The legislative elections of September 2021 are set to shape the lower house of the Russian Federal Assembly for the next five years, which will have more prerogatives, due to the recently amended Constitution. After three days of voting and with a turnout of around 45%, the current series of Russian elections and the system that organized them (which included also remote electronic voting in seven regions) were declared, on the one hand, fair and transparent; on the other hand, there are voices that have brought forward significant criticisms for alleged fraud and arbitrary intervention from the state authorities.
The preliminary results as of Tuesday, 21st of September, show Edinaya Rossiya – United Russia – leading with close to 50%, followed by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation with almost 19% of the votes, and both the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and A just Russia – For Truth with over 7%. Half of the 450 are set through legislative constituencies, and the other half through party lists. While the seemingly dominant both Russian and international perception is that the overall results are of no surprise, a surface analysis could immediately reveal some differences between the current and the previous electoral results. For example, comparing with 2016, United Russia seems to have faced a rather significant drop in the voters’ preferences; at the same time, the Communists experience an important growth. RIA Novosti spotted these evolutions in an article published early in the morning of the day after the elections, observing how there would be many “new people” in the State Duma. Nonetheless, the author attributed the main novelty factor to the choice of the United Russia to renew “by almost half” its candidates. The article also covered some other new characteristics of the eighth State Duma, such as its more left-wing orientation, with parties of a socialist orientation gaining about a third of the votes (1.5 times more than in the last elections).
It can be undoubtedly observed how there is an interest in presenting the unfolding of the elections, under the form of chronicles and timelines (such as the one from Gazeta, or Moskovskii Komsomolets) or infographics (Ria Novosti, RBC, TASS), with less space and attention given to critically analysing in the mainstream media the tendencies and preferences of the voters. Moreover, the lack of significant surprises in the overall results doesn’t leave much desire for interpreting the results themselves, but for how they were reached. Therefore, two dichotomous topics have surfaced in the days prior, during, and immediately after the elections: external interference vs. Russian authorities’ interference in the electoral process; and transparency and legality of the elections vs. frauds and violations.
Western vs. Russian interference
The topic of external influence in national elections has made quite the headlines in the past years, concerning multiple countries. While Russia is usually at the end of the investigations and accusations of intrusions in elections, when it came to this month’s Russian legislative elections it was Russia who launched allegations of Western interference in the electoral process. The topic has been discussed in a spirited tone by members of the Russian authorities, such as Andrei Klimov, Deputy Chair of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs and Chair of the Ad Hoc Commission on Protecting State Sovereignty and Preventing Interference in the Domestic Affairs of the Russian Federation, and Maria Zakharova, spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Cited by Aktualnyie Komentarii, Klimov indicated in a meeting prior to the elections with the Commission he is currently heading that there were clear signs that made the Russian authorities expect “provocations” with the aim to “discredit both the elections themselves and the Russian electoral system”. His points were backed by Vladimir Dzhabarov, First Deputy of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, cited by the same article, who added that “they plan to launch another stream of disinformation and calls not to recognize the elections even before the start of voting”. One clear target of Dzhabarov’s accusations was the European Parliament, which, according to the senator was planning to “arrange a provocation” and to “involve Russian citizens and NGOs in destructive activities.” Furthermore, Dzhabarov attacked firmly “officials of Western countries” for encouraging “riots”, “extremist and terrorist activities” and “other forms of destabilization” with the purpose of discrediting the Russian judicial and law enforcements systems.
Maria Zakharova followed the same line in targeting Western officials and, more specifically, diplomats, for supporting actions aimed at “discrediting” the elections to the State Duma. The MFA’s spokesperson, citing data from the Committee for the Defense of National Interests, directly accused in the period prior to the start of the elections the diplomatic missions of the United States and Germany in Russia for funding Alexei Navalny’s projects. She detailed on how the embassies were employing Russian citizens, who used the money they were paid as salaries to “transfer the funds to the appropriate structures”. Zakharova went on to announce a confirmation of the US interference in the Russian elections on the 11th of September, highlighting how there were “concrete facts” which “proved” how the US authorities, through internet platforms owned by American companies, tried to influence the Russian internal processes, naming the elections. She linked directly the developers of the Smart Voting Project with the Pentagon, stating that her accusations were supported by evidence from Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, which had established that the IP addresses of the website developers and the servers of the Smart Voting application were “mainly located in the United States, where technical support comes from”. One day before the start of the elections, the MFA’s spokesperson wrapped the subject with announcing that the US’ relevant authorities had been provided with clear data indicating to American interference in the elections, concluding that “Washington cannot get rid of this with just statements”.
