Weekly 18 September 2021

Russia goes to the polls

Hello! This week events have been dominated by the build-up to tightly-controlled elections to the State Duma, Russia’s 450-seat parliament. For the first time in history, voting is taking place over three days — polls close Sunday. We’ll look at what to expect from the vote, problems for United Russia, the chances of smaller political parties breaking through, how the authorities manipulate the results, the risks of online voting, and how the Kremlin has waged an internet war to remove all traces of a tactical voting campaign promoted jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Expectations and predictions

There are 14 political parties taking part in the elections to the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament — the same number as in 2016 parliamentary elections. Deputies are chosen via a mixed voting system: half are elected directly in first-past-the-post voting, while the other half are allocated via party lists. Officials anticipate the ruling United Russia party will get about 40 percent of the vote. And it seems unlikely any ‘new’ parties will pass the 5-percent threshold required to enter the Duma.

  • Official hopes for United Russia have been scaled back during the run-up to elections. Independent media outlet Meduza (designated a foreign agent in Russia) reported in November that the Kremlin’s target for United Russia was to retain two-thirds of the seats in the Duma. At the start of this year, however, the influential deputy head of the presidential administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, held a seminar for deputy governors and suggested the best result would be 45 percent for United Russia on a 45 percent turnout (in 2016, the party got 54 percent on a 48 percent turnout). Last week, media outlet Znak.com reported that the authorities’ had a new target: 40 percent of votes and no fewer than 270 deputies (they currently have 343).
  • There’s a good reason for these diminishing expectations: United Russia’s popularity is at its lowest ebb since 2008. According to the latest poll from the state-run VTsIOM agency, only 29.3 percent of voters support the ruling party. This figure has not increased since June, and even dropped to 26.4 percent in August. To boost United Russia’s ratings, the Kremlin took the unprecedented step of removing the divisive former president and current party chairman Dmitry Medvedev from the party list — but this did not help.
  • Political analyst Dmitry Fetisov told The Bell that 40 percent is realistic for United Russia. “Within the presidential administration there’s a clear understanding that if United Russia’s result is significantly better, a significant chunk of the population simply won’t accept the election result,” he said. So, 40 percent looks like a reasonable compromise. Another analyst, Konstantin Kalachev, pointed out that United Russia traditionally gets higher results than those suggested in polls.

Pre-election problems for United Russia

United Russia’s party list is headed by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, children’s rights ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova, co-chairman of the All-Russia People’s Front Yelena Shmeleva and Denis Protsenko, head doctor at Russia’s top COVID-19 hospital. In the run-up to polling, three of these five were the subject of compromising investigations by independent media outlets.

  • New media outlet Agenstvo — set up by journalists from the now disbanded investigative outlet Proekt (shut-down after it was designated an ‘undesirable organization’) — made Shoigu the subject of its first investigation. Their article described how Shoigu’s popularity stems from an expensive and sometimes aggressive PR operation, and how he stays close to President Vladimir Putin via their shared leisure interests, including outdoor sports.
  • Media outlet iStories (a designated ‘foreign agent’) this week reported on the expensive real estate belonging to “a woman close to minister [Lavrov]”. According to the article, Foreign Ministry employee Svetlana Polyakova, who has enjoyed a “very close relationship” with Lavrov for many years, owns assets worth over 1 billion rubles ($13.7 million). These assets are held by her and her family — and are located both inside Russia and abroad. Two days later, supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny published their own investigation into Polyakova. According to their information, Polyakova and her family use private jets, yachts and residences provided by metals billionaire Oleg Deripaska. They claimed they found images on social media showing a relative of Polyakova on the same yacht that was used by escort Nastya Rybka who wrote a book about seducing Deripaska.
  • Finally, media outlet The Insider — another ‘foreign agent’ — reported Friday that the son of Shmeleva was given a free apartment in downtown Moscow by the state. This apparent gift was valued at 100 million rubles. At the time, neither Shmeleva nor her son, a 20-year-old student, were state employees.

Who else is heading to the Duma?

