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Coercion and Corruption: Following Russia’s 2016 Election Season

September 13, 2016

By Lincoln Pigman

Russia’s parliamentary elections on September 18th come at a critical moment for Vladimir V. Putin, whose party, United Russia (Edinaya Rossiya), is losing popular support amid economic crisis. Though Putin himself has remained insulated from national dissatisfaction, United Russia has not, threatening the party’s dominance and Putin’s own interests. After all, it is from United Russia that Putin’s successor, should he choose not to run in 2018, will come; and it is United Russia’s deputies in the Duma, currently possessing a majority, who will push through controversial bills such as this summer’s anti-terrorism laws. The upcoming elections offer Putin a chance to re-legitimize his party and protect his interests in the parliament.

With stakes that high, it is unsurprising that attacks on the opposition and instances of electoral misconduct have spiked in recent months. But few individuals, if any, are being punished for it. Russia’s accountability vacuum is such that even with a reform-oriented official like Ella A. Pamfilova at the helm of the Central Election Commission (Tsentral’naya izbiratel’naya komissiya), those guilty of intimidating opposition politicians or engaging in electoral misconduct are unlikely to be prosecuted or penalized. It’s a situation made all the more egregious by the frequency with which perpetrators are caught on camera by journalists, bystanders, politicians, and activists.

Coercing Russia’s Opposition

Violence against the opposition, while mostly non-lethal, is becoming a norm in Russia. A report released this summer by the Center for Economic and Political Reforms (Tsentr ekonomicheskih i politicheskih reform) found that, halfway through the year, 2016 was already well on its way to becoming the most violent year for the opposition in recent history: while 2014 saw 60 attacks, 2016 had already witnessed 55 by the end of June.

Overwhelmingly, perpetrators of political violence belong to ultra-conservative elements in Russian society. Though these include Cossacks, for the most part, it is so-called national liberation groups that carry out attacks against the opposition. Organizations like Antimaidan and the National Liberation Movement (Narodno osvoboditel’noe dvizhenie, or NOD), see Russia as being perpetually at war with the West and Russia’s opposition as a fifth column. Opposition leaders such as Aleksei A. Navalny of the Party of Progress (Partiya progressa) and Mikhail M. Kasyanov of the People’s Freedom Party (Partiya narodnoy svobody, or PARNAS) are regularly harassed on the grounds that they serve foreign masters.

Throughout 2016, assailants have exploited knowledge of their targets’ campaigning schedules, which allows them to pursue candidates, most notably Kasyanov, across the country. From February to August, Kasyanov was harassed or attacked a total of six times. Of these instances, three took place in, or in front of, hotels where Kasyanov was staying; one occurred in an event hall he was due to speak at; and another saw him confronted in a restaurant he was dining at.

Other opposition politicians, including Navalny, who was assaulted after exiting a Novosibirsk courthouse in March and ambushed at an Anapa airport by Cossacks in May, have also had their itineraries used against them. More worryingly, some opposition figures, like PARNAS’ Aleksandr Bragin and Solidarity’s (Solidarnost’) Igor Ivanov, have been viciously assaulted in front of their very homes. In the former case, the attackers laid in wait for Bragin, who was attacked en route to his car; in the latter, Ivanov was lured out of his apartment when the assailants called him, claiming to have accidentally damaged his car.

Screenshot from a video posted by Alla Naumcheva showing attacks from the NOD and SERB movements. (source)

Screenshot from a video posted by Alla Naumcheva showing attacks from the NOD and SERB movements. (source)

Attackers’ tactics include throwing eggs, feces, cakes, and condoms (a humiliating experience for any public figure), striking with blunt objects, punching, kicking, and even firing non-lethal “traumatic pistols.” One particularly creative incident involved an attempt at forcibly putting a quilted jacket saying “Misha is a thief” onto Kasyanov, and underscored the often-theatrical dimension of political violence in Russia.

Whether by means of violence or humiliation, attackers aim to coerce opposition politicians into withdrawal from the public eye at a time when visibility and outreach are key to political success. In Kasyanov’s case, safety concerns led to the cancellation of at least one campaigning event, in Nizhny Novgorod.

Subverting Russia’s Democracy

Ultimately, it is impossible to deter all of Russia’s opposition politicians using coercion, an obstacle circumvented by subverting the democratic process itself. Electoral misconduct takes many forms, and seems to be especially pervasive this election cycle: by September 9th, 1,330 complaints had been registered with Golos, an election-monitoring organization threatened with liquidation by the Ministry of Justice.

