With little chance of winning, Russia's hobbled opposition using election to highlight abuses

·9 min read
Tatiana Usmanova, campaign manager for jailed opposition candidate Andrei Pivovarov,  a candidate for the socially liberal party Yabloko and the former executive director of Open Russia, a pro-democracy group. Pivovarov is currently awaiting trial for allegedly being part of an 'undesirable organization' but is still on the ballot in this weekend's elections. (Briar Stewart/CBC - image credit)
Tatiana Usmanova, campaign manager for jailed opposition candidate Andrei Pivovarov, a candidate for the socially liberal party Yabloko and the former executive director of Open Russia, a pro-democracy group. Pivovarov is currently awaiting trial for allegedly being part of an 'undesirable organization' but is still on the ballot in this weekend's elections. (Briar Stewart/CBC - image credit)

As Russians cast their ballots this weekend in a parliamentary election, several opposition members have been banned from running for office and more than a dozen have left the country amid a widespread political crackdown that's paved the way for the re-election of the ruling United Russia party, which supports President Vladimir Putin.

One of the few high-profile candidates to make it onto the ballot is currently languishing in jail, charged with being part of an "undesirable organization."

"The State Duma election is the most terrible election I have seen since my birth," said Tatiania Usmanova, the campaign manager for Andrei Pivovarov, who was hauled off a Warsaw-bound plane in May and arrested.

Pivovarov, 41, is a candidate for the socially liberal party Yabloko and the former executive director of Open Russia, a pro-democracy group that was recently disbanded. It was one of several political groups deemed "undesirable" or "extremist" by the government in recent months.

The label requires organizations to shut down or its members could face stiff fines and jail time.

The crackdown on such groups coincided with the parliament's expansion of laws targeting so-called foreign agents, which are designed to cripple anyone expressing criticism of the government and the electoral process.

"We have no freedom," Usmanova said. "Almost no opposition candidates are registered, so that's why it's difficult to call it the real elections."

Briar Stewart/CBC News
Briar Stewart/CBC News

Jailed candidate

Voting to elect representatives for the State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly, wraps up on Sunday.

The race leading up to the vote has been one from which many of the high-profile opposition candidates have been absent — either banned from running, in exile or in prison.

Pivovarvov was granted permission to be registered as a candidate for Yabloko, but why he was allowed to run isn't clear even to his own campaign manager.

His name is on the ballot in the district of Krasnador, a city in southern Russia where he is currently in jail awaiting trial.

As a result of his arrest, there will be a disclaimer printed on every ballot where a candidate from Yabloko is running, informing voters that the party has a candidate who is considered a "foreign agent" by the state.

Usmanova admits he has no chance of winning, which is why the team's goal is to raise awareness about his case and that of other "political prisoners."

There are more than a dozen political parties fielding candidates in this parliamentary election, ranging across the political spectrum from the Communist Party on the left to the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party.

But in the 450-seat State Duma, only half of them hold seats. United Russia controls the vast majority, with 348 elected representatives. The opposition has been unable to gain any traction in the Duma in part because of vote spitting and the deliberate attempts by the government to suppress anyone gaining popularity.

Maxim Shemetov/REUTERS
Maxim Shemetov/REUTERS

Trying to unite fractured opposition

The most high-profile member of the opposition, Alexei Navalny, is also currently in prison and banned from running.

The opposition leader survived being poisoned with a nerve-agent last August and was airlifted to Germany for medical treatment. When he returned in January, he was immediately arrested and has been sentenced to three and a half years in a penal colony for violating terms of his probation while he was recovering in Germany.

Several of Navalny's allies and members of his Anti-Corruption Foundation have fled Russia because of the threat of lengthy jail terms or worse.

His team has launched a so-called Smart Voting campaign designed to unite a fractured opposition in a bid to defeat Kremlin-approved candidates.

They have chosen the opposition candidate the most likely to attract the greatest share of the vote in each of the 225 electoral districts but have faced constant barriers when it comes to trying to disseminate their message.

Russia's internet regulator has blocked access to the Smart Voting website and after threatening to fine Google and Apple for displaying the app, Navalny's team said that the tech giants removed access to it on Friday.

Journalists branded foreign agents

Opposition members aren't the only ones targeted.

Independent media coverage of the campaign has also been limited as dozens of journalists and outlets have been labelled foreign agents, a designation that can be broadly applied to anyone deemed by the Justice Ministry to be participating in political activity and receiving assistance from abroad. This includes Russian journalists writing about politics and even those who share the articles online.

Once someone is declared a foreign agent they have to report all of their financial transactions and put a disclaimer on any published material saying they have been declared a foreign agent. If they don't, they could face steep fines or jail time.