The dichotomous counterpart of the above point came from journalists and publications that aimed at showing and proving how, in fact, it was the Russian authorities which interfered with the elections, both before and during their unfolding. One highlighted aspect was the absence of OSCE observers during the electoral process, attributed to the Russian authorities decline to allow the required number of observers coming from the international organization. Both OSCE representatives and members of the Russian media have labelled the outcome as being unfortunate. The OSCE, for example, in its declaration released on the 4th of August 2021, stated how “the responses provided by the Russian authorities did not offer sufficient clarification” regarding the reasoning behind the limitation of the number of OSCE observers, since the organization had committed to respecting all sanitary rules that the epidemiological situation imposed. Considering that the OSCE appraised the number set by the Russian authorities as being too low for them to “observe effectively and credibly” the elections, the structure decided not to send any representatives.
Another aspect that has transpired in the public arena were the actions taken by Russian authorities in the online sphere. Novaya Gazeta, in an article titled “Flashed Russia” and signed by its editor of the Politics Department, Kirill Martynov, announced how the “Chinese scenario” started through the installation of a “sovereign Runet”. The editor presented how on the night of the 16th of September, large Russian internet providers started to block Google Docs, “a key document management tool used by millions of people in Russia in modern businesses – from marketing to education”. The author explained the action as aiming to block Navalny’s supporters from disseminating information and reaching a large audience. Martynov continued with describing the measure as “an act of intimidation”, but also hinted at the growing capabilities of Roskomnadzor of “deep traffic filtering”, therefore, of blocking Russians’ access to modern apps. The editor went on to tackle another target of the days prior to the elections, naming the “Smart Voting” app, closely linked to Alexei Navalny, which, after a meeting of the Federation Council Commission for the Protection of State Sovereignty with representatives of Google and Apple, was removed from their stores. It should be noted that the attention given to this app and its removal got considerable attention from both Russian and international press. The conclusion Martynov reached in the above mentioned article was that a precedent had been created, which could have serious consequences both for the corporations involved, but especially for the Russian citizens, who, the editor encouraged, “must stay ahead of the state and protect themselves from censorship”.
Another area where the Russian authorities have been accused of interfering by members of the Russian media was the online voting system. The Bell, for example, wrote an expose on how the national online voting system drew on the lessons learned from the system developed by cyber-security firm Kaspersky Lab and firstly tested in Moscow, and how it was developed by state-controlled telecommunications giant Rostelecom in partnership with crypto-company Waves.
There are two types of criticism that could be identified as they have transpired in the Russian public space in the past days: one is connected to the technical aspects of the online voting system, while others target the lack of transparency on displaying the results. The Bell continued to expose its focus on the subject in the first day of the electoral process reporting how the Moscow online voting was attacked by “small DDoS attacks”, as transmitted by Alexei Venediktov, head of the Public Headquarters for Election Observation in Moscow. The article also disclosed how Moscow voters had difficulties in accessing the e-voting portal on the 17th of September, with a waiting time of 10-30 minutes for the ballot to be registered. In response, the city authorities had declared that the system was working normally. Deutsche Welle, in its Russian version, granted a focus to the second category listed above, reporting how publishing the results of the electronic voting in Moscow had been delayed. The article stated that the official reason for the delay was that more than 200 thousand votes had to be recounted, as the voters had the option to change their vote within 24 hours when voting online. The author observed, however, that the electoral authorities had not specified the exact procedure of how the votes were going to be counted.
