Kremlin’s Election Games Provide Opening for Opposition

IRKUTSK, RUSSIA—This Sunday, Russians will vote in their seventh parliamentary election since the fall of the Soviet Union. The last three of those elections—all of them under the government of Vladimir Putin—were assessed by Western observers as falling far short of European standards of democracy. The last vote, in 2011, was marred by especially high—and especially blatant—manipulation and fraud, as some 14 million votes were estimated to have been “stolen” in favor of Putin’s party, and was followed by mass protests across the country, when tens of thousands of people went to the streets to demand free and fair elections. This was the first time Putin’s Kremlin was not in control of the political agenda—and, for a short while, it seemed that the regime was beginning to crumble.

The Kremlin recovered and regained its grip—but never forgot (or forgave) its fright of December 2011. The sticks were plenty—from increased repression and new political prisoners jailed under the “Bolotnaya Square case” to numerous political restrictions rubberstamped by the Duma , itself the product of the fraudulent 2011 vote.

But the regime also rolled out a carrot. Determined to prevent a repeat of the “protest winter” of 2011-2012, the Kremlin is going to great lengths to put up an appearance of a “free and fair” vote in 2016.

The campaign began with the dismissal of Election Commission chairman Vladimir Churov, whose name has come to epitomize fraud and abuse, and whose resignation was one of the main demands of the 2011-2012 protests. He was replaced by Ella Pamfilova, a reputable and well-respected former human rights ombudswoman, who has publicly vowed to avoid a repeat of the protests by removing the worst abuses that marked the 2011 vote. Unlike five years ago, a wide spectrum of opposition candidates—including 18 parliamentary candidates backed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon and political prisoner and the Kremlin’s leading opponent—have been allowed on the ballot. An extensive OSCE observer mission was invited to Russia to monitor the vote. The vote count—at least in large cities, with more media attention and wider Internet access—is expected to avoid the most blatant rigging, such as the one that took place in 2011 in Moscow’s polling precinct #6 , when the ruling United Russia party saw its result changed from 18 to 74 percent, while the opposition Yabloko party went from 19 to 0.6 percent.

Of course, none of this makes the 2016 election genuinely free or fair. The years of government resources spent on propping up the regime and vilifying its opponents cannot be undone by a few weeks of ostensible competition. State television continues to act as a publicity agent for pro-regime candidates. Opposition candidates continue to be harassed and detained by police . Several opposition leaders—including Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny—are barred from the ballot altogether by politically motivated court sentences. The most prominent leader of Russia’s opposition, Boris Nemtsov —who had a significant chance of winning a parliamentary seat from the city of Yaroslavl, where he served as a regional legislator—was assassinated last year in plain sight of the Kremlin.

Yet the Kremlin’s window-dressing has provided a small opening for a new generation of opposition activists—most notably, from Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia movement, whose candidates are spread across the country, from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk—to appeal directly to Russian citizens and present them with a democratic European alternative to a regime of nepotism, authoritarianism and isolation. This alternative may not win just yet. But its very emergence could prove a lasting challenge to Vladimir Putin’s system—and a new hope for the future of Russia.

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