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Campaigning and Administrative Voter Mobilization for the Unified Election Day on 13 September 2020

13 September 2020

Contents

Key Findings 

1. Using government propaganda mechanisms for the benefit of the "administrative" candidates  

1.1 Media outlets violating the principles of pluralism during the election campaign  

1.2. The impact of "administrative" candidates on public discourse on social media   

2. Cases of campaign interference    

2.1 Putting candidates under pressure and cases of campaign interference   

2.2. The impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the freedom of will-building   

2.3. Voter coercion and bribery    

3. Illegal campaigning and "black PR"    

The 13 September 2020 elections are the first major elections in Russia held in the "COVID-19 era." The resulting situation has had a heavy impact on campaigning procedures, yet it has not made any fundamental changes in Russia's electoral system. The system is primarily characterized by unequal campaigning conditions for the candidates, pressuring opposition candidates and voters as well as by a well-established system of government propaganda in the media that has been actively spreading over social media and the Internet altogether in the past few years. 

For the first time in many years, the Movement for Defense of Voters' Rights "Golos" managed to conduct a systemic analysis of the media component in the regional elections. We also monitored candidate and voter activity on social media. The first chapter of this report covers monitoring results.

The second chapter deals with the issue of campaign interference. Special attention is given to analyzing the impact of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on freedom of assembly, which is described in a separate section of the report. Candidates found themselves in a more challenging context than in previous years, as the restrictions reinforced the existing campaigning inequality between government-endorsed candidates and their opponents even further. 

The shorter third chapter addresses illegal campaigning and negative campaigning (known in Russia as "black PR") methods used by both pro-government and opposition candidates. This may very well be the first time in the past few years when the candidates exhibited as much activity as they did.

This is the fourth report compiled by Golos as part of the long-term observation project focused on the September 13 electionsThis is the fourth report compiled by Golos as part of the long-term observation project focused on the September 13 elections. This time we take a closer look at campaigning. Previous reports covered legal aspects of the elections, the results of gubernatorial candidate nomination and registration as well as the results of candidate nomination and registration for elections to representative and local government bodies. Golos also made a special report on municipal filter procedures in Perm Krai. The upcoming reports will examine the gubernatorial elections in Irkutsk Oblast as well as deputy elections in Novosibirsk, Russia's largest municipality.

An overall of 9071 campaigns will take place on September 13. These include by-elections to the Russian State Duma in four constituencies (considered as one campaign), gubernatorial elections in 18 regions, local legislative elections in 11 regions and city council elections in 22 administrative centers. Over 78 deputy seats and elective offices are to be replaced.

The main report provides only a brief description of cases of electoral fraud and electoral rights violation. For more detailed description, refer to the Appendix (includes over 100 most notable examples).


Key Findings

  1. The treatment meted out by election commissions, courts, law enforcement agencies, government agencies and local government bodies to candidates with or without government endorsement has become so unequal that we may as well state that Russia is seeing the development of two electoral systems—one for the "inner circle" and the other for everyone else. The opponents of the "administrative" candidates essentially have to run their campaign under much stricter rules than their competitors. The differences are evident in all aspects, such as media coverage of candidate activity, campaigning assistance and interference, court rulings and election commission decisions and even the need to observe the "COVID-19 era" restrictions.
  2. "The fight against the epidemic" has effectively turned into the restriction of voting rights of citizens. This restriction challenges the very opportunity of citizens to freely express their will, while lifting lockdown restrictions for crowded public areas (shopping malls, restaurants, museums, etc.) highlights how inadequate and unjustified the restrictions on holding rallies, pickets and meetings with voters are, especially when said restrictions do not apply to government-endorsed candidates. Through manipulation, citizens were effectively stripped of their basic political freedom, which the Constitutional Court of Russia recognizes as one of the forms of peaceful and constructive social dialogue as well an important manifestation of social and political freedom of an individual. According to the Constitutional Court, this manifestation is part of the set of democratic institutions that promotes the development and expression of will and interests among citizens of the Russian Federation. 
  3. Nationwide system of government propaganda has become one of the major problems for elections in Russia. Said propaganda methods include the government dominating all possible media outlets, manipulating public opinion on social media, hampering the work of opposition candidates (and even pressuring them) and, on the contrary, favoring "administrative" candidates. The system of government propaganda is unconstitutional by nature and effectively makes it impossible for citizens to express their free will by uprooting the principle of pluralism (which is key when holding a fair election) in the media.
  4. Media monitoring conducted by Golos using the "SCAN-Interfax" system revealed that the total number of mentions for "administrative" candidates in the corresponding regional media outlets was seven times greater than that of all other active candidates combined. The most unequal media coverage was found in Leningrad Oblast, where Governor Aleksandr Drozdenko is mentioned almost 24 times more often than all his opponents. Krasnodar Krai, Smolensk Oblast, Penza Oblast, Kostroma Oblast, Kaluga Oblast and Rostov Oblast occupied the leading spots in media inequality as well. Even in the regions with better media coverage for gubernatorial candidates (Chuvash Republic, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Irkutsk Oblast and Bryansk Oblast), the situation is still deplorable. For example, although Irkutsk Oblast hosts this year's most competitive elections, governor ad interim is still mentioned 12 times more than his main competitor. Such advantage is mainly created through publishing media content about "administrative" candidates who are either work as central and local government officials or receive government contracts and grants. 
  5. To create these advantages, the state-controlled media and the "administrative" candidates themselves use the deficiencies found in electoral legislation. Since there is no obligation for such candidates to take a leave for the entire election period, they are able to effectively run a campaign under the guise of gubernatorial affairs. Golos has been insisting for many years that the highest office holders who run in the election must be legally obliged to take a leave for the entirety of election campaign.
  6. The reality does not always live up to the old hope that the Internet will be able to correct the imbalance in media coverage of politics (including elections). In fact, social media may very well exacerbate the inequality of candidates in public discussion. Social media monitoring helped us to identify many examples of almost simultaneous publishing of identical texts in support of "administrative" candidates across major regional communities on various social media platforms. For many "administrative" gubernatorial candidates, communities and social media accounts of various news media outlets are still the primary driving force behind spreading information (as opposed to personal accounts of users). This campaigning method has two key issues. The first issue is greater funding opportunities for such posts, as the election funds are joined by taxpayer money. The second issue springs from the fact that the media and advertising companies are obliged to publish sponsored campaigning materials as opposed to social media community owners. The latter have no such duty, since they can publish sponsored campaigning materials of one candidate and reject the other with impunity. Owners of large communities, which sometimes replace the media in their respective regions, rarely stop to think of their duties to society in upholding the principle of pluralism. The situation is exacerbated even further when campaigning posts appear on official social media accounts of central and local government agencies as well as educational, cultural and health institutions.
  7. Nevertheless, the Internet remains much more pluralistic and diverse. This is likely explained by the low-quality work on behalf of the government, which manifests in low engagement rates for such posts. For example, the average engagement rate for posts mentioning "Drozdenko" in Leningrad Oblast amounts to only 14 different reactions (likes, comments, reposts). The same average index for the last name "Kobzev" in Irkutsk Oblast amounts to only 8 points, and 9.3 points for "Tsybulsky" in Arkhangelsk Oblast. 
  8. In various elections, candidates are put under pressure by central and local authorities, law enforcement agencies and employers, who often resort to threats. Candidates and their office employees are faced with abuse, bribery attempts, property damage and theft (including campaigning materials). Special mention has to be given to persecution attempts towards David Kankiya in Krasnodar Krai. David Kankiya is a council member and coordinator for the Golos movement. 
  9. There is a stark contrast in treatment that central and local government agencies mete out to candidates endorsed by administrations of various levels. They are given advantages that are either not stipulated or even forbidden by the legislation. Such advantages include government officials and municipal employees being involved in campaigning for said candidates, assistance in organizing meetings with voters, using state funds in order to help certain candidates, etc.