Legality vs. fraud
The same ambivalence could be noticed when the transparency and legality of the electoral process was in the focus of the Russian authorities and media. On the one hand, the elections were declared as running smoothly and transparently, while on the other hand, many voices raised questions and threw criticisms towards how the process had taken place.
Ella Pamfilova, the Chairperson of the Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) was the first to announce when the voting stations closed that the voting process together with the counting process could be openly followed online on the CEC website, making the CEC of Russia a “unique digital space”. She went on to underline how this reflected on the “unprecedented openness and transparency of our electoral system”. President Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, followed Pamfilova’s line in sharing the president’s positive assessment of the elections for the State Duma, in terms of “competition, openness and honesty”.
The authorities’ positive appraisal and quick, but short reactions were shared by members of the mainstream media as well. Some publications, for example, focused on unveiling the safe nature of the electoral process, in the current epidemiological situation, praising how the rules were strictly observed, and how there were just a few incidents that were resolved firmly and immediately. Nezavisimaya Gazeta in an article published right before the closure of the polling stations focused mainly on the online voting system and its impact and significance in the electoral process. On the one hand, it praised the “convenient, fast and safe” nature of the online voting. The article underlined how the Russian society is increasingly computerized and how more than 90% of the Russian have access to the Internet. Plus, it insisted on how this type of voting plays a role in attracting those that were hesitant to participate in the elections to ultimately vote as it was a quick process and it would even offer some incentives in the form of some “gifts” – “a car or even an apartment”. When it came to transparency, the article praised the authorities’ readiness to “open testing, reporting on their results, as well as the difficulties encountered, and involving not only computer security professionals, but also those who are fonder of breaking systems – hackers, for testing”. It went on with offering the example of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin voting from his smartphone. On the other hand, the article unravelled a potential political nature of the online voting. The parties that were not so eager to encourage the voters to choose this option, or, even worse, were actively discouraging them to do so were warned with serious consequences on their party’s performance in the elections. The author of the article considered this stance to be potentially “costly” for the politicians, as the online voting can not only become a platform where support for the authorities is expressed, but can also lead to repelling “the younger generations of voters and those who are now ending their season in their summer cottages, living outside the city for the most of the year or going on vacation”.
In contrast, other media representatives, citing independent observers, contradict the officials in stating that there had been “serious stuffing and falsifications”. Some of the outlets that focused on the reporting of voting incidents and alleged fraud attempts were, as detailed by Deutsche Welle, Golos, recently labelled as a foreign agent by the Russian Ministry of Justice, and Yabloko Party, that are credited with identifying hundreds of violations. Stanislav Andreychuk, the co-chairman of Golos, was cited with stating that there had been observed “nightly ballot stuffing” and other irregularities. Plus, Andreychuk brought forward the significantly increased number of those that opted for voting at home, considering the practice “abnormal” and “a convenient scheme to leave the site and toss ballots into the ballot box”. The article also included the assessment of Dmitry Anisimov, a candidate to the State Duma from Yabloko, who, “in terms of the number of violations”, compared the current elections with “the scandalous 2011 campaign”. Following a similar critical tone towards the elections, the editor of the Politics Department of Novaya Gazeta, Kirill Martynov, in a special live edition of Uzhaznye Novosti (“Terrible news”), titled Uzhaznye vybory: itogi (“Terrible elections: results”), also pointed to numerous reports of violations and intimidations coming from the different Russian regions, but especially from Saint Petersburg, concluding that the period to come would be difficult for Russia, as the real problems are not really discussed and debated during the electoral process; nonetheless, he expressed his confidence that Russia would develop a European, healthy system, not being sure, though, when that would happen. Whilst the reality is only one, it can be noticed how there seem to be two different stories of the same reality. If one followed the reports coming from the authorities and some of the mainstream media, the September 2021 elections for the State Duma would be marked as a successful, transparent democratic practice. If one pursued this matter through the lenses of some other journalists and political analysts, the story would change completely. It is, however, without doubt, that a thorough, objective analysis will most definitely bring one closer to unveiling the reality as it is.