For one, United Russia’s dominance enables candidates to use government resources for campaigning, a violation that is technically grounds for de-registering a political candidate, with impunity. Aware of their immunity, candidates, like Gennady G. Onishchenko and Ivan M. Teterin, tend to do so openly.

In August, Onishchenko was caught on video meeting with voters in a governmental social welfare center in Moscow. In the video, the center’s director, Ilya R. Bestavashvili, made no secret as to the fact that Onishchenko was holding a campaign event, and even invited the journalist filming to register as an Onishchenko supporter. When he refused to, Bestavashvili promptly asked that someone call the police. The following day, Yabloko candidate Dmitry G. Gudkov filed a complaint against Onishchenko with the Central Election Commission, which has yet to exclude the United Russia candidate from the September elections. Onishchenko also appears to have enlisted public service workers to put up campaign ads around Moscow.

Screen capture of a meeting

Screen capture of a meeting with Bestavashvili and Onishchenko in Moscow. (source)

Teterin, another Moscow candidate, isn’t particularly subtle, either. Using his position as president of the Academy of the Ministry of Emergency Situations’ (Ministerstvo po chrezvychainym situatsiyam) State Firefighting Service (Gosudarstvennaya protivopozharnaya sluzhba), Teterin secured a fire truck in order to cut his travel time in half when campaigning.

Footage captured Teterin driving the fire truck down ulitsa Akademika Korolyova and meeting with the residents of house 8. “I suggest that, in these elections, you support our president,” Teterin told them, conflating Putin and his party. After all, he reasoned, “the president should have [a majority in] the Duma in order to execute his decisions.” Demonstrating United Russia’s legal immunity, a nearby policeman refused to hear out the formal complaint of the opposition activists filming. Like Gudkov, the Party of Progress’ Nikolai N. Lyaskin has filed a complaint against his United Russia opponent. Like Onishchenko, Teterin has yet to be de-registered as a candidate.

Screen capture of a fire truck going down ulitsa in Moscow. (source)

Screen capture of a fire truck going down ulitsa Akademika Korolyova in Moscow en route to a meeting with voters. (source)

A tweet, posted several days before, suggested that the fire truck incident hadn’t been Teterin’s first offense that week. On August 23rd, Teterin attended the unveiling of a Moscow playground, an accomplishment that he attributed to United Russia, not the government, whose funds had been used to build it. A similar situation occurred on the 20th, when United Russia’s Vladislav Lyumin joined party volunteers in restoring a Novosibirsk playground. When locals approached the team, filming them and pointing out that bribing voters (such as by “providing services free of charge or on favorable terms”) is illegal, the policemen present tried to de-escalate the situation and send the locals on their way rather than acknowledge the violation taking place. Meanwhile, the volunteers called the locals (their constituents) “scum” and “shameless,” with one advising that the woman filming should “get off the road, fat creature.”

Even less subtle was United Russia’s drive on September 1st, the start of the academic year in Russia. The “Day of Knowledge” was marked by the party’s efforts to insert itself into the first day of school across Russia, in clear violation of a law prohibiting party activities inside state or municipal educational institutions. In Moscow, schools 820 and 1515 distributed calendars to schoolchildren featuring the slogan “Make the sound choice!” and a link to Onishchenko’s website. School 31 in Kaliningrad celebrated by parading with United Russia flags, while in Berdsk, children received schedules with the United Russia logo. Meanwhile, the headmaster of a Moscow school took a unique approach to abusing his authority to help United Russia, conscripting schoolchildren to campaign for candidate Pavel G. Zelenkov.

Photograph of a calendar given to schoolchildren at School No. 820 in Moscow by United Russia. (source)

Photograph of a calendar given to schoolchildren at School No. 820 in Moscow by United Russia. (source)

In a sign of a topdown propaganda campaign, members of the Sverdlovsk regional government were instructed to promote United Russia during school visits on September 1st, giving prepared speeches that outlined the government’s accomplishments. “It is absolutely necessary to come to the elections and vote,” an excerpt from the speech read. “It is absolutely necessary to support President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and the president’s party. Only then will our plans … materialize.”