GOLOS, an independent vote monitoring group, was declared a "foreign agent" by Russia's just last month, which hampers its ability to conduct organized monitoring during the election.

In an online statement, the organization said that this election is taking place against the backdrop of mounting pressure on political opponents, media and observers.

Aleksei Sergeyev/Radio-Canada
Aleksei Sergeyev/Radio-Canada

Russia's Central Election Commission has also restricted who will be able to view live streams from the 95,000 web cameras installed at the country's polling stations, limiting access to officials, candidates and political parties.

The cameras were installed by the Putin government in 2012 as a response to protests over widespread allegations of ballot box stuffing and voting violations during the State Duma elections in 2011.

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), this is the first time since 1993 that the organization will not be sending a team to Russia to observe parliamentary election.

While the organization was invited to attend, Russian officials, citing COVID-19 protocols, stipulated that the OSCE could only send a team of 10 to observe, which the OSCE said was too few to carry out any semblance of proper monitoring in a country of around 145 million.

Violations at the ballot box

Valentina Abanine, a St. Petersburg accountant, has worked as an election observer, including during last year's constitutional referendum that gave Putin the power to run for two more presidential terms and possibly remain in office until 2036.

She said there were voting violations during that vote, and observers and members of the opposition were kicked out of rooms once the voting count was underway.

Her husband, Denis, has also worked as an observer during municipal elections and told Radio-Canada that he has seen irregularities and even filed a lawsuit that included video evidence that the number of votes recorded on tape did not match the official number put forward.

"Few people understand what elections are. Many people think it's enough to tick the box, and that is it," he said.

"But in fact, after you ticked the box, there are a lot of actions that can change the check box from one candidate to another."

The newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an article after it obtained a leaked audio recording that reportedly included an administrator instructing election workers to falsify the ballot count.

On Friday, an activist group called Civil Society posted a video of a St. Petersburg polling station that appeared to show a man putting a number of ballots into the box.

Briar Stewart/CBC News
Briar Stewart/CBC News

Change won't come through elections, says activist

Against this backdrop, Vladimir Kara-Murza, 40, a former journalist and filmmaker who helped lead Open Russia and testified in front of the U.S. Congress about his support for the Magnitsky Act, said the the entire election is dubious.

"Opposition can only exist in democracies, so I think the term dissident would be a more appropriate term for the political situation we have in Russia."

Kara-Murza ended up in the hospital twice in a coma, in 2015 and 2017, and is convinced it was the result of being poisoned because of his criticism of Putin.

He spoke to CBC at a political rally in Moscow on Sept. 14, where he was supporting a candidate for the Yabloko party, because he himself is banned from running.

"In those countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, sooner or later, they are changed on the streets, and I think that is where we are heading in Russia."

But the appetite for change doesn't appear to be overwhelming, with support for United Russia hovering around 30 per cent for the past year although it dipped as low as 26 per cent over the summer, according to VTsIOM, a state public opinion research centre.

In that poll, nearly 17 per cent of respondents said they would vote for the Communist Party and under 10 per cent for the Liberal Democratic Party.

According to the Levada Centre, a Moscow-based independent polling firm that is also labelled a foreign agent, more than 60 per cent of Russians approve of Putin even though his popularity has also declined lately, down six per cent in August from last May.

Hesitant to disrupt status quo

In the remote village of Sputnik, which lies 2,000 km north of Moscow, resident Olga Leontyeva says that most Russians want stability, not sweeping change.

She says compared to life during the 1990s, when salaries weren't paid for months and food was difficult to find in stores, life is good now, which is why, she says, many are satisfied with the status quo.

Sergei Karpukhin via REUTERS
Sergei Karpukhin via REUTERS

On Thursday, the Kremlin published a taped address from Putin, who is currently self-isolating after dozens of his inner circle reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.

In it, he urged voters to elect a "strong and authoritative parliament" by electing members who will work for the good of the "beloved motherland."

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Putin promised more than the equivalent of $8 billion to seniors and military personnel, which would be handed out in one-time payments. It is a move that critics decried as vote buying

Spoiler candidates

"The government does everything to survive regardless of whether people support them or not," said Boris Vishnevsky, who spoke to Radio-Canada through a translator in St. Petersburg.

He is running for the St. Petersburg legislature in a local election that is being held at the same time as the State Duma vote.

He said two of the candidates registered to run against him have changed their names to Boris Vishnevsky to cause confusion on the ballot and split the vote. In campaign posters, the two opponents also bear a striking resemblance to him.

"There are blatantly dishonest methods," he said. "The most important thing is to change the political system."

Tamara Alteresco/Radio-Canada
Tamara Alteresco/Radio-Canada
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