Vladimir V. Kara-Murza
MOSCOW—As Russia’s September 18th parliamentary election draws closer, the Kremlin is busy preparing the groundwork. In the last few weeks, the Duma—itself a product of the fraudulent 2011 election that drew more than 100,000 protesters to the streets of Moscow—rubberstamped a slate of new draconian laws targeting the electoral process, from campaigning to observation.
Under one such measure, parties and candidates will no longer be able to use endorsements from people who are not permitted to stand for election themselves—an entire federal law passed to target two specific individuals, opposition leaders Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny, who are deprived of the right to run by politically motivated court sentences. Another new law ties election monitors to a specific polling place, prohibiting them from traveling in mobile groups to respond to cases of fraud, as they did in 2011. “Before, we could send a mobile group of two monitors to up to ten polling places. Now, this will be impossible,” says Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of Golos, Russia’s leading vote-monitoring group. Furthermore, monitors will have to register with their polling place at least three days ahead of the vote—in other words, the authorities will know exactly which polling places are not subject to observation. Media credentials—which were widely used by Golos’ representatives through its registered newspaper—will no longer give access to the vote-count, unless their holder has been employed under contract for a minimum of two months. Filming at polling places will only be allowed by permission of election officials.
Meanwhile, the Duma and the Foreign Ministry have made clear that monitors from the Council of Europe will not be welcome to observe the September election—a direct violation of Russia’s obligations as a member of that body. Needless to say, access to national television remains out of reach for the Russian opposition and its leaders—except as targets of an ongoing smear campaign, such as the recent TV “exposés” of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, targeted by illegal undercover video surveillance, and Alexei Navalny, who was accused of being a CIA and MI6 agent based on “leaked documents” in very grammatically poor English.
Another recent development—seemingly unrelated to the election—is worthy of notice. In early April, Vladimir Putin signed a decree establishing a new militarized formation, the National Guard, that will incorporate Interior Ministry troops, special police forces, SWAT teams, and other armed units. This formidable structure, which will number 400,000 people, will be commanded by Putin’s longtime personal bodyguard, Gen. Viktor Zolotov, and will be under direct presidential control. According to its statute, the National Guard will have the right to arrest people and enter their homes; use force and shoot “without warning”; and employ armored vehicles and water cannons in the event of “mass disturbances”—a Kremlin term for street protests that followed rigged elections in other post-Soviet states, including Ukraine.
Given all these preparations, one cannot help but ask: does this really look like the behavior of a government that has, as it claims, “89 percent” popular support?
Kremlin Leaves Nothing to Chance as Election Nears