It’s been a good year for democracy activists in Russia.
2016 began with the Duma passing a law obligating all election candidates to participate in televised debates, a dig at past refusals by Vladimir Putin’s United Russia.
Then, in March, one of the country’s most prominent human rights advocates, Ella Pamfilova, was made the chief of the official electoral watchdog.
The buzz of reform – coming before September’s parliamentary election – is a far cry from events in the run-up to the last polls five years ago. The cynicism and bluntness of electoral rigging brought thousands out on the streets in 2011 in the biggest protests since Putin came to power at the start of the millennium.
Faced with social media recording numerous cases of voting fraud, the only option for the Kremlin was to discredit and silence the opposition leaders, charging Alexei Navalny, the key protagonist of the 2011 protests, with embezzlement.
Roll on five years, and the country is going to the polls in a far more precarious state – economically at least. With the recession deepening, the ruling United Russia party simply can’t afford to give the opposition or the West another reason for criticism.
So, ironically, the government is as eager as anyone to make the elections look legitimate.
The obvious starting point was the Central Election Commission. For nine years, the CEC was led by Vladimir Churov, a long-time Putin confidant, whose tenure was synonymous with scandals and allegations of electoral fraud.
In one infamous example, the voter turnout in the Rostov region was verified at over 146%. Churov became known as the “magician”.
Unsurprisingly, his dismissal was an immediate requirement from the opposition. It took the authorities five years to act.
Pamfilova’s appointment delivers unquestionable credibility to the CEC. She’s one of Russia’s true political survivors, having worked in government before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. With no party affiliation, she’s one of the very few government officials respected by the opposition.
True to form, Pamfilova got straight to work, holding a tense meeting in April with representatives of the opposition including Navalny, who now leads the Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Voters by Busload
At the meeting, the opposition leaders complained loudly of fraud in the recent municipal elections in the Moscow region of Barvikha. The local administration, they alleged, had organized a busload from outside of Barvikha to vote in early rounds. Many of them barely spoke Russian.
Pamfilova requested the exact details of the wrongdoings – before clarifying that she lacked any powers to influence regional election commissions.
Both sides left the meeting deflated.
Yet, two days later, something unprecedented occurred. The CEC cancelled Barvikha’s municipal elections citing numerous violations of electoral law. It marked an impressive start to Pamfilova’s tenure.
The next day, Pamfilova reinforced her crackdown, demanding CCTV monitoring in all polling stations and pledging to resign should she fail to organize fair elections.
Clearly, Pamfilova is dedicated to changing the electoral process. What is less apparent – even after her display of authority – is her capacity to do so.
Churov had been the public face of the CEC for so long, people had the illusion that if he left, all of the problems related to electoral fraud could be solved.
In Russian politics, things are rarely that simple. Institutional weakness for the CEC is engrained in the system, and Pamfilova may simply lack the time and leverage to change it before September.
The magician has left, but many of the tricks continue, albeit in a different form.
Parliamentary elections have an underlying function in Russia of testing the system ahead of the presidential vote, the next being due in 1 ½ years.
Given the economic crisis, United Russia is at risk of losing its parliamentary majority. To ensure the desired outcome and avoid the pitfalls of 2011, the Kremlin made a few legislative amendments in advance.
These amendments represent two steps back for the CEC’s step forward.
The first amendment is to cut the permitted number of observers from any one party, from five to two. They must register three days prior to Election Day and only monitor one polling station.
Another novelty signed into law allows agents of the Federal Security Service to open fire against crowds of people. This draconian measure, according to the authorities, is aimed at preventing terrorist attacks. But it also significantly increases the risks for participants in public protests.
The danger was reinforced last month with the establishment of the National Guard, a new security structure within the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, created on the President’s order. The National Guard – officially aimed at fighting terrorism and organized crime – is likely to specifically focus on issues of social instability.
A special unit of the Guard will reportedly be deployed in all the regions of the country. This means that the President will be able to quickly restore ‘public loyalty’ in case of a mass protest.
With such precautionary measures, the Kremlin can afford to accede to some of the opposition’s requests and at the same time help showcase its determination to organize fair and transparent elections.
It’s fighting clever. A large part of United Russia’s problems in 2011 emanated from the larger numbers of independent observers at polling stations – now heavily curtailed.
While the compulsory TV debates and monitoring might invigorate the voting process, it remains a far reach to expect that this will actually affect the outcome.
The real elections in Russia still occur long before polling day.
The author is Maria Pavlenko, a member of West Sands Advisory Limited’s Corporate Investigations team and a PhD candidate in energy security at the University of St. Andrews.
West Sands is a business intelligence, investigations and political advisory firm that has, since 2006, helped clients identify opportunities and reduce risk in emerging and frontier markets www.westsandsadvisory.com