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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: elections wielded as weapon of war

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistThursday 22 September 2022

Russians took to the polls from 9-11 September, marking the country’s first nationwide elections since it invaded Ukraine in February. Voting took place amidst an ongoing crackdown on civil society and freedom of speech that has intensified markedly since the war began.

The polls opened as Ukraine launched a major military counteroffensive in Kharkiv and Kherson. ‘Elections at this point carry a function of showing to the population that everything is “in order” in the country and the political and legal systems work as usual,’ says Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, Interim Director of the Russia Institute and Professor of Russian Politics at King’s College London.

Three-day voting periods were introduced in Russia in 2020 to minimise Covid-19 transmission but have heightened concerns of electoral fraud. Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) said it received 93 reports of potential election violations. Independent Russian election monitor, Golos, which has been labelled a ‘foreign agent’ by the authorities, recorded more than 1,700 reports of irregularities, most of which occurred in Moscow.

There were no reports of international election observation in place. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) typically observes national level elections throughout its 57 participating states and observes local elections on request. However, an ODIHR spokesperson confirmed to Global Insight that it did not receive a request from the CEC to observe the most recent elections in Russia.

The elections spanned several levels of government, including local governors in 14 regions, six regional parliaments and municipal elections in 12 regions, including Moscow. In Ukraine, voting planned earlier this month in several Russian-occupied territories was postponed following security concerns. However, Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk have renewed calls to host referenda on the regions joining Russia from 23-27 September. Kherson and Zaporizhzhia quickly followed suit. Just hours later Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a ‘partial mobilisation’ of military reservists to reinforce Russian troops fighting on the frontline in Ukraine.

In the context of war and repression against any social and political activism, opposition candidates did not have a chance

Professor Gulnaz Sharafutdinova
Russia Institute, King’s College London

Andrei Kolesnikov, a Senior Fellow and Chair of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, says the significance of the results of Russia’s elections varied considerably. ‘The gubernatorial election is meaningless,’ he says, but ‘the municipal elections in Moscow, despite the fact that many candidates were not allowed, still made sense, because some normal candidates passed and the municipal level is very important now – it is the only possible field for the opposition.’

According to official data, the results favoured the ruling party, United Russia, with pro-government candidates winning all gubernatorial seats and more than 50 per cent of the vote in five out of six legislative assembly elections. United Russia candidates were also reported to have taken 1,100 of around 1,400 seats in the municipal elections in Moscow.

The weekend of voting marked the first time that online ballots have been cast nationwide. This followed seven regions piloting e-voting in September 2021’s parliamentary elections. Despite concerns that the move to mass online voting would make it even easier for the authorities to falsify ballots, the system was rolled out across all regions after Russian President Putin signed legislation in March approving the use of e-voting across the country.

Jailed opposition candidate Alexei Navalny urged people to engage in ‘smart voting’ – a tactical strategy designed to drive votes away from the government’s preferred candidates. However, Sharafutdinova says the greater reliance on electronic voting increased the risk of vote-rigging. ‘The electronic voting that was tried in 2021 was rolled out this time as a main mechanism of controlling the results,’ she says. ‘In the context of war and repression against any social and political activism, opposition candidates did not have a chance.’

Anne Ramberg, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Institute, agrees that elections in Russia have been marred by ‘irregularities’ for some time. ‘Already last year, the September election for the Duma were considered to be marked by extensive irregularities according to the election observers and the international media covering the elections,’ she says. ‘This has been the case in recent elections including the re-election of Mr Putin. The way Mr Navalny was disqualified is only one example. There is no realistic way for the opposition to gain power through elections. And it is worth remembering that Russia has never experienced a democratic transfer of power from a rival political party.’

Despite the results, the elections can be viewed as a litmus test for domestic support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Independent Russia news website Meduza reported that nearly two dozen municipal deputies in Moscow and St. Petersburg have since signed a petition demanding Putin’s resignation.

This could suggest that domestic support for the war is waning, says Ramberg. ‘In my view that indicates that the internal criticism of Mr Putin and the war is much bigger than had been anticipated,’ she says. ‘Having in mind the powers of the security forces and the strong support from the church, opposition may have grown despite this…[and] important segments of the population may have realised the severe crimes that Mr Putin is committing in Ukraine.’

Kolesnikov previously worked for several leading Russian publications and is the former managing editor of Novaya Gazeta. He says media outlets are continuing to overcome government censorship to increase awareness inside Russia of what’s happening in Ukraine. ‘The free media works partly from abroad, you can read them through a VPN, and YouTube, which has not yet been blocked, is very popular,’ he says.

Novaya Gazeta has been designated as a ‘foreign agent’ and in September a Moscow court revoked the newspaper’s licence to publish inside Russia. Kolesnikov says the newspaper and other independent media will continue to counteract Russia’s attack on the free press. ‘The situation is very difficult, but nevertheless, another site has started up,’ he says. ‘I'm sure it too will be blocked, but this game is played by all independent media, opening new projects or sites every time.’

Image credit: Police on street in Moscow, Russia. March 12, 2022. Igor/AdobeStock.com

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