Weekly 26 September 2021

Online voting spat

Hello! This week our top story is on the fallout from Russia’s parliamentary elections, particularly arguments about the impact of online voting. We also look at a fatal shooting at a university in the central Russian city of Perm, why Russia’s ‘informer-in-chief’ is now targeting The Bell, and Belarusian start-up PandaDoc that is now valued over $1 billion.

How United Russia won the State Duma elections

Online voting turned out to be the biggest issue at last week’s parliamentary elections. But there are different opinions about its effect: some are certain it was used to carry out mass electoral fraud; others believe it just meant state-sector employees voted online for the ruling United Russia party. After testing online voting in six Russian regions in these elections, the authorities are now ready to roll out the scheme across the whole country.

  • The announcement of the results of online voting in Moscow was unexpectedly delayed for 14 hours, which led to opposition candidates in the capital winning at polling stations but then suffering a crushing defeat online. The situation was similar in the party list battle between the Communist Party and United Russia; here the gap between the two increased threefold after online voting was included.
  • The Communist Party has refused to recognize the election results and hundreds of its supporters rallied in downtown Moscow on Saturday to protest the vote. Colleagues of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny also blamed online voting for subverting the election. Sergei Shpilkin, an electoral fraud expert, told Meduza that online voting was “absolutely evil”.
  • However, Moscow’s election observation headquarters carried out a vote recount and said it found no signs of hacking or ballot stuffing. Alexei Venediktov, the chief editor of liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy who headed the observation headquarters, insisted the difference in online and offline results was because opposition parties urged their supporters to vote offline. It’s certainly true that the Communist Party advised supporters “to choose only the normal way of voting – exclusively on the ballot paper”. Navalny’s supporters also warned of the dangers of online voting.
  • Venediktov received a lot of criticism for his role in defending online voting and is increasingly a divisive figure for liberals. Not only is Ekho Moskvy financed by state-owned gas giant Gazprom, but he himself was implicated in the Russian version of #MeToo last year. When the BBC Russian service profiled Venediktov in response to the allegations of sexual harassment, he was portrayed as occupying a unique position in Russian politics — a kind of bridge between the authorities and the opposition.

The election results

The Central Election Committee announced final results Friday with United Russia winning 324 seats (out of 450) and 49.8 percent of the vote — despite opinion polls showing its support had dropped to 30 percent in recent weeks. However, this was not apparently a reason for celebration: neither President Vladimir Putin, nor official party leader Dmitry Medvedev, nor ministers Sergei Shoigu and Sergey Lavrov (who led the United Russia party list), turned up at party headquarters on election night.

  • The Communist Party won 57 seats, A Just Russia – For Truth got 27, the Liberal Democrats got 21, and New People won 13. Five self-nominated candidates were elected and two small parties – Rodina and Party of Growth – got one deputy each. The turnout was reported at 51.72 percent (109.2 million people are registered to vote). There has been no minimum turnout for parliamentary elections since 2006.
  • The appearance of new political parties in the lower house of Russia’s parliament – for the first time in 18 years – is one of the big stories of this election. The most noticeable is New People, which has a liberal manifesto of populist economic cliches and utopian ideas about tax reform. Their key economic proposal is to introduce a single turnover tax on businesses while eliminating sales tax, income tax and insurance payments. In its first year, the new tax would be set at 7 percent, dropping by 0.5 percent in each subsequent year until it settles at a final level of 5 percent. One economist interviewed by The Bell described New People’s program as a “pot-pourri of business cliches”.
  • Nine regions held governor elections at the same time as the parliamentary vote. These did not lead to any surprises: each race was won by the incumbent. They include Liberal Democrat Mikhail Degtyarev, who took 57 percent of the votes in Khabarovsk Region despite widespread hostility to his appointment, which followed protests over the arrest of previous governor Sergei Furgal.

Why the world should care

Anger over online voting could spark protests. And that, in turn, brings the risk of further repression against an already beleaguered opposition and independent media.

What to ban after fatal high school shooting in Perm?

An 18-year-old student at Perm State University brought an automatic weapon onto campus Monday and opened fire, leaving six people dead and another 43 injured.

  • The 20-minute killing spree was carried out by freshman Timur Bekmansurov. Among the pieces of harrowing footage to subsequently appear online was a video showing terrified students leaping from the windows of the university building.
  • After the incident, students said there was almost no official information about what to do. Most found out about the attack from social media or other students. “We thought there would be some kind of alarm or warning, but no. A classmate in the building just wrote ‘Run’,” recalled one student.
  • During the shooting, one professor refused to interrupt his class or barricade the entrance — despite requests from students. Russian language teacher Oleg Syromyatnikov said that barricades were useless and if someone wanted to kill them, they would be killed. Syromyatnikov later said he was trying to prevent panic. The university promised to investigate his conduct.
  • The attacker was badly injured after being shot by a traffic cop who was one of the first law enforcement officers on the scene. The Ministry of Health said Friday that Bekmansurov was conscious, but medics had amputated his leg.
  • Before the attack, Bekmansurov posted on social network VKontakte (this was soon deleted, but copies can still be found). In the message, he explained how he obtained a license for his weapon and said that, if he had been unable to get a gun, he would have driven a vehicle into a crowd or manufactured a ‘knife bomb’. He insisted he was not an extremist and that he was acting alone.
  • Bekmansurov said a shooting in Kazan on May 11 played into his hands because law enforcement officers came to check that his weapons were properly stored.
  • The Center for the Study and Online Monitoring of the Youth Environment is the Russian agency formally responsible for preventing such attacks. However, it could not have anticipated the Perm attack due to Bekmansurov’s “average level of online activity”, the center’s director told media outlet Forbes. Founded in 2018 on the initiative of Putin, the center looks set to receive up to 1.6 billion rubles ($22 million) to develop a software system to analyze what students are posting online and identify those prone to violent behavior.
  • As usual, the tragedy prompted calls for something to be banned. Alexander Bastrykin, head of the powerful Investigative Committee, suggested restricting the portrayal of torture, violence and “various kinds of amorality” on television. Prominent TV president Vladimir Pozner rejected this, saying “Mr. Bastrykin should worry about his own affairs” and that violence involving young people is far more complex.
  • Yekaterina Mizulina, director of the Internet Safety League, used the tragedy to once again call for a ban on the work of popular rapper Morgenshtern because, according to her sources, Bekmansurov was a fan. The artist himself, never shy of attracting headlines, responded by saying: “Maybe every shooter is a Morgenshtern fan, but that doesn’t mean every Morgenshtern fan is a shooter”.
  • Three days after the attack, the head of Perm’s local Investigative Committee was found dead in his home. He had hanged himself, leaving a note that he addressed to God. “I am guilty, and guilty before you,” newspaper Kommersant reported his suicide note as reading.

