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The Magic Tricks of Russian Elections

Results of the Russian legislative election 2021. The upper map shows the winning parties in federal subjects. The lower map shows the parties of the winners in the single-member constituencies.

Legend: (dark blue) United Russia, (red) CPRF, (blue) LDPR, (yellow) Just Russia, (orange) Rodina, (light blue) Party of Growth, (indigo) Civic Platform, (grey) Independents.

Source: Gajmar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Elections in Putin’s Russia are usually predictable and rarely bring out any surprises. Even when the ratings of the ever-incumbent president or his subservient ruling party are down, media propaganda and widespread systemic election fraud ensure they remain in power. As the common saying goes: “The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” And while this quote is frequently – and falsely – attributed to Uncle Joe, it has nevertheless become the unspoken slogan of the Russian electoral system.

What made the September 19th elections genuinely interesting is the fact that the pro-Putin ruling party, United Russia, was at a historic low even according to their own data. Opinion polls before the elections showed the party would get only 29% of the vote. Thus, the big question in the run-up to the elections was how would United Russia reach its goal and maintain constitutional majority? It really takes a miracle to move from 29% to 66%. But to be fair to the party, it has a very long record of performing electoral magic and miracles, and this time was not an exception.

One popular magic trick which is used by authoritarian wizards in many countries is simply forging the votes. Over the course of many years, this was done by literally dumping fake ballots into the voting box. This was United Russia’s signature trick for over 10 years but it somewhat lost its appeal after the 2011 elections when the functionaries of Putin’s party – unaware that an entire generation of young people had just bought their first smartphones and were eager to test the video-uploading option on YouTube – were caught performing massive election fraud. This ignited an unprecedented protest movement around the entire country in 2011-2012.

As the times and technologies are changing, so do the election fraud miracles. One of the greatest achievements of the 2011-2012 protest movement was a concession on the part of the government allowing live CCTV cameras to observe the voting process. This year, however, the head of the elections commission, hinting at the recent cyber-wars with the US, announced that cameras at polling stations had been blocked to pre-empt cyber-attacks, and hence only specially trained people would have access to these cameras.

Allegedly, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the need to avoid overcrowding, more rules have been tweaked and the elections ran not just one day but three days in a row, September 17th, 18th, and 19th. This offered two extra days and nights to stuff ballot boxes — helped by the fact polling stations will no longer have live CCTV cameras.

Another electoral “innovation” was discovered by an independent newspaper called Novaya Gazeta.  The newspaper published a leaked tape of a high official in the city of Korolyov near Moscow telling the heads of local electoral commissions how to rig results to give United Russia a bigger vote share, by simply preparing a fake list of registered voters in advance: “When the last voter has left, those who sat with the [real] voter lists during the voting will continue to sit there and work on them. And you’ll sit there until the time comes to replace them.”

On top of that, the leading independent election monitoring group Golos (Voice) was recently recognized by Russian authorities as a “foreign agent” – a legal term invented by the Russian government  that could be applied to media organizations, human rights groups and even individuals who receive money in the form of funding or grants from abroad. The point behind branding someone as a “foreign agent” is to simultaneously stigmatize them and paralyze their work using overwhelming legal and bureaucratic requirements. Apart from Golos, recent months saw basically all the major independent media, including the last independent TV channel Dozhd’ (Rain) as well as the largest news website Meduza were branded as “foreign agents” as well.

The Russian electoral system is a mixed one. This means that during the parliamentary elections voters get two votes: one to decide the representative for their single-seat constituency, and one for a political party. Half of the 450 seats in the parliament are distributed based on votes for the parties, and half based on the votes for individuals. What this means in practice is that the authorities need to create obstacles not only for oppositional parties trying to run for parliament but also for individuals who dare to try to run independently.  This year, 14 parties were going to be on the ballot. Out of those 14, maybe one or two, like liberal left Yabloko or the Communist party, are independent or semi-independent from the Kremlin. Most of the parties that ran for parliament are so-called “spoiler” parties. They will never get enough votes to make it to parliament but they will get enough votes to divide the oppositional vote and ensure that no real opposition will ever get elected. They also help keep the façade of democracy, at least on the superficial level. When questioned about the quality of Russian elections by foreign media, Putin can always say that Russia has more parties running for parliament than many European countries.

The only party that was both allowed to run in the elections and has a real strong oppositional potential is the Communist party. As bizarre as it sounds, the Communists these days, just like more than a 100 years ago, protest the authoritarian regime in the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg demanding freedom of speech and freedom for political prisoners. The leadership of the Communist party, i.e. its everlasting chair Comrade Zyuganov, is quite openly aligned with Putin. But the party itself has a strong independent grassroots movement which challenges – sometimes successfully – Putin’s party in local elections in multiple regions across the country. It is also the second largest party represented in the parliament. In recent months, as the crackdown against opposition was gaining momentum, the Communists have been demonstrating unusual eagerness to protest Putin’s repressive laws, often allying themselves with liberals and the progressive left. As one Russian comedian Mikhail Zhvanetsky once joked: “Communists are really great. When they are in opposition.” Maybe it is for this reason that the most popular member of the Communist party, a successful socially responsible businessman Pavel Grudinin, who challenged Putin in 2018 presidential elections, was banned from running. This businessman and Communist who owns a huge private business Sovhoz imeni Lenina (Lenin’s collective farm) was accused of hiding offshore assets, but Grudinin himself is confident that he ended up in hot water because his charisma and success make the Communist party a real contender for United Russia.

