18 September 2020
Elena Zholobova interviews Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the Golos movement, on the lessons of the recent elections
The September elections, held to elect heads of regions and members of local legislative assemblies, were not the easiest for candidates or for observers. This was true not only because of the three-day voting, which made oversight of the electoral process much more difficult, but also because of the unspoken war, which, according to the co-chair of the Russian national movement for the protection of voters’ rights, Grigory Melkonyants, election commissions of all levels declared against independent observers. Melkonyants told 7×7 online magazine what negative trends had appeared in the 2020 elections, and how they can be minimised before the 2021 elections.
When the vote on amendments to the Constitution was held, many were of the opinion that it was the most dishonest vote in Russia’s recent history. Could the elections of 13 September qualify for this title?
It is difficult to say that these were the most dishonest elections ever, because the situations in various regions were very different. For example, in the Arkhangelsk, Irkutsk and Kostroma regions and in the Komi Republic, in terms of organising voting and counting votes, everything was more or less fine. But there were also many regions where voting was organised with gross violations that could have affected the voting results. These are the Krasnodar, Tatarstan, Chelyabinsk, Samara, Vladimir and Nizhny Novgorod regions. That’s to say, it’s a different picture in different parts of the country.
That said, an overall very negative trend can be seen, which will definitely have an impact on the upcoming elections for the State Duma. Electoral legislation has never been so complex, opportunities for falsification have never been so numerous, and there has never been such a decrease in the transparency and accountability of procedures. We are witnessing the apotheosis of the degradation of the electoral system over the past 20-plus years.
How does this degradation show itself?
Aggression and intolerance towards observers and even members of commissions, constant attempts to hide things, not providing information required by law – we have seen all this over the years under the former chair of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov. The beginning of the work of the new membership of the Central Election Commission in 2016 was accompanied by the dismantling of Churov’s legacy: the climate at polling stations began to change for the better, the commissions began to move from confrontational relations with observers moved towards constructive dialogue. During the entire period of the work of the new composition of the Central Election Commission we have not encountered any mass removal of observers from polling stations, or any large-scale campaigns to discredit them, as was the case under Churov. On the contrary, it was publicly said that the Central Election Commission considers criticism to be valuable and important and that information about violations makes elections more honest and legitimate. The leader of this campaign to improve the reputation of our elections was the Central Election Commission chair Ella Pamfilova. She sought to be the figure of a public human rights activist who opposes dirty technologies and the abuse of administrative resources.
However, since 2019 the situation has changed dramatically.
Electoral legislation has become worse, the attitude towards observers and information about violations has deteriorated. Such information is now declared to be ‘fake news.’ Provocations are organised against observers and activists, and a prejudiced attitude towards opposition candidates has taken hold.
This change in the direction of the development of the electoral system has become not only noticeable but blatant.
How did this manifest itself in the current elections?
The most flagrant instances, of course, involve the use of violence against both observers and candidates. It might be physical or psychological, as when observers were terrorized all day long or attempts were made under various pretexts to expel them from the polling stations. In Krasnodar region, for example, a member of the Territorial Electoral Commission was trying to drive away observers, shouting at them and accusing them of extremism and undermining the state. In Vladimir region on the night of 11-12th September, the police took several observers 100 kilometers out of the city, dropped them off on the roadside and warned them not to return.
The 2020 elections have shown that the response to reports of irregularities by observers has also changed. The Central Electoral Commission confirmed only those reported violations that had irrefutable evidence, that is, those supported by video, documents or a large number of witnesses. In other cases, the Central Electoral Commission conducted their monitoring very formally : they would appeal to the chair of the commission where the violation had been reported and would ask if they could confirm that violation. They would deny everything, after which the Central Electoral Commission would announce that information about the violation had not been confirmed by their inspection and that it was all fake. So they would denigrate all these reports and say they were unfounded. In this way they cover each others’ backs in a way that is beneficial both for the Central Electoral Commission, who can claim that there were no violations, and also for the regional commissions, which have no interest in confirming violations in so far as they might be held accountable for them.
How can we explain such a disparaging and aggressive attitude towards observers?
This is the last election campaign for the current members of the Central Electoral Commission and I think the Central Electoral Commission leadership has a desire to write itself into the history of the elections in a positive light. With the spotlight of history on them, the Central Electoral Commission is much more hostile now to any criticism than it was previously.
On the other hand, we have felt that every year the pressure on the Central Election Commission from the staff of the presidential administration has increased. When this current Central Electoral Commission began to operate we had a very constructive relationship. We met regularly, shared views, and gave recommendations. The presidential administration was dissatisfied that independent observers from Golos had access to the leadership of the Central Electoral Commission and could communicate with them on their alternative information and proposals. Now the Central Electoral Commission barely communicates with us, our alternative information does not reach its leadership. Observers from the Civic Chamber were parachuted in and engaged in a sham of election observation. Experts with whom they have to communicate were also appointed from above. We call it ‘self-mystification.’ Thus they inhabit an imaginary black and white world inhabited only by themselves and their enemies.