Why the world should care

Official calls for bans of something — anything — after such tragedies are rarely implemented. The Russian authorities were going to change firearms legislation after a 2014 shooting in a Moscow school, then after a shooting at a college in Kerch, and again after a mass murder near Tver. However, it was only after the killings in Kazan earlier this year that some measures were finally implemented.

Russia’s ‘top informer’ sets his sights on The Bell

The campaign against independent media in Russia shows no sign of relenting. Pro-Kremlin activist Alexander Ionov — who successfully suggested outlet Meduza be made a ‘foreign agent’ earlier this year — requested Wednesday The Bell be given the same designation.

  • Ionov, who describes himself as a human rights activist, told state-owned news agency TASS he had requested the Prosecutor General check The Bell’s finances and label it a ‘foreign agent’. Ionov said The Bell’s management company was Delaware-based Polestar Digital Ventures and that one of our ‘sponsors’ was Investigative Studios, which, he claimed, is “financed by the U.S. authorities”.
  • Of course, Ionov’s claims are untrue. The Bell issued a full statement in Russian. Our management company is registered in Russia and does not receive foreign funding. Investigative Studios is a private business that was involved in the production of two films by Oscar-winning U.S. documentary maker Alex Gibney for release on HBO and Amazon. Polestar Digital Ventures assisted Investigative Studios in arranging interviews with Russian officials and experts for these films.

Who is Alexander Ionov?

Ionov is one of a new breed of pro-government activists used to advance complaints — as if ‘from the public’ — against independent media outlets.

  • Ionov’s denunciation of Meduza in April led to the Ministry of Justice labelling Meduza — Russia’s most popular independent media organization — a ‘foreign agent’. Other Ionov complaints have resulted in investigative media outlet iStories and several of its journalists being branded foreign agents and the U.S. Bard College being named an ‘undesirable organization’ (essentially outlawing it in Russia).
  • Before he became Russia’s ‘informer-in-chief’, Ionov was best known as the founder of the Anti-Globalist Movement of Russia. The organization’s role was to support “countries and peoples who oppose the dictates of a uni-polar world and to seek to propose an alternative agenda,” according to his website. Honorary members allegedly include Syrian President Bashar Assad, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
  • Ionov told The Bell he went to Syria in 2015 to coordinate “almost 60 Russian companies” trying to evade U.S. sanctions. Since then, he has helped raise funds to free alleged Russian agent Maria Butina and dealt with cases involving Russian hackers arrested abroad on suspicion of cyber-crimes and interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to Meduza. Later, Ionov became a member of the Public Monitoring Commission that checks human rights violations in prison.
  • After his complaint against Meduza resulted in a ‘foreign agent’ designation, Ionov announced he was forming a new organization: the Public Committee for the Detection of Foreign Interference. Its role is to ‘uncover’ foreign agents.
  • In a Meduza investigation last month, several sources claimed Ionov worked with Kremlin officials. Both Ionov and another ‘informer’, Vitaly Borodin (a complaint from whom led to investigative media outlet Proekt being branded an ‘undesirable organization’) often reference articles by state-owned television channel RT in their denunciations. Ionov, Borodin and other activists are ‘ambassadors’ for an official campaign against foreign funding in the media, according to Meduza, while all decisions about ‘foreign agents’ are actually made in advance by top officials.

Why the world should care

The government’s campaign against independent media is no longer a one-sided battle:  Federation Council speaker Valentina Matvienko said Thursday that the ‘foreign agent’ law will not be repealed, but the government might “clarify it”. Her remarks came after more than 200 media outlets, NGOs, educational organizations and charities launched an anti-’foreign agent’ petition that has already been signed by over 135,000 people.

IN BRIEF

Belarusian IT company that challenged Lukashenko becomes ‘unicorn’

PandaDoc, an online service for creating, sharing and signing official documents, has been valued at $1 billion, giving it ‘unicorn’ status. However, the size of the company’s latest investment round has not been fully disclosed due to ongoing friction between the company and the authorities in Belarus, birthplace of its founders Mikita Mikado and Sergei Barysyuk. PandaDoc’s head office is in San Francisco, but a sister company operates out of Minsk’s answer to Silicon Valley, the Park of High Technologies. After Belarus erupted in opposition protests last year, Mikado and Barysyuk openly declared their support for the opposition, setting-up a fundraising campaign in support of law enforcement officers who wanted to quit, and signing an open letter demanding an end to police violence and fresh elections.