1. Using government propaganda mechanisms for the benefit of the "administrative" candidates


1.1 Media outlets violating the principles of pluralism during the election campaign

The Convention on Standards of Democratic Election, Voting Rights and Freedoms in the CIS member states decrees that authentic elections guarantee that the will of the people is expressed freely and executed directly. This requires genuine political pluralism, ideological diversity and a multi-party system, voters having free access to information on candidates and the process of elections, and in the case of candidates free access to mass media (Article 9 of the Convention).

That said, the legal philosophies of the Constitutional Court of Russia (see, for example, CCR Judgment No. 11-П dated 13 April 2017), OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights all converge with each other on the need to observe the principles of pluralism. Moreover, the ECHR asserts that it should be the state's obligation to promote effective media pluralism (Execution of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights dated 7 June 2012 re "Centro Europa 7 S.R.L. and Di Stefano against Italy"). 

However, political and media contexts have very complex definitions of pluralism. It does not come down to multi-party representation or diverse media ownership alone. In this case, political pluralism guarantees would have been strictly formal rather than informative.

The term is specified in the Recommendation No. R (99) 1 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on measures to promote media pluralism. The Recommendation states that genuine political pluralism provides access to pluralistic media content (information in particular) and enables different groups in society—including political minorities—to express their views and interests. The Recommendation's explanatory memorandum states that the notion of "pluralism" includes two synonymous aspects. The first is having a multiplicity of autonomous and independent media outlets, while the second is diversity of content (views and opinions) presented to the public. Combining these two aspects is the only way to create the necessary conditions for forming an informed opinion. 

In Russian reality, however, the state does not simply fall short of its obligations to guarantee equal rights for candidates in media discourse—it is in fact the main violator of this principle. By creating unjustified advantages for the "administrative" candidates, central and local government agencies breach the constitutional principles of republicanism and democracy. This is most evident in gubernatorial elections.

Using the "SCAN-Interfax" system, Golos monitored regional media publications that mentioned gubernatorial candidates. The monitoring process covered the period from the date the decision to call the election was published (between June 10 and 15 for different regions) through September 6. Only the candidates who were registered as of September 6 were included in the monitoring process. For search purposes, the names of candidates were put together into a phrase containing first and last names. The monitoring process covered media publications in the corresponding regions only (TV, radio, printed newspapers and magazines, news agency feeds, news media websites and industry-specific portals). Publications not taken into account by the monitoring process included those on news aggregators, government agency websites, state-run company websites and blogs of any kind. 

Media monitoring subsequently revealed that the total number of mentions for "administrative" candidates in the corresponding regional media outlets was seven times greater than that of all other active candidates combined (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. The number of candidate mentions in regional media (based on data from the "SCAN-Interfax" system)

That said, none of the regions indicated a situation that would have provided at least remotely equal media coverage for candidates (see Table 1).