As indicated by the high number of complaints registered with Golos, misconduct is taking place on an astonishing scale. Some incidents suggest that election commissions themselves may also be compromised. In May, Natalia N. Ovcharenko, a member of a vote-counting commission in Sevastopol, harassed people registering to vote, telling them to support United Russia’s Dmitry A. Belik. When criticized by a volunteer, she warned that “Dmitry Anatolyevich will speak to you later.” Whether credible or not, Ovcharenko’s threat speaks to the fact that corruption is present throughout Russia’s electoral institutions, and represents a potent force benefitting United Russia, whatever Pamfilova says.

Speaking at the Carnegie Moscow Center in July, researchers Andrei Kolesnikov and Boris Makarenko predicted that after the protests of 2011-12, creating an air of legitimacy would be chief among the government’s priorities in September. Between the incidents described above and the recent coup de grâce dealt to Russia’s Levada Center for its research on United Russia’s falling support, there is little legitimacy to speak of so far. With the 2016 election season marked by acts of violence, attempts at intimidation, and blatant violations of the law, all highlighting the Russian government’s disregard for its own legal regime, September 18th is unlikely to end with a victory for the opposition.

Loose Threads

Going forward, there are multiple routes for additional open source investigation into these incidents and into this month’s parliamentary elections in Russia. Some of these topics that need additional investigation, and are topics for aspiring open source researchers looking for a subject to research, are…

  • Are there any particular individuals who can be tracked among multiple videos showing attacks against opposition figures?
  • Can we monitor potential instances of “carouseling” (transporting buses of people to vote at multiple locations) through live video streams during the elections?
  • On the 18th, will election monitors be subject to the same violence encountered by opposition politicians? As with carouseling, can we track the treatment of monitors on election day?
  • Are there Central Election Commissions that have responded to local complaints about electoral misconduct? In these voting areas, how well did opposition parties fare?
Lincoln Pigman

Russo-American. Student of War Studies at King's College London, freelancer featured in The New York Times and IHS Jane's Intelligence Review.

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114 Comments

  1. John Zenwirt

    BONN, Germany — Two teams of highly skilled hackers directed and protected by the Russian state are on the offensive.

    Cybersecurity experts and intelligence officials tell NBC News the same hackers who broke into the Democratic Party’s computers, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Administration System and who are implicated in the leaks of the personal emails of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the health documents of Olympians are executing a Kremlin-backed campaign of cyber-espionage and sabotage.

    Their target: Western democratic institutions and Russia’s political opponents.

    “They are starting to figure out the way to apply the power they have in terms of technical capabilities into the geopolitical aspect,” Italian cyber security investigator Stefano Maccaglia told NBC News.

    http://tinyurl.com/hcf4mqb (NBCNews)

    Reply
  2. John Zenwirt

    Irregularities reported at Russia’s ballot boxes as voting begins.

    Russian election monitors reported a series of irregularities as voting began in the country’s parliamentary elections on Sunday.

    Non-governmental election monitoring movement Golos said it had received 164 reports by phone and 335 reports via an online platform of rule violations or suspicious incidents. The largest number of complaints came from Moscow, followed by the Stavropol region in southern Russia and Altai region in southern Siberia.

    In Barnaul, capital of the Altai region, civil rights and opposition activists observed people being instructed to vote using ballots of pensioners who were not going to turn up — an alleged example of so-called cruisers or carousel voting. “They have little stickers on their passports,” said Alexander Lebedev, a municipal deputy of the A Just Russia party who posted videos of what he said were the preparations for illegal voting on Twitter.

    http://tinyurl.com/z8mswfg (FinancialTimes)

    Reply
  3. John Zenwirt

    Irregularities reported at Russia’s ballot boxes as voting begins.

    Russian election monitors reported a series of irregularities as voting began in the country’s parliamentary elections on Sunday.

    Non-governmental election monitoring movement Golos said it had received 164 reports by phone and 335 reports via an online platform of rule violations or suspicious incidents. The largest number of complaints came from Moscow, followed by the Stavropol region in southern Russia and Altai region in southern Siberia.