They believe that there are some external forces that are dreaming of discrediting our elections. And they live in this kind of made-up distorted reality, in this kind of information bubble.
Psychologically, it is more pleasant to listen to praise about yourself, to receive state awards and bonuses worth several salaries, than to endure all this criticism, which their senior colleagues describe as falsifications and provocations.
Have these elections differed in terms of the number of violations?
They didn’t differ much, there were about two thousand reported violations. But reports of irregularities have never been an indicator of the integrity of an election. Rather, they are a fixation of a trend on the one hand, and on the other hand, an indicator of the activity of the election observation itself. If there are several reports of violations in Moscow, but not a single one from Chechnya, this does not mean everything is fine in Chechnya and everything is bad in Moscow. This means that civil society is active in the capital.
But there have been a lot of reports about procedural violations
Yes, this is another difference between the current elections and the voting in 2019 – the disregard for the law, and not only at the level of local commissions whose members understand they can either not fulfil or violate the procedures and that they will not be punished for it. This time I was shocked that this disregard of the right to vote began to manifest itself in speeches given by the Central Election Commission when they said that it’s fine if, for example, something is wrong with the secure bags – “It’s nothing, it happens.” Or when members of the commissions, instead of performing the processing of votes sequentially, do them in parallel, making it more difficult for observers to see what is happening. The commission declared that this was not a falsification, but just a procedural violation, and that it did not affect the outcome of the vote.
Errors in the packaging of secure bags, the mass refusal to allow observers and even members of the election commissions access to the documentation of early voting – all of this was seen as minor. Apparently, only the direct stuffing of ballots on camera in the presence of observers and the media is now considered a serious violation. Although ballot stuffing was recorded at the polling station in the Krasnodar region, the chair of the regional commission said that it was the stuffing of ordinary blank sheets of paper and there was nothing wrong with that. In essence, this is a state of emergency on a nationwide scale, and they are trying to lull us into a false sense of security all the time.
The main thing is that it is not the members of the election commissions, those who commit all these violations, who are guilty, but the observers and journalists who report about it. It is clear that political strategists are working with the Central Election Commission. All complaints are simply redirected back at those who made them. And all this transforms into an aggressive war.
On the eve of the federal elections, in all likelihood, it is necessary to prepare for the fact that there will be an even tougher attitude towards observers than there was under Churov, when observers were removed from polling stations.
In this election you had about three thousand observers, while there are about a hundred thousand polling stations in Russia. What was the reason for such a thin spread of observers this time? Was it the three-day voting process or something else, for example, the traditionally low levels of voter interest in elections at the municipal and regional levels?
Firstly, we have no aspiration to achieve total observation of elections at this level. Our task is to ‘poke thermometers’ into particular commissions and see what happens there. Secondly, like citizens, observers weren’t actually interested in the elections in every region. Thirdly, many of our observers have become members of election commissions. That is, these people are trying to improve the system from the inside. But at the same time we have to somehow make up for their departure with new faces.
And, fourthly, there is now a very complicated system for allowing observers into polling stations. Until 2005, observers in Russia could be sent by NGOs, then this option was removed, and since then Golos observers have begun to attend polling stations as representatives of the media. Under Pamfilova, access to polling stations was made more difficult for journalists, and a need for special accreditation was introduced so that they also needed to have had at least five months of work experience in a particular media outlet before voting day, which also cut off a large number of people.
In fact, the only option we had left was to send observers from any candidates or political parties which were prepared to provide us with the necessary mandate without any political strings.
We specifically stipulate that we do not represent the interests of the candidate, but are independent observers who simply have to use their status as such, as there is no other way to get into the polling station. But here there is a huge risk that during the campaign, a party or candidate may withdraw their permission under pressure from the authorities or for some other reason of their own. We have had such cases.
There is still the option of passing as an observer from the regional civic chamber, but here the picture is not good.
The experience of the nationwide vote on the constitutional amendments demonstrated that civic chambers recruit observers behind the scenes, in effect through administrative structures, and it is difficult for independent outsiders to become election observers through these bodies.
Moreover, everything is arranged in such a way that the chamber can send you to any site at its discretion, and there were cases, as in the Kemerovo region, when observers were sent to the other end of the region hundreds of kilometres away on purpose, to complicate things for them.
And during this campaign we had regions such as the wider Moscow area, where it was generally impossible to get candidates, or public chambers or media outlets to work with us to enable us to observe the elections.