Table 1. The advantage of "administrative" candidates over other candidates (combined) in terms of regional media coverage (by region) 




Region

Advantage, times

Leningrad Oblast

23.9

Krasnodar Krai

17.2

Smolensk Oblast

14.5

Penza Oblast

13.5

Kostroma Oblast

13.1

Kaluga Oblast

12.5

Rostov Oblast

11.3

Komi Republic

8.5

Jewish Autonomous Oblast

7.6

Republic of Tatarstan

7.6

Kamchatka Krai

7.5

Sevastopol

5.8

Tambov Oblast

5.7

Perm Krai

5.5

Arkhangelsk Oblast

4.7

Chuvash Republic

4.4

Irkutsk Oblast

3.8

Bryansk Oblast

3.5




As can be seen from Table 2, the most unequal media coverage is found in Leningrad Oblast, where Governor Aleksandr Drozdenko is mentioned almost 24 times more often than all his opponents (see Figure 2).



Krasnodar Krai, Smolensk Oblast, Penza Oblast, Kostroma Oblast, Kaluga Oblast and Rostov Oblast also take up leading positions in media coverage inequality (see Figures 3-8). 


Figure 3. The number of gubernatorial candidate mentions in Krasnodar Krai media




Figure 4. The number of gubernatorial candidate mentions in Smolensk Oblast media




Figure 5. The number of gubernatorial candidate mentions in Penza Oblast media




Figure 6. The number of gubernatorial candidate mentions in Kostroma Oblast media




Figure 7. The number of gubernatorial candidate mentions in Kaluga Oblast media




Figure 8. The number of gubernatorial candidate mentions in Rostov Oblast media



Such advantage is mainly created through publishing media content about "administrative" candidates who work as either central and local government officials or receive government contracts and grants. For example, the TV channel "Kuban-24" became the leading media outlet in terms of mentions for the United Russia candidate. The channel systematically receives financing from Krasnodar Krai budget (see Figure 9).

Figure 9. The main Krasnodar Krai media outlets mentioning gubernatorial candidates



The channel is effectively campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Veniamin Kondratyev while trying to disguise it as information distribution. That said, some of the channel's pieces are clearly lobbyist, although they do not contain any information on being funded by the candidate's campaign depository. For example, on August 3 the channel rolled a piece called "Veniamin Kondratyev's public support office holds the first meeting," which covered Kondatyev's involvement in the election campaign and promoted a positive image of Kondratyev the candidate: "The acting governor seeks re-election for a new term and has already filed his candidate registration documents. About a hundred of his supporters are expected to assist him with campaigning, including activists and leaders of many different professional communities..." The TV piece also described the changes Kuban had gone through over the past five years. The achievements included improved green areas, restored cultural facilities, new sports facilities, new health posts in rural areas and newly-equipped regional clinics. "Veniamin Kondratyev has set a clear task: every Kuban resident should have easy access to sports facilities, regardless of where he or she is living. And I can confirm that over the past five years Krasnodar Krai has acquired 18 wonderful community-based sports complexes as well as 56 multifunctional sports grounds," — says Irina Karavayeva, Olympic champion and chair of Krasnodar Krai Olympic Council" (see Appendix, card no. 1).

A similar scenario unfolded in other regions, including municipal elections (see Appendix, cards no. 2-9).

Even in the regions with better media coverage for gubernatorial candidates (Chuvash Republic, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Irkutsk Oblast and Bryansk Oblast), the situation is still deplorable. For example, although Irkutsk Oblast hosts this year's most competitive elections, governor ad interim is still mentioned 12 times more than his main competitor (see Figure 10).

Figure 10. The number of gubernatorial candidate mentions in Irkutsk Oblast media



What is more, this is scenario is typical for the entire campaigning period, not for some of its isolated phases (see Figure 11).


Figure 11. The dynamics of gubernatorial candidate mentions in Irkutsk Oblast media



A similar scenario may be found in the Chuvash Republic, for example (see Figure 12), where it provoked protests from candidates, who called to ban the news pieces on Oleg Nikolayev. The candidates believed that the TV pieces covertly lobbied the interests of governor ad interim (Oleg Nikolayev), and claimed the elections were unfair.


Figure 12. The dynamics of gubernatorial candidate mentions in the Chuvash Republic media 


To create these advantages, the state-controlled media and the "administrative" candidates themselves use the deficiencies found in electoral legislation. Since there is no obligation for such candidates to take a leave for the entire election period, they are able to effectively run a campaign under the guise of gubernatorial affairs. Moreover, it allows them to seek support of high-ranking government officials, which they demonstrate at the taxpayers' expense. 

For example, a large team of federal-level politicians arrived in Irkutsk Oblast in August in order to support Igor Kobzev. The first team member was Sergei Shoigu (former Minister of Emergency Situations and Kobzev's senior officer while in this office), who accompanied Kobzev in overseeing the restoration efforts in Tulun after the devastating flood hit the town in 2019. The second team member was Herman Gref, Sberbank CEO and chair, as Sberbank is funding the construction of a new hospital in Tulun. The third team member was Timur Ivanov, Deputy Defence Minister, who will be responsible for building a Suvorov Military School in the city of Irkutsk, which will become the the first such school in Siberian Federal District. The fourth team member was Oleg Belozyorov, Russian Railways president, who is planning to cut down the forests along Lake Baikal to build railway infrastructure objects. The fifth team member was Mikhail Murashko, Minister of Health, who personally awarded Irkutsk doctors for their work in the COVID-19 pandemic. The sixth team member was Maksim Reshetnikov, Minister of Economic Development, who is currently working on chemical industry issues in the town of Usolye-Sibirskoye. The media extensively covered all these events.