Aside from United Russia, there are three other parties represented in the current Duma: the Communist Party, the nationalist Liberal Democrats and a revamped A Just Russia, which absorbed two ‘patriotic’ parties at the start of the year. They are even less popular than United Russia, according to the last poll before the election.

  • Of the total of 14 parties going to the polls, only three did not take part in 2016 – New People, Green Alternative and the Russian Party of Freedom and Justice. At the start of September, experts assembled by a research institute close to the Kremlin concluded that the Duma will, once again, be made up of the four parties that have traditionally held all the available seats.
  • However, some uncertainty remains, according to expert Dmitry Fetisov. Three parties (United Russia, the Communists and the Liberal Democrats) will definitely get into the Duma — but the fate of A Just Russia is unclear. “There could be just three parties, or there could be as many as six, but it will still be the same controlled parliament as before,” Fetisov said.
  • New People, set up by Alexei Nechayev, founder of cosmetics company Faberlic, has become a particular talking point of the election campaign. Earlier this month, the head of polling agency VtsIOM announced that New People was on course to pass the 5 percent threshold needed to get into the Duma. Such a result would be a dramatic breakthrough for Nechayev, who has been trying to make his mark in politics for years. We looked at New People in our newsletter last week.

‘Controlling’ the outcome

During last year’s referendum on changes to the constitution, the authorities tried out new ways to ensure they achieve the ‘right’ result (in that case a 70 percent ‘yes’ vote). Now, these tactics (mostly ways to reduce political competition and increase the opportunities for electoral fraud) have been used for the first time in a federal election.

  • Extending polling over three days “significantly reduces faith in the counting process for citizens, candidates and the parties” because it’s impossible to find enough election observers, according to election monitoring organisation Golos (designated a ‘foreign agent’).
  • For the first time in a decade, the Central Election Commission (CEC) will not have livestream broadcasts from every polling station across the country. Previously, anyone could watch this footage in real time — leading to lots of viral clips of ballot stuffing. Now, only the CEC will have access to the video feeds, while candidates and parties will get access to the footage from the constituencies in which they are running.
  • ‘Foreign agent’ legislation has been used against some candidates, which means they must refer to their ‘foreign agent’ status on all campaign materials. To ‘qualify’ for this designation, candidates must have received foreign funding in the two years prior to polling, or to have been employed or funded by an NGO or media organization listed as a foreign agent.
  • A new law banning members of extremist organizations from standing for election was passed this year, apparently a deliberate attempt to stop anyone linked to Navalny from taking part. This could affect tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of people with an interest in politics, according to Golos.
  • Political competition is declining. The total number of parties eligible to field candidates has more than halved since 2016, according to Golos. It’s now harder for candidates to register for elections. A significant number of politicians were barred from standing following the passage last year of laws barring the candidacy of people with previous criminal convictions.

Online voting

The main innovation for this election is online voting. It’s not available everywhere, but it’s possible to cast your vote online in seven regions: Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Kursk, Murmansk, Rostov, Yaroslavl and Sevastopol. According to CEC chief Ella Pamfilova, the introduction of online voting was a response to the needs of the ‘digital generation’. Others worry it offers more opportunities for electoral fraud.

  • The online voting system in Moscow is different to the one used elsewhere. It was created on the orders of the city’s Department of Information Technology, and developed by cyber-security firm Kaspersky Lab. The national system was developed by state-controlled telecommunications giant Rostelecom in partnership with crypto-company Waves.
  • The Moscow system was first trialled in 2019 — and all did not go smoothly. For example, Meduza was able to access supposedly protected data about voters, and uncovered some unusual statistical patterns.
  • On the first day of voting Friday, the online voting system in Moscow was targeted by a DDoS attack. “It wasn’t huge, but nonetheless it was a head-on attack,” said Alexei Venediktov, chief-editor of radio station Ekho Moskvy and head of the public HQ for election monitoring in Moscow.
  • Online voting was already widespread in last year’s referendum on constitutional changes — more than a million people in two regions applied for an online ballot. The ‘digital’ turn-out was huge, with 92 percent of those who applied using their online vote. The explanation for this is likely that, in Moscow, public sector employees were ‘asked’ by their bosses to vote online. This is likely to be repeated in the ongoing parliamentary elections.
  • The authorities built both online voting systems using blockchain and that was one of the key arguments in support of online voting — it’s supposedly impossible to amend information entered into the blockchain. However, things are not quite so straightforward: as Forbes reported, this particular blockchain is linked to the government and observers cannot verify how exactly it is formed. In addition, fraud could also take place on the site where voter registration takes place (this also cannot be verified, according to experts). The Duma election primaries provided evidence of problems when users noticed they were logged as having voted even though they had never cast a ballot.