There was also pressure on observers. Now the authorities want to know in advance which observers will be present at which polling stations. On the one hand, as I said, they have introduced accreditation for media employees. And if until 2016 an observer could freely walk around polling stations and no one knew in advance where to expect them, now they have the right to work only at one polling station.
On the other hand, lists of observers, indicating which specific polling stations they will be observing, must be submitted to the election commission three days before the voting for candidates and parties. Thus, the administrators of these elections, technical staff and law enforcement agencies know in advance who will observe at which polling station.
We have had cases where “preventative conversations” were conducted with people on these lists, if they were students or employees of government organizations, so that they did not go to the polling stations on voting day.
We know of cases where violent pressure was exerted on the organisers of the monitoring – those who were involved in the training and coordination of the observers. For example, the offices used by our colleagues in Tatarstan were searched, and the police attacked our coordinator in the Krasnodar Territory. And such issues in federal elections may no longer manifest just locally, but on the national level, when there will simply be lists of the organisers of election monitoring whom the authorities want to neutralise by means of provocations, searches, beatings, and discrediting by spreading false information.
Why has the fight with independent observers suddenly scaled up to such a degree?
Because they are now becoming the only restraint on falsification. Some opposition and alternative parties and candidates will be allowed in the elections for the State Duma (tentatively set for 19 September 2021) no matter what. It will not be possible to totally clean up the lists of permitted candidates, in contrast with the regional elections. Therefore it is most probable that they will again try this multi-day uncontrolled voting and, if necessary, organise falsifications on the main day of voting.
The elections on 13 September showed that even in the most difficult regions, such as the Krasnodar region, the voting and turnout results at polling stations where there were independent observers were significantly different from those at stations where there were no observers. Thus in Tambov, where there was large-scale observation, many mobile groups, the Rodina party won the elections and United Russia lost.
Observers acquire a decisive significance in the State Duma elections. That means that while any candidates can be nominated, if the votes are not protected, we will be presented with whatever results they want.
Therefore, the main task now is to form a team of several thousand observers. And this is not only a task for Golos, but for all political and civil society forces. It is wrong to concentrate only on nominating candidates and campaigning. It is necessary for each polling station to have a minimum of two independent observers who will be on duty for every day of voting. For this we need about 200,000 people. It is totally realistic to find at least two people who live in nearby buildings for each polling station.
Is there a strategy for how to do this? What kind of tactics will you now use to recruit people to be observers?
We do have a strategy for how to do this. But I don’t want to go into detail prematurely for security reasons. I’ll say only that we have information which will allow us to guarantee a full cycle of observers being present at the polling stations, and which will help all those who want to realise their right to be observers. The search for and assignment of people to polling stations, the preparation and submission of documents to become observers, training, coordination during voting days, getting feedback on whether procedures were followed and on voting results—all of this will be organised through a special cross-platform service. We understand that observation will be a priority task for everyone. Including for the authorities, who will do their best to weaken and get rid of the independent observers.
And the attacks on the organisers of election observation are getting stronger. Therefore, our task is to create a project, as autonomous as possible, that can coordinate the work of a large number of observers and yet not be dependent on concrete individuals.
Do you have any plans for a project similar to the ‘Golos’ platform in Belarus, which was launched for the presidential elections and sought to implement an alternative method for counting votes, specifically by an electronic system in which voters could register in a system and upload a photo of their ballot?
We followed this Belarusian IT project very closely to see how it would work out, but for the time being we don’t think the ‘Golos’ system would work well in practice. For example, there was a set of primary ballots gathered by them. They did this because the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) doesn’t publish the primary protocols of every precinct, and electoral observers aren’t actually allowed to enter the precinct counts. Therefore, they asked the voters to, in effect, form a parallel electoral commission which could calculate and store all these votes. Our situation isn’t as dire as in Belarus; we have independent observers monitoring for any complications and who can enter polling stations. Our electoral commission publishes their protocols (albeit often with discrepancies) online for public access. Therefore, we don’t see the point of doing this sort of routine work which can’t provide the representation required on the scale our country needs.
For those who want to be become an independent observer in the Federal Duma Elections, what do they need to do?
With the help of our new online service which we plan to launch before the end of the year, you can select a polling station, preferably the one your registered voter address is in. If you do, you have a better chance of interacting with the commission and the legal system. This is because you have the right to vote at this polling station and therefore have the right to protect the polling station. You should study the polling station commission’s records and discover past violations that have been committed and the results in this polling station in previous elections. After selecting your polling station you should register on our site. We’ll already be in contact with these people to be certain that we are in fact monitoring the specified polling station and not some other. We’ll organise our work in such a way that people will begin to be concerned not about the fairness of the elections overall but specifically about protecting the integrity of their own vote and the votes of their neighbours at their polling station.