Golos has been insisting for many years that the highest office holders who run in the election must be legally obliged to take a leave for the entirety of election campaign.


1.2. The impact of "administrative" candidates on public discourse on social media


Social media monitoring using the "SCAN-Interfax" system revealed that social media were unable to correct the imbalance in campaign coverage. For example, in the Chuvash Republic, the system identified 2577 user posts mentioning the ongoing elections in the region between July 22 and September 6 (including message texts, quoted reposts, comments, texts on images and in videos, stories and excluding regular reposts). Out of these posts, 852 mentioned "Nikolayev," the last name of the governor ad interim (33% out of the total number of identified texts). The intended audience of these posts amounted to 6,572,794 users, while the engagement rate amounted to 11,436. "Andreyev," the last name of Oleg Nikolayev's CPRF opponent, was mentioned 419 times—only half as many. However, "Nikolayev" was mostly mentioned in communities (419 times) and on the accounts (48 times) of news media outlets instead of personal accounts (375 times), while "Andreyev" was mostly mentioned on personal user accounts (248 mentions against 149 community and 20 account mentions). 

This is quite a typical election scenario, which we believe is connected with sponsored campaigning posts supporting "administrative" candidates in major regional communities, where all posts go through premoderation. For example, six identical text posts appeared in six different Chuvash communities following one of the TV debate rounds: "The most UNpleasant aspects in the recent debate involving Oleg Nikolayev were the attempts of some opponents to score points off the governor ad interim. Like LDPR candidate blabbing out his time limit and claiming "you might as well turn the TV off now, won't get much from now on." Elections are elections, I get it, but we have to stay civil." The community called "Cheboksary Live" (62,500 followers) was the largest among its peers.  

Perm Krai's governor ad interim Dmitry Manokhin was running a similar promotion campaign on regional social media. Figure 13 shows scanned copies of results tagged "Makhonin" obtained through automatic 24-hour monitoring of social media communities, news media accounts and personal accounts in Perm Krai (although for some reason, there are cases when public pages for administrations feature as personal accounts). August 3 monitoring results. 

Figure 13. August 3 monitoring results tagged "Makhonin" (Perm Krai) 


Dmitry Makhonin received 313 mentions, where about 140 were either posts or reposts while the rest were user comments. Nearly all (!) of these main posts seem like materials (press releases) prepared and mailed out all over the region by some PR unit working for the governor's executive office. It is difficult to imagine that 25 different public pages had agreed among themselves to prepare and post the same text while 14 other public pages did the same with another text. These public pages include many popular communities (for example, numerous "Podslushano" (lit. "overheard") variations or "Dak eto Perm!" (lit. "Well, that's Perm!"), which we may safely assume are capable of publishing official materials under certain conditions. Some communities would readily post about the governor ad interim 5-7 times a day. 

This campaigning method has two key issues. The first issue is greater funding opportunities for such posts, as the election funds are joined by tax-payer money. The budgets for promoting candidates on social media continue to grow while no effective expenditure control mechanism exists yet. The second issue springs from the fact that the media and advertising companies are obliged to publish sponsored campaigning materials as opposed to social media community owners. The latter have no such duty, since they can publish sponsored campaigning materials of one candidate and reject the other with impunity. 

One of the most common forms of voting rights violation was posting campaigning materials on official social media accounts of central government agencies, local government agencies as well as educational, cultural and health institutions (see, for example, Appendix, cards no. 10-13).

As a result, the reality does not always live up to the old hope that the Internet will be able to correct the imbalance in media coverage of politics (including elections). In fact, social media may very well exacerbate the inequality of candidates in public discussion. Owners of large communities, which sometimes replace the media in their respective regions, rarely stop to think of their duties to society in upholding the principle of pluralism.

It seems that the low-quality government work is the only thing that keeps the situation at bay. The low quality manifests in the low user engagement rates for such overly formal posts. 

For example, in Leningrad Oblast, the "SCAN-Interfax" system identified 3515 user posts mentioning "Drozdenko" (the last name of the "administrative" candidate) between July 22 and September 6. This number amounts to more than a half of all posts concerning elections in the region. Community text posts and posts made by news media accounts make up more than a half of that number (3515). However, the engagement rate (sum of comments, likes and reposts for all posts) for these materials amounted to only 50,614, meaning an average of 14 different reactions to such posts, which is quite low. The same average index for the last name "Kobzev" in Irkutsk Oblast amounts to only 8 points, and 9.3 points for "Tsybulsky" in Arkhangelsk Oblast.

2. Cases of campaign interference



2.1 Candidates facing pressure and cases of campaign interference


Free access to information and its unobstructed distribution during election campaign are two of the key conditions of having a proper political discussion, which is instrumental in helping the voters to make a conscious choice. 

Unfortunately, there are many reports stating campaign interference in the 2020 elections. First, it implies multiple cases of damaging and stealing campaigning materials (see Appendix, cards no. 14-33). That said, such offences often involve employees of state and municipal institutions, company managers and self-government organization representatives (see Appendix, cards no. 14-16). 