    In Barnaul, capital of the Altai region, civil rights and opposition activists observed people being instructed to vote using ballots of pensioners who were not going to turn up — an alleged example of so-called cruisers or carousel voting. “They have little stickers on their passports,” said Alexander Lebedev, a municipal deputy of the A Just Russia party who posted videos of what he said were the preparations for illegal voting on Twitter.

    http://tinyurl.com/z8mswfg (FinancialTimes)

    Reply
    • stranger

      I’ve been waiting for that. All propagandostic outlets will be crying on the violations on the elections. That is how the first Orange Revolution in Ukraine was made. The author of bellingcat article above also made a hint or a plan – look for violations.
      Nevertheless the results are more than expected and no single violations would be able to change this usual layout significantly. There were no any surprises, the four all the same well known parties have passed, with all of them more or less pro-government. The most radical opposition didn’t get even a percent. I’m just curios about the individual candidates, which anyway are related to parties. Will see what our opposition leaders would say. It is a bit too early now, it would take a couple of days to count the final results, and before we can expect some reaction. Overall the government doesn’t need to falsify the voting, because the results are expected to be in their favor. So there were no any surprises today.

      Reply
      • Rick

        There was no surprises today.. Complete voter apathy… Ballot stuffing galore… Welcome to Russia…

        Reply
    • stranger

      Overall I can agree with the article. Just a small correction, the ‘liberal democrats’ are not a ‘nationalistic party’ at all and actually are neither liberals nor democrats.
      That is the party of the greatest clown – Girinovskiy, who sounds sternly and ridiculous at the same time. You may think of his manners as something slightly resembling Trump’s ones, but very unique of course. Nobody takes him seriously, but surprisingly he is around for many years and many people take him kindly and with a sympathy, overall harmless. I don’t exclude that some people value him for saying the truth directly in some cases, when others are afraid. Overall he is pro government, he is a great actor, he has no any consistent own program, and from time to time he can afford to be bluntly honest.
      Some people believe he is serving as a safe ‘lightening-conductor’ for the protest sentiments, so that real nationalists would not raise. That can also be applied to our so called ‘communists’, to a slightly less degree.
      Overall nobody is deceived by him, but he is so inseparable from the parliament in people’s expectations as Santa Claus from a Christmas, and serves mostly the same role.
      Overall all four passed parties are pro government and are going to collaborate with each other’s. But there are still – four, so maybe at least some discourse will be possible.
      The other half of the parliament gathered from individual candidates is unclear to me yet. There are many individual candidates affiliated with the government party as well.
      Several radical opposition candidates there make an intrigue, it is not yet clear if they are going to pass. Usually they are not so popular. Some people including may be myself associate them with ‘back to hard 90th’.
      Here we are up to the moment.

      Reply
  4. John Zenwirt

    Stranger

    But isn’t this Duma more of “rubber-stamp” Duma…? In fact, wasn’t the Tsars’ Duma much more independent, challenging Nicholas’ power, he dissolved them once, no…?

    Reply
  5. John Zenwirt

    stranger: “That is the party of the greatest clown – Girinovskiy, who sounds sternly and ridiculous at the same time.”

    What Party does this person belong to…? What is their attitude towards the West…? Are the winning groups against NAT0, or what…?

    Reply
    • stranger

      Nobody cares about his views because nobody takes him serious. Regardless of his rhetoric he is always supporting the government. He is a showman from politics. His party got around 16% in the parliament, but even less because of independend candidates took a half of positions. His has no any actual influence.
      http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Zhirinovsky

      Reply
    • stranger

      Nobody is anti-west, what are you talking about? The only question is how Russia should interact with ‘the west’ by many aspects including trading, including national security, including the current political argument, etc. The other question is the ballance between the freedom and the dominance of the law in the idealistic meaning and the interests of the bureaucracy and the government. Somewhere there the (slight) fighting is going. So far the extreme opposition calling to ‘change the regime’ is objectively unpopular. All four parties in general share the common line, mostly what Putin makes public in his speeches. Most of people don’t want an abrupt change.
      It is only my view.

      Reply
    • stranger

      But in fact the United Russia gets the VAST majority of places in the parliament like 3/4 or so afaiu now. United Russia is a pseudo party of government functionaries w/o any own well defined ideology. The other 3 parties will not play a significant role, even though all of them are pro-government, but there will be some discourse at least, hopefully. I voted for the one of them. I’m afraid you’d take my opinion as a fact – read Wikipedia pls, if you’d like, just avoid the propagandostic resources.

      Reply
  6. Mad Dog

    Good for you stranger, a bit of honest retrospection regarding UR. I guess you just loved the fact that they were the only ones allowed to be on TV. Nothing like democracy at work. Of course, someone mentioned Czarist times and even today folks realize that many institutions were better in those days than today, and probably the whole voting and election regime is one of those institutions. Funny thing is, if no one takes the other opposition parties seriously, why all the moves to keep them repressed? Would make sense to me to allow them to run freely. Oh well, but glad you did not vote for UR!

