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Flawed elections in Russian Federation mobilize protesters

Arie Bloed
Analysis 01 March 2012

After almost eight years the Russian Federation again allowed the osce to dispatch a team of election observers to monitor the parliamentary elections on the 4th of December last year. It was obvious that the Russian authorities were not particularly pleased with the results of the previous election observation missions which could not avoid noticing serious shortcomings in the various elections in Russia. In the past period the Russians imposed so many restrictions on the numbers and activities of election observers that the osce could not reasonably accept these conditions. Surprisingly last year the osce’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (odihr) managed to get an agreement under which 260 observers were allowed into the country. Although this is less than at previous elections in 2003 and 2004 and much less than the odihr had requested, the number went considerably beyond what Moscow has been willing to accept in the past few years.

One may wonder, however, whether the Russian authorities are satisfied with the results of the osce’s observation mission which again observed serious shortcomings. As odihr’s head of the observation mission stated diplomatically: ‘These elections were like a game in which only some players are allowed on the pitch, and then the field is tilted in favour of one of the players. Although the choice was limited and the competition lacked fairness, voters were able to come out and have their voices heard’. Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini could hardly have said it more diplomatically and at the same time more clearly: the elections were far from fair, but nevertheless they were fair enough to give a clear signal that the people are losing confidence in the ruling elite. The leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, had a similar assessment, as the party leader stated that ‘the country has never seen such a dirty election’ and described the election results as ‘theft on an especially grand scale’. It is interesting to note that Zyuganov’s party was a big winner in the election. Both the eu and the us expressed their ‘serious concerns’ about the reported irregularities in the Russian elections.

The mission observed that ‘voting was well organized overall, but that the quality of the process deteriorated considerably during the count, which was characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulations, including serious indications of ballot box stuffing’ (See http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/85753).  The observers also noticed the absence of an independent election commission, mass media which were almost all biased in favour of the ruling party and unequal access to the media for the candidates of other parties. There were no reports of hindrances in the work of the osce observers. However, the work of the local ngo Golos, which wanted to observe the elections as a national team, became almost impossible after the authorities started a serious harassment campaign against the organization which Putin himself labelled as ‘traitors’, probably because they accepted foreign funds to finance their activities. The organization was also the target of a cyber attack on election day which made its communications almost impossible. It shows how nervous the leading elite in Russia have become. This was also reflected in the ‘security’ dimension of the elections: probably never before have so many military and police officers been on duty in order to ‘guarantee’ the ‘orderly’ course of the elections.

The elections became a serious disappointment for the ruling party, headed by Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev who will swap their positions in the presidential elections which are scheduled for March. It simply means that not much will change in the country and the Russian people make it clear that not all of them are enthusiastic about this. The ‘United Russia’ party acquired about half of the votes, a loss of around 14 per cent, and as a result it also lost its comfortable two-thirds majority in the State Duma.

Although for now, though, the process of ‘directed democracy’ in Russia seems to have continued, the Russian people surprisingly stood up to the powers-to-be and in particular the President-hopeful Vladimir Putin by showing up in unprecedented numbers on the streets of Moscow and many other cities all over the vast territory of the Russian Federation. Even the last President of the usSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, joined the protest movement, seriously criticising the abuses during the last parliamentary elections and calling on Putin to step down after three terms in power (twice as President and once as Prime Minister).

In spite of the osce’s negative assessment of the December parliamentary elections, the osce again received permission to monitor the upcoming March presidential elections, when Putin aims to return to the Kremlin as president in a swap with the present President Dmitri Medvedev who is supposed to become the next Prime Minister. However, the number of observers is even lower than during the parliamentary elections, as only about 40 long-term observers have been allowed and another 160 short-term observers. Taking into account the size of Russia, this hardly allows for an effective observation exercise. Although the predictions are that Putin will ‘easily’ win these elections, much will depend upon the final figures in view of the growing public resistance against him. And much will also depend upon the size and nature of the irregularities that may again occur before and during the elections.

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