Moreover, some candidates were unjustly rejected by business companies when trying to place orders for making or placing/installing campaigning materials. For example, in Kaluga City Duma election, CPRF and "New People" candidates claimed they were unable to distribute their campaigning materials on a commercial basis. Sergei Lichman (CPRF) was rejected by advertising companies when trying to install outdoor advertising materials. Sergei Boiko, head of Aleksei Navalny's office in Novosibirsk reported similar issues. At first he struggled to put his campaign video on one of the city screens through the only advertising agency in Novosibirsk that agreed to help him, but in two days the agency refused to continue rolling the clip and refunded him.

Golos long-term election observer in Kaluga Oblast reported that "New People" candidates to Kaluga City Duma from single-member constituencies complained about delays in obtaining approval for campaigning materials from their own party. Party of Growth candidates voiced similar complaints. 

However, most of the trouble is caused by political competition. There are blatantly criminal interference cases as well. In Kostroma, former business ombudsman turned opposition candidate Sergei Galichev reported that on August 30, an employee of United Russia candidate office stole 5,500 pieces of freshly printed campaign flyers and calendars right from the print shop. The campaign office of candidate Alla Bubnova-Bragina suffered at the hands of raiders, who also stole campaign materials and destroyed the advertising cube outside the office. In fact, the systematic disappearance of campaign materials (including banner takedowns) in Kostroma drew significant response. A number of electoral process participants (Party of Social Security, CPRF, Yabloko) has already made public announcements: "The police were called in, and we are currently pondering the initiation of administrative proceedings under the Article 5.14 of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation and criminal proceedings under article on hooliganism, campaign materials vandalism."

Campaign interference often goes hand in hand with the use of violence or threats towards candidates, their office employees or supporters (see Appendix, cards no. 34-45). Reports of such cases come from the Chuvash Republic, Krasnodar Krai, Vladimir Oblast, Lipetsk Oblast and Novosibirsk Oblast. In some cases, like in the Chuvash Republic, Novosibirsk Oblast and Ryazan Oblast, campaign interference is assisted by law enforcement officers, who are in fact supposed to protect the voting rights of citizens instead of actively assisting with their violation (see Appendix, cards no. 46-53). 

Special mention has to be given to persecution attempts towards David Kankiya in Krasnodar Krai. David Kankiya is a council member and coordinator for the Golos movement. On August 31, Police Patrol and Inspection Service officers stopped Kankiya outside his house in Krasnodar. The police officers refused to identify themselves, acted with hostility, made demands without legal grounds, threatened Kankiya with administrative detention and other difficulties. 

Candidates also experience pressure from their employers and administration representatives who threaten them with future difficulties (see Appendix, cards no. 54-56). For example, a rural area deputy candidate had to withdraw from the election in the Republic of Kalmykia, as district administration kept pressuring him while he stayed in the hospital for COVID-19.

There is a stark contrast in treatment that central and local government agencies mete out to candidates endorsed by administrations of various levels. They are given advantages that are either not stipulated or even forbidden by the legislation (see Appendix, cards no. 57-68). Such advantages include government officials and municipal employees being involved in campaigning for said candidates, assisting with organization of meetings with voters, candidates themselves taking part in campaigning events of various types, using state funds in order to help certain candidates, etc.

Moreover, there were reports of attempted bribery of candidates (see Appendix, cards no. 69-71). The most surprising stories come out of Novosibirsk Oblast. Aleksei Polyakov, a failed spoiler candidate for the Novosibirsk Legislative Assembly elections in constituency no. 22, brought a contract termination lawsuit against Artem Gromov, assistant to CPRF candidate Andrei Zhirnov. Under the conditions of said contract, Polyakov was hired to run in the Legislative Assembly elections in constituency no. 22. He assumed obligations to nominate himself, collect signatures, register and run a campaign. Failure to perform these obligations as well as withdrawal from elections carried a liability of 2 million roubles (about 26,700 USD) for each case of violation. Polyakov nominated himself and began collecting signatures. He learned shortly after he was a namesake of independent candidate Ilya Polyakov, who was also running in constituency no. 22. A similar scenario played out in constituency no. 36 with independent candidate Andrei Andreyev. Andrei Andreyev is the brother of Aleksei Andreyev, an acting deputy and a United Russia candidate. In an interview with Taiga.info, Andrei Andreyev claimed that about a month ago he met Vladimir Tolstykh, who introduced himself as assistant to candidate Plotnikov. Tolstykh offered Andreyev 1 million roubles (about 13,350 USD) if the latter agreed to nominate himself and gave him a "down payment" of 100,000 roubles (about 1340 USD) (see Appendix, cards no. 71).

2.2. The impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the freedom of will-building



The complete dominance of candidates and parties endorsed by the current government over the media landscape could have been partially offset by face-to-face meetings with voters and street campaigning. 

There is no denying that the right to peaceful assembly guaranteed by the Russian Constitution is one of the ways of expressing one's attitude towards the current political situation and articulating new social demands. Mass events that take place during the election campaign or before its start should be viewed as an integral part of pre-election discussion, as no authentic election is possible without one.

The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters prepared by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission states that the underlying electoral principles can only be guaranteed if such conditions as "respect for fundamental human rights, and particularly freedom of expression, assembly and association, without which there can be no true democracy" are fulfilled. 

