart Vote, which can subtly shift power dynamics and turn United Russia’s likely win into a pyrrhic victory. The unexpected swell of support for the Communist Party from first-time voters—and with some help from the Smart Vote campaign—may reinvigorate the party and inspire it to mount a more forceful challenge to United Russia. It’s often a depressing and revolting sight, but Russian politics is still worth following.

Alexey Kovalev is an investigative editor at Meduza. Twitter: @Alexey__Kovalev

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