    Reply
    • stranger

      Mad Dog, the people voted for stability and gave the credit to the current government in the circumstances of the external pressure and external isolation of the country. We can criticize current institutions or policies in Russia, but it is the fact that the most of people overall support it for now. The sanctions and demonization of Russia did greatly increase the support of the government party unfortunately. That is another reason why the current western policy towards Russia including sanctions, the anti-Russian propaganda and especially including the using of the image of a ‘hostile Russia’ in Ms. Clinton’s election campaign is stup1d and irresponsible.
      Opposition is not so repressed. The more or less radical opposition participated in the elections and got less that a percent. Khodorkovskiy openly sponsored 24 independent candidates, but hardly anybody has passed. Navalnyy didn’t participate, but they united with PARNAS and agitated for the united coordinated candidates from the opposition.
      As for the repression, it was a sue case against Navalnyy and his brother prisoned by questionable charges, not obviously for nothing. Navalnyy cannot be a candidate because of that, but he is very active and they are trying to unite the opposition, though with little success yet.
      Not enough TV time for opposition. Yes, but who needs those know everybody.
      In theory the opposition is needed for a balanced and competitive politics absolutely, but it all is somehow convoluted here including the opposition itself. So far most of the people including the well educated the informed ones don’t believe them. Especially taking into account their funding from the abroad which sounds not very good in Russia. When they go to US for example and publically call for applying more sanctions to the Russian government, even if Russian government were completely rotten, that doesn’t sound too good. Americans would not forgive our politicians anything like that for example.
      So it is complicated.

      Reply
      • stranger

        Typo: Americans would not forgive OWN American politicians anything our opposition allows itself. This is one of the criteria for me, to try to switch it over.

        Reply
    • stranger

      But I agree of course that the opposition has no access to TV, the level of debates on TV is quite low, and that this all doesn’t work as a stable balanced democratic system. My concern is that it may become much worse on any abrupt change.

      Reply
  7. John Zenwirt

    RT says Russia has their “own” Bellingcat!:

    ‘Untenable claims’: Russian bloggers raise more questions about Bellingcat MH17 investigation ”

    A group of Russian activists have released what they say is a fresh batch of discrepancies spotted in the MH17 investigation by their British peers, Bellingcat. Among other inaccuracies and flaws, the report cites Bellingcat’s ignorance of technical details.

    The Russian report is based on the investigation carried out by a team of bloggers, journalists, aviation experts and volunteers calling themselves ‘Anti-Bellingcat’. It makes use of the technical expertise of the Russian arms producer Almaz-Antey. The leader of the group and author of the report is Yury Kotenok, editor-in-chief of the news website Segodnia.ru.

    http://tinyurl.com/zeklz3d (RT)

    Reply
    • Sammy3

      Yep, the Russians are getting crazy because they are guilty of downing MA17 directly.

      The new propaganda campaign

      RT is TP

      Reply
  8. John Zenwirt

    AntiBellingcat разоблачает фейки.

    Our editorial staff published a collection of documents AntiBellingcat «falsification of public sources MN17: two years later” in Russian and English languages.

    “…activation of Bellingcat during the war in Syria and the punitive operation in Ukraine’s Donbass – part of a global special operations against Russia in the course of a hybrid war unleashed by the West.” (Of course)…

    http://tinyurl.com/h96r8sc (segodnia.ru)

    Reply
    • stranger

      Oh, Brown Moses is a musical pseudonym? I was sure it is after that Moses the Prophet who had been misleading Jews in the dezert for 40 years, as we know from the Old Testament… Disappointment is everywhere. But you, John is definitely a FSB agent.

      Reply
      • Sammy3

        Well, stranger

        You are obviously a FSB agent who hate Jews?

        Or at least you hate Jews, now we know.

        Most the Kremlin propagandist hate Jews.

        Reply
        • stranger

          Where do hate Jews? I’ve had a lot of school mates, then coworkers Jews and we have never ever had any problems on that, nothing at all. In contrast to Ukrainians, but that’s a different story.
          Moses mislead Jews (at least that one the prophet) for 40 years over the dezert. If you don’t know that from the bible I’d question your general education level.

          Reply
        • stranger

          Why did Moses the Prophet mis-led? What is the distance between Egypt and Israel, like 500-1000km? And where did they circle for 40 years in between?

          Reply

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