Although the Venice Commission documents are merely advisory, the Constitutional Court of Russia consistently refers to the norms described there—namely those contained in the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters—in order to justify its legal position (The Constitutional Court Judgement No. 11-П dated 15 April 2014). As a result, the Constitutional Court of Russia has always recognized the fundamental nature of these documents for Russia's legal framework.

The legal framework of Russia aligns itself with these standards as well, pointing out the special role of the freedom of assembly in the process of will-building. The Constitutional Court of Russia has repeatedly pointed out (CCR Judgements No. 12-П dated 18 May 2012, No. 4-П dated 14 February 2013, No. 2-П dated 10 February 2017, No. 8-П dated 17 March 2017, No. 24-П dated 18 June 2019) the right of citizens to assemble peacefully, without weapons, hold rallies, meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets provided for in Article 31 of the Russian Constitution as one of the fundamental and integral components of the legal status of the individual in Russia. The Constitutional Court of Russia specifies that not only is this right one of the forms of peaceful and constructive social dialogue, but also a significant manifestation of social and political freedom of an individual. This right is part of the set of democratic institutions that enables identification and development of will and interests of the citizens of the Russian Federation (CCR Judgements No. 14-П dated 13 May 2014 and No. 24-П dated 18 June 2019). Clause 1 of Article 2 of the Federal Law "On Meetings, Rallies, Demonstrations, Marches and Picketing" expresses the same idea, stating that the objective of the public event is to exercise the free expression and development of opinions and to put forward demands concerning various issues of the country's life (including political life).

However, the restriction on the freedom of assembly was used by the government during the vote on Constitutional reform in order to obstruct citizens' expression of free will to the fullest extent possible. 

Most of the COVID-19 restrictions introduced in spring have already been lifted: cafes, restaurants, museums, libraries, shopping malls and public transportation operate in nearly every region of the country, people go to work and mass sports events are held as well. However, there are still restrictions in place for events that are mostly held outside, like rallies, meetings with voters, campaign picketing, etc. Legislative exceptions at the regional level were only made systematically for parties to nominate candidates. In certain regions, restrictions on meetings with voters have been eased, albeit only slightly. For example, on August 13, amendments were introduced into the Bryansk Oblast government Ruling No. 106-п dated 17 March 2020. The ruling itself allowed theaters, cinemas, concert halls, community centers, libraries, restaurants, cafes, cafeterias, buffets, bars and other eateries to reopen, while the amendments added the opportunity for gubernatorial candidates to meet with their voters (although no more than 10 at a time). Many regions were not given alleviation even as slight as these.

As a result, candidates in many regions complain of being unable to campaign properly under such conditions (see Appendix, cards no. 72-77): complains were registered in the Chuvash Republic, Vladimir, Kurgan, Lipetsk, Novosibirsk, Oryol and Ulyanovsk Oblasts.

For example, the city office of CPRF in Vladimir sent letters to the CEC of Russia, Vladimir Oblast Election Commission and the City of Vladimir Election Commission demanding to postpone the elections to the city council, as holding them in September would violate voting rights of citizens (self-isolation regime is still in place for citizens over 65 and the region still has not lifted the restriction on public events, which interferes with campaigning). Later, CPRF office in Vladimir filed a lawsuit listing the same demands as in the letters (see Appendix, card no. 72). 

In the Chuvash Republic, at a joint press-conference of candidates running for the seat of the head of the republic, City Council deputy for LDPR Konstantin Stepanov demanded the restrictions on public events be lifted: "Because of these restrictions, candidates cannot engage in public politics and meet their voters, as any meeting will be viewed as a picket or a rally. And now, Rospotrebnadzor forbids holding any mass events. In case we file a notice requesting to hold such an event, the municipal authorities will simply reject this request while referring to these restrictions," — claimed the candidate.

In the city of Ulyanovsk, police tried to cut short the protest rally organized by CPRF supporters against disqualifying their candidates. The rally was held in the form of deputy session and picketing organized by State Duma CPRF deputy Aleksei Kurinny (Figure 14). The police approached Kurinny twice demanding to stop the rally on account of the high-alert regime and restrictions on mass events being in place. However, as the rally was organized by a State Duma deputy, attempting to prosecute him would require the police to receive sanction from the Prosecutor General, so the indefinite rally continued.


Figure 14. CPRF supporters protesting in Ulyanovsk



The situation is further aggravated when "administrative" candidates try to sidestep these restrictions and give themselves even more campaigning advantages. An example from Kurgan Oblast shows that during the campaign for the elections to Kurgan Oblast Duma, representatives of regional departments and local self-government agencies, Pension Fund of Russia and multi-functional centers for state and municipal services as well as social security and education workers committed to a local United Russia project called "Open Region. TOGETHER 45." For the next two months, visiting public reception offices will operate in the cities of Kurgan and Shadrinsk as well as in some major population centers across the region. As a result, meetings with citizens may be held with the involvement of 20 acting deputies from both Kurgan Oblast Duma and Kurgan City Duma, who are also running for the regional parliament seats as United Russia candidates. These meetings are directly endorsed by executive government agencies and local administration employees. That said, other candidates are still unable to meet with their voters due to COVID-19 restrictions (see Appendix, card no. 77).

