Thursday, July 15, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Elections in Russia Fewer But Not Freer or Fairer, Moscow Experts Say

Paul Goble

Staunton, July 15 – Even though the number of electoral races has declined and even though Moscow claims progress in moving toward democracy, “elections [there] have not become purer and more transparent,” Russian election monitors say, and as a result, “trust in [voting] is catastrophically falling.”
That was the conclusion of a recent roundtable organized by Civic Control with the support of the Social Chamber that attracted a wide range of political activists and experts on election law, according to an article by Natalya Yefremova in the current issue of “Rodnaya gazeta” (
One of the organizers of the meeting, Aleksandr Brod, who is co-chairman of the Civic Control NGO, described the work his organization has done in monitoring elections in the Russian Federation over the last three years. Unfortunately, he said, he could not speak of any “particular successes” in moving Russian toward democracy over that period.
The session was important because those taking part, unlike many analysts who discuss elections in Russia and elsewhere, insisted that one cannot evaluate the quality of an electoral system by looking at what happens on election day alone. One must, they said, look at the situation both before and after that date to know whether it has been a real election or not.
As a result and in contrast to many sessions on electoral rights, the participants in this round table focuses on arrangements prior to the day of voting, the level of access to the media of various groups, and also the way in which the votes are counted and the ability of candidates to challenge discrepancies in the courts.
Aleksandr Ignatov, the executive director of the Russian Public Institute of Electoral Law, told the session that many of the laws the Duma has adopted in recent times with regard to elections need serious “correction” because they have the effect of tilting the playing field away from voters toward the powers that be.
Thus, the law specifying that regional parliaments must have a certain number of deputies depending on the size of the population of the federal subject fails to take into consideration that in some places increasing the number of deputies is required because of the size or the diversity of the population.
Another participant, Vyacheslav Shulenin, a member of the Moscow City Electoral Commission, said Russians need to be reassured that electronic voting is accurate, and to that end, he proposed that the machines involved maintain two records so that one could be checked against the other.
A third speaker, Boris Nadezhdin, the secretary of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), said that while he supports President Dmitry Medvedev’s various electoral initiatives, even though they represent “a compromise” between the powers that be and the parties, he is convinced that the main problem with the Russian electoral system is not being addressed by these changes.
That problem, he suggested, is that in Russia up to now, “not once has ‘the miracle’ occurred when there has been a transfer of power by peaceful means as the result of elections.” As a result, he continued, “it is not accidental that any defeat of the ruling party, United Russia, is somehow conceived of as a catastrophe with organizational consequences.”
Nadezhdin called for “increasing control over the counting of votes.” Some reported results, he suggested, “have nothing in common with the political preferences” of the voters. In the Moscow city duma, for example, United Russia has 91 percent of the seats, and the KPRF has nine percent, fractions very different from their support in the population of the capital.
Andrey Kravets, the executive director of the Moscow Center of Applied Research and Programs, pointed to yet another aspect of the problem of public trust in elections: the frequency with which election commissions found guilty of failing to organize honest elections are not required to drop those members who were responsible for the shortcomings.
But it is not just the electoral commissions who are a problem, he continued. The courts frequently adopt “diametrically opposed decisions” regarding elections because of the absence of precedents. And as a result, “under existing conditions, not a single candidate is protected when he comes before the judicial system.”
Other speakers added details to this unfortunate picture: Grigory Trofimchuk, the first vice president of the Center of Modeling Strategic Development, pointed to the problems that arise from requiring candidates to collect signatures, a process that sometimes improves democratic behavior but often undercuts it.
Lara Aydinova, a member of the political council of the Patriots of Russia Party, pointed to the “constant scandals connected with the leaking of personal data out of various structures [involved in elections] and the machinations” that result, problems that by themselves intimidate ordinary citizens and reduce faith in the electoral system.
Mikhail Polyansky, vice president of the inter-regional Foundation For Just Elections, pointed out that “improving the electoral system is important but it is not a goal in itself. The main thing,” he argued, “is that the activity of the party which wins elections must later receive an assessment by society,” something that in Russia so far has not happened.

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