Kindergarten and social housing at Pavel Grudinin’s “Sovhoz imeni Lenina” (source)

Another poplar opposition figure and former MP, Dmitry Gudkov, who announced his bid for the parliament, was detained over unpaid rent from 2015 and faced up to five years in prison. Luckily for him, he was temporarily released from detention and he wisely used this chance to flee the country and find shelter in Ukraine.

In Saint Petersburg, the popular leader of the liberal left oppositional party Yabloko, Boris Vishnevsky, had to run against an unusual contender: himself. To be precise, against two doppelgangers. In the district of Saint Petersburg, there were two of his look-alikes running for the same office with the same first and last names. “My ‘doubles,’ who became ‘Boris Vishnevsky’ in time for the elections by changing their first and last names, have now changed their appearance. They’ve grown beards and moustaches….” – the original Vishnevsky tweeted. It does not come as a surprise that one of these doubles is a member of United Russia and, apparently, the trick with two doubles is used to neutralize a successful oppositional candidate and confuse the voters. In the end, this trick actually worked and Vishnevsky’s doubles distracted just enough votes to prevent him from being elected. The federal electoral commission of Russia, which is in charge of registering candidates and verifying their identities, had zero problems with the fact that three Borises Vishnevskys were running in the same district.

Boris Vishnevsky and his two look alike on the ballot (source).

Ilya Yashin, another popular young liberal, was banned from running for Moscow city parliament allegedly for his “extremist” views. When he tried to challenge the ban in the court, the prosecutor presented the screenshots of alleged Yashin’s Telegram account as a proof of his extremist views. Yashin tried to argue that this is not his account and that the account is obviously fake. “Well, it has your picture on it. This is enough proof,” smiled the judge as he upheld Yahin’s ban on elections.

Aware of all the shenanigans happening around Russian elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe usually sends a big delegation of international monitors. This year, as always, they suggested 500 monitors to visit Russia during elections. In response, the Kremlin again made good use of the pandemic by insisting that they can only accept 60 monitors due to the epidemiological situation. As 60 monitors were not going to be nearly enough to provide substantial monitoring throughout Russia, OSCE abandoned the whole idea and did not send anyone.

The Case of Alexey Navalny

The most important person in this year’s parliamentary elections did not appear on the ballot, because he is in jail. But even from jail, Alexey Navalny plays a bigger role in the elections than most election candidates.

As a reminder, Alexey Navalny is the person who was poisoned with a Soviet deadly nerve agent, Novichok, nearly died, was transported to Germany at the invitation of Angela Merkel, recovered, participated in the investigation of his own attempted murder, proved that Russian FSB was behind this crime, investigated Putin’s personal corruption, proved that Putin illegally owns a palace worth almost 1.5 billion USD, prompted an unprecedented wave of anti-Putin protests in 198 cities and towns of Russia, returned to Moscow from Germany despite threats from the Kremin, caused a major air traffic disruption over Russian territory because the authorities tried to prevent the plane he was on from landing and diverted dozens of planes towards another airport in Moscow, got arrested  immediately at the airport, and now leads a nation-wide anti-Putin campaign from behind bars.

To be fair, it is, of course, not Navalny himself who was behind all these investigations and protests but many brave activists, IT specials, journalists (including Western journalists), researchers and others who are connected to his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) or cooperate with them in some ways. FBK is de-facto a centerpiece of a large movement across the whole country. Shortly after Navalny was imprisoned, FBK itself was banned as “extremist” this year – putting the foundation on par with other banned groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Both the arrest and the following crackdown by authorities may seem unprecedented, but what Navalny, FBK, and their partners have done is also unprecedented.

At the very end of 2020, Bellingcat, a British-based open-source research group, published an investigation conducted together with CNN and Der Spiegel which was, without doubt, of historic significance. It was an investigation into the August 2020 incident where Navalny was poisoned after meeting his followers in the Siberian city of Tomsk. In short, the investigation established that “from early 2017 until August 2020, FSB operatives from a clandestine FSB unit specializing in working with poisonous substances shadowed Navalny during his trips across Russia, flew alongside him on more than 30 overlapping flight destinations, and appear to have made at least two attempts to poison him prior to the Tomsk operation.” In one of the scenes in the documentary, Navalny personally tricked a Russian FSB agent into revealing details of an attack on him by impersonating a senior security official on a phone call with the agent. The agent, basically one of Navalny’s unsuccessful assassins, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, unaware that he is literally talking to the guy he tried to kill just several months ago, told him that Novichok had been placed in a pair of Navalny’s underpants. Navalny posted this video on his own YouTube channel with title: “I called my killer and he confessed.”