Despite the restrictions, the Chuvash Republic governor ad interim Oleg Nikolayev is holding meetings at major production facilities, state-funded institutions and construction sites. All meetings involve campaigning among employees of said organizations. Several State Duma deputies promoting "Nikolayev's development program" were detected on these campaigning trips. 

According to Yabloko representatives, the communist governor introduced restrictions on holding public and mass events in the city of Oryol, yet the said restrictions do not apply to United Russia and CPRF campaigning events. Yabloko candidates, on the other hand, are deprived of opportunity—Oryol City Sovetsky District Court supported the city administration's refusal to approve campaigning pickets.

It just as important that the system of election commissions used COVID-19 restrictions as an excuse for introducing "additional formats" of voting in the current elections—namely expanding the Unified Election Day to three days, following the example of the plebiscite on constitutional amendments. It is thus much more difficult to guarantee voting rights for citizens, just as it is to maintain public control of the elections. The existing scenario also created plenty of room for electoral fraud and voter coercion.

"The fight against the epidemic" has effectively turned into the restriction of voting rights of citizens. This restriction challenges the very opportunity of citizens to freely express their will, while lifting lockdown restrictions for crowded public areas (shopping malls, restaurants, museums, etc.) highlights how inadequate and unjustified the restrictions on holding rallies, pickets and meetings with voters are, especially when said restrictions do not apply to government-endorsed candidates. 

Moreover, despite the claims made by the CEC of Russia, the three-day voting has effectively resulted in educational process being stalled in a number of regions. For example, schools in Novosibirsk have already cancelled classes on September 11 and 12. Schools in the Republic of Tatarstan as well as Irkutsk and Belgorod Oblasts received recommendations to hold September 11 classes outdoors, in the form of either "health day" or a school trip. Schools in Penza Oblast plan to take the kids away from schools for extra-curricular activities. Schools in Voronezh and Lipetsk Oblasts will hold their classes remotely, just as they did during quarantine.


2.3. Voter coercion and bribery


Free expression of will is only possible when a citizen makes a conscious decision to support a certain candidate without facing any illicit outside pressure. This is why Russian electoral legislation prohibits both direct coercion of citizens and voter bribery to the same extent. 

Article 56 (sub-clauses 2 and 5) in particular does not simply prohibit voter bribery, but also any charitable acts performed by individuals engaged in election campaigning. Payment for any organizational work performed by voters shall also not depend on vote returns.

Still, this year the reports on voter bribery came in from several regions at once: Irkutsk Oblast, Lipetsk Oblast, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, Novosibirsk Oblast, Ryazan Oblast (see Appendix, cards no. 78-82). For example, in Lipetsk Oblast and Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, bribery attempts were disguised as charity events (see Appendix, cards no. 79, 80). In Ryazan Oblast, the "New People" party forces its observers to vote for this party alone. Otherwise, party representatives threaten to withhold the payment for observation (see Appendix, card no. 78).

The principle of free elections implies that a citizen's participation in elections and referendums is free and voluntary. No one shall compel a citizen of the Russian Federation to participate or not to participate in elections and referendums or shall prevent free expression of his will (Article 3 of Federal Law No. 67-FZ "On Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights...").

The start of early voting brought about first reports on voter coercion. In Krasnodar, employees of territorial public self-governments (TPSG) are made to fill in electoral rolls, while also stating that a TPSG employee may file an early voting application in place of a resident of said territory (see Appendix, card no. 83). In Novosibirsk Oblast, Governor Andrei Travnikov guaranteed that residents of a certain municipality would eventually face financial distribution issues (see Appendix, card no. 84). Employees of state-funded institutions in Irkutsk Oblast and Nizhny Novgorod Oblast are forced to vote early (see Appendix, cards no. 85-87).

That said early voting is held in the city of Irkutsk between September 2 and 10. For example, early voting for the by-election to Irkutsk City Duma of the 7th convocation in single-member constituency no. 10 and the re-election to Irkutsk City Duma of the 7th convocation in single-member constituency no. 16 is held in the city of Irkutsk at 14 Marata St. If we analyze voter turnout for the first two days of early voting (2 and 3 September 2020), it turns out that 85 voters came to constituency no. 16, while none came to constituency no. 10. The number of voters in these constituencies is roughly the same, standing at about 12,000.

According to media reports, a public monitoring group represented by  regional Legislative Assembly deputy chair Olga Nosenko, Irkutsk Oblast Legislative Assembly deputy Andrei Obukhov, deputy chair of Irkutsk City Duma of the 7th convocation Vitaly Matviychuk, Irkutsk City Duma Aleksandr Perevalov and candidate for Irkutsk City Duma in constituency no. 16 Sergei Korolyov detected that voters were coming to the polling station in groups, shuttled in cars by athletic young men. The young men responsible for shuttling were waiting for the voters to bring them back to where they came from, so it did not look like they were giving them a friendly lift. This fact also raised eyebrows within the numerous ranks of police officers, who were coming to the City Election Commission building. Some voters did not even try to hide the fact of receiving 3 to 5 thousand roubles (30-65 USD) for their vote. They also stated who they were supposed to vote for. However, the police officers, whom the group of deputies reached out to, did not do anything to clarify the circumstances of voters being shuttled to the polling station.

News media also reported voter coercion in the cities of Vladimir, Ivanovo and Novgorod. 