The battle with Smart Voting

In the lead up to the election, Navalny’s tactical voting project, dubbed ‘Smart Voting’ — which helps voters identify the candidates most likely to defeat United Russia — has been firmly in the authorities’ sights. State communications regulator Roskomnadzor has blocked sites connected with Navalny, tried to restrict the app and website associated with Smart Voting, and attacked online services giving access to Smart Voting material.

  • Roskomnadzor demanded last month that U.S. tech giants Apple and Google remove the ‘Navalny app’, which included information on Smart Voting, from their online stores. The authorities argued the app was linked to an ‘extremist organization’. The app eventually disappeared from Apple and Google online stores Friday, although it remained available for download in other countries. The following day, Google demanded Navalny associates delete information on Smart Voting contained on two Google Docs.
  • A Moscow court banned Google and Russian internet giant Yandex from displaying the phrase ‘smart voting’ in search results earlier this month as a result of a case brought by wool-trading company Vulintertrade that had registered this phrase as its own trademark (the BBC Russian service reported Vulintertrade has links to the security services). In the end, Yandex removed links to information on Smart Voting, although, as of Saturday, Google had not followed suit.
  • Roskomnadzor also attempted to block the Smart Voting website (because of its links to Navalny’s ‘extremist’ Anti-Corruption Fund). The agency issued written demands to dozens of foreign companies, including Google, Cloudflare, Apple and Cisco, to stop all access to the Smart Voting site. After Apple and Google ignored these requests, the Interior Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador.
  • Explaining that it was acting in line with instructions from the Prosecutor General and the CEC, Roskomnadzor warned foreign companies that failure to comply would be regarded as foreign interference in Russia’s elections — and that both the individuals and companies in question could face criminal charges for aiding an extremist organization. Russia’s local war against Navalny’s online presence is becoming an international battleground.
  • Despite the best efforts of officials, Navalny’s associates published Wednesday a list of candidates to support in the elections. Team Navalny created a Smart Voting chat-bot on messaging service Telegram (later disabled by Telegram itself), and posted the list to the ‘Navalny app’, as well as publishing a YouTube video with all the candidates. The Smart Voting list is dominated by candidates from the Communist Party, but also includes those from the Liberal Democrats, A Just Russia – Patriots – For Truth, and the liberal Yabloko party.  
  • The Kremlin’s assault on Smart Voting has become a real test for internet freedom in Russia. In order to make it more difficult for people to bypass the various bans, Roskomnadzor started blocking popular VPN services in June and has also considered blocking the public DNS servers of Google, Cloudflare and DoH. According to newspaper Kommersant, officials have alerted state agencies to the trial blocking of Google and Cloudflare DNS servers and DoH protocols. Roskomnadzor reportedly advised them to switch to Russian DNS servers.
  • All this raises serious questions about the level of control to which the internet in Russia will be subjected in coming years. The Kremlin’s battle against Navalny’s online platforms has brought us to a point where “the Russian internet has ceased to exist as a free phenomenon,” according to Mikhail Klimarev of the Internet Protection Society.

Why the world should care

The winner of Russia’s parliamentary elections may be entirely predictable, but this vote has illustrated a number of disturbing trends. Not only do 3-day elections and online voting offer far more opportunities for electoral fraud, but the Kremlin has revealed how it can effectively erase the online presence of political foes — and successfully pressure U.S. tech giants Google and Apple into enabling censorship inside Russia.