The historic significance of this investigation cannot be underestimated. For years, there have been rumors that the Russian security service and the Kremlin might be behind multiple political assassinations in and outside of Russia. But the Kremlin always operates in a mode of plausible deniability. These rumors remained unfounded as no one could provide any evidence, which is why Navalny’s video is a game changer. Now we not only definitely know that the Russian state is doing it, we also know that they used a forbidden nerve agent, classified by the UN as a chemical weapon. Novichok is a tasteless and colorless liquid, one of the deadliest nerve agents known, and it kills you by disrupting the mechanisms by which nerves transfer messages to internal body organs. Navalny himself later recalled this experience: “It’s hard to describe because there is nothing to compare it with. The most important feeling was: You are feeling no pain, but you understand that you’re dying.”

Only a month after a scandalous investigation into Navalny’s attempted assassination, FBK made history in January 2021 by publishing a documentary on Putin’s personal engagement in a massive corruption scheme. According to this documentary, Putin illegally owns an enormous luxurious palace, on the Black Sea, protected from land, sea and air by security services. It does not come as a surprise that Putin is personally engaged in corruption but it is extremely important that for the first time he was exposed using data and evidence not just speculations, rumours and assumptions. Anyone who used to have illusions that Putin was in reality a man of ideas and was just trying to fight for Russia’s “national interests” the way he understands them despite all his authoritarianism, now could personally get acquainted with serious evidence that he is no different from any other petty dictator who just wants to have his own secret enormous palace, obedient servants, tasteless enormous marbles stairs and private casinos. Within 24 hours, “Putin’s palace” video was on YouTube’s top 10 trending videos in 23 countries. The video reached 100 million views in a little more than a week.

After some initial confusion, the authorities reacted with measures, draconian even by Russian standards. In April, the Moscow prosecutor office requested the Moscow City Court to enlist organizations affiliated with Navalny as extremist organizations, claiming: “Under the disguise of liberal slogans, these organizations are engaged in creating conditions for the destabilization of the social and socio-political situation.” Then in June, the Russian parliament hastily adopted a new law which bans any employees of “extremist” organizations to run for offices – quite an apparent move to ban anyone associated with “extremist” Navalny from running for parliament this year.

The total ban on Navalny and his team to run in the elections did not stop them from participating in them. By “participation” here I mean a system which was developed by Navalny’s allies, called “Smart Voting.” You can access this system through the app or directly on its website and by indicating your address, the system will tell you which candidate out of all the opposition candidate has the highest chance to win your district. The idea is to support the strongest opposition candidate in each district. Navalny explained the strategy as follows: “The parties themselves cannot agree and nominate a united candidate against United Russia. But we can agree on this. We are different, but we have one policy – we are against the monopoly of United Russia… If we all act smartly and vote for the strongest candidate, he will win, and United Russia will lose.”

The authorities, quite predictably, tried to suppress Smart Voting. Russian Internet watchdog Roskomnadzor restricted access to the Smart Voting website and forced Apple and Google to remove the Smart Voting app from their app stores. Even Telegram, which has a history of disobeying the Kremlin’s policies, had to remove the app at the last moment.

The Election Results

The official “results” of the elections were predictable. The magic occurred again. Sauron and his army of Orcs work in unison and rarely make mistakes: United Russia got their constitutional majority in the Parliament. Yet very few could foresee the scale and ferocity of the fraud this time. If some of the earlier election tricks could be seen as funny hocus-pocuses used by illusionists for children’s entertainment, this time it was some real hardcore dark magic by some very evil sorcerers.

Early reports on the 19th of September by the independent monitors from the east of the country were showing that the Smart Voting candidates, particularly the Communists, were coming in first and sometimes getting twice as many votes as United Russia. But with every new hour the new data was coming more and more from Western regions and, simultaneously, hundreds of videos of fake ballot dumping flooded the Internet. Meanwhile, United Russia started to drastically improve their score. The biggest single miracle happened in Moscow, where Smart Voting opposition candidates were winning in the majority of districts. Yet, after a huge delay in publishing the online voting results, as if at the stroke of the magic stick, literally all the districts in usually oppositional Moscow were won by the ruling party. The Communists, who were supposed to be the biggest winners according to independent monitors, now demand a recount of the mysterious online voting results and are staging protests in Moscow.

Leading Russian election expert Sergey Shpilkin came up with a formula to estimate the scale of any election fraud purely based on mathematics. His data is widely quoted by the Russian opposition as he successfully uses science against Kremlin’s magic. By analyzing polling stations with unusually high turnouts and unusually high numbers of votes for the ruling party, he came up with an estimate that United Russia won between 30 and 33% of the vote this year – with around half of the votes cast across the country estimated to be fake – thus, basically, losing the election. While very few people inside and outside of Russia actually doubt the massive fraud, even fewer people are going to challenge these results or do something about it. It’s pure magic.

A version of this article was originally published by Merce in Hungarian, here and here. The English translation was realized as part of a cooperation between Eastern European leftist media platforms in ELMO (Eastern European Left Media Outlet). 

Evgeny (Zhenya) Belyakov, born in the Far East of Russia and currently residing in Budapest, is an independent researcher working in the areas of human rights and historical memory in East-Central Europe.