3. Illegal campaigning and "black PR"



Election campaigning is strictly controlled by Russia's electoral legislation. Provisions of the law "On Basic Guarantees of Suffrage and the Right to Participate in Referendums of Citizens of Russian Federation" include a range of campaigning restrictions. The law stipulates in particular that any campaigning materials shall be paid for using the campaign depository; that any propaganda that instigates social, racial, ethnic, religious hatred or enmity, assaults one's ethnic dignity, promotes exceptionalism, superiority or inferiority of citizens based on their religious, social, racial, ethnic or linguistic affiliation shall be prohibited; that distribution of doctored campaigning materials shall be forbidden.

Unfortunately, many regions indicate a surge in using such salacious methods. 

The attempts of some candidates to pull on nationalist strings, to use hate speech and to incite national discord are alarming as well. For example, campaigning materials installed by the party "For Truth" (created by Zakhar (Yevgenii) Prilepin) in Ryazan display an expressly nationalistic slogan "Let's protect the Russians!" In Irkutsk Oblast, CPRF gubernatorial candidate Mikhail Shchapov reported that he had to appeal to law enforcement agencies "on grounds of inciting inter-ethnic hostility." There are photographs of a campaigning banner in Chinese allegedly endorsing Mikhail Shchapov circulating the region (Figure 15). At the same time, the specially set up social media groups and public pages have been posting information on CPRF working closely with the People's Republic of China. Cooperation plans seem to include building new Chinese hotels on Lake Baikal and Baikal water bottling plants, constructing a waste recycling plant in the town of Angarsk sponsored by Chinese investors as well as continuing to cut down forests and even introducing Chinese language as a compulsory subject in schools of Irkutsk Oblast. All these plans will allegedly be implemented in case Mikhail Shchapov wins gubernatorial elections in Irkutsk Oblast. 


Figure 15.  An image of a campaigning banner displaying a text in Chinese, allegedly placed to promote Irkutsk Oblast gubernatorial candidate Mikhail Shchapov



A case that unfolded in Ulyanovsk deserves special mention, where Anna Markesh Karvaleiru, head of Ulyanovsk Drama Theater Development Department, was running for Ulyanovsk City Duma in the single-member constituency as part of the "None of the Above" movement. Campaigning materials display the brown-skinned candidate of African-Portuguese descent with her face covered with black paint. Ulyanovsk social media is full of images of the candidate wearing different outfits and personas, accompanied by the slogan "We are not slaves!" (Figure 16). According to media reports, posters showing Karvaleiru are found all over the city. Slogans on the banners proclaim: "We are all "negroes"! Vote None of the Above!" (Figure 17). Communists of Russia filed a lawsuit against "None of the Above" campaign, claiming racist elements. Leninsky Court of Ulyanovsk dismissed the lawsuit at a hearing on August 24. According to Anna Markesh, the word "negro" used in the slogan "has an entirely different connotation, meaning underprivileged social groups." She insists she cannot run under a racist slogan, as her maternal grandmother is African and her paternal grandfather is Portuguese.


Figure 16. Anna Markesh Karvaleiru campaigning piece

(Left: “Zooom online lessons”; top to bottom: "Vote None of the Above! We are not slaves! Anna Markesh Karvaleiru, head of Ulyanovsk Drama Theater Development Department")



Figure 17. Anna Markesh Karvaleiru campaigning piece

(Left: Anna Markesh Karvaleiru, head of Ulyanovsk Drama Theater Development Department; right: "We are all "negroes"! Vote None of the Above!")



Candidates in other regions were faced with "black PR" in elections of different levels. Most of such campaigning materials were used in local elections. Candidates and voters in the Chuvash Republic, Krasnodar Krai, Kurgan Oblast, Lipetsk Oblast and Ryazan Oblast reported cases of both "black PR" and illegal campaigning (see Appendix, cards no. 88-96) (Figure 18, 19). It seems like the issue reached the most critical point in Lipetsk City Council elections (see Appendix, cards no. 91-94).

Figure 18. An example of "black PR"

(The white on red text reads: “People have been and always will be the silly dupes…”; the blue text below reads: “Ryazan communists deceive their voters instead of helping them!”)



Figure 19. An example of "black PR"

(The text on top reads: “People with shady reputations have no place in the government!”; the vertical red text reads: “Criminal records of candidates running in the Lipetsk City Duma Election”; diagonal text to the right reads: “Members of Party of Pensioners are clean!”)


There are cases of creating and distributing campaigning materials without using electoral funds. Such reports came from the Chuvash Republic, Bryansk Oblast, Lipetsk Oblast and Oryol Oblast (see Appendix, cards no. 97-101).

 

Author:

Stanislav Andreichuk


Editing group and long-term observation group: 

Yevgeny Belousov, Yuri Bogomolov, Aleksandr Grezev, Aleksei Golubkov, Ivan Dernov, Aleksandr Zamaryanov, Sofia Ivanova, David Kankiya, Inna Karezina, Vitaly Kovin, Valeriy Korolyov, Dmitry Krayukhin, Mikhail Kuzovkov, Lyudmila Kuzmina, Yurii Kuchin, Daniil Maltsev, Grigory Melkonyants, Nataliya Menkova, Aleksei Petrov, Sergei Plyasunov, Yulia Rudakova, Ilya Sivoldayev, Mikhail Tikhonov, Marina Chufarina, Denis Shadrin, Anna Yudina.