Russia’s Election Was Rigged—And This Time It’s Official

Last week, the European Court of Human Rights—the highest judicial body for the 47 member states of the Council of Europe—handed down a cluster of decisions on various subjects, from land ownership in Poland to asylum procedures in Switzerland. One of the rulings concerned Application No. 75947/11, “Davydov and Others vs. Russia.” “The fairness of the elections…was seriously compromised by the procedure in which the votes had been recounted. In particular, the extent of recounting, unclear reasons for ordering it, lack of transparency and breaches of procedural guarantees in carrying it out, as well as the results whereby the ruling party gained votes by large margins, strongly support the suspicion of unfairness,” held the judges in Strasbourg. “None of the [domestic] avenues employed by the applicants afforded them a review which would provide sufficient guarantees against arbitrariness.” The seven-judge panel (that included a judge from Russia) unanimously ruled that there has been a violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to free elections.

With this paragraph came the long-awaited verdict on Russia’s 2011 parliamentary vote. Unofficial estimates published soon after the election put the number of fraudulent ballots at 14 million, one in five cast. Golos, Russia’s leading independent vote-monitoring group, concluded that the election was “not free and fair and… did not comply with Russian electoral legislation and the international electoral standards.” Observers from the OSCE concurred, noting that “the contest was… slanted in favor of the ruling party [as] evidenced by the lack of independence of the election administration, the partiality of most media, and the undue interference of state authorities at different levels. This did not provide the necessary conditions for fair electoral competition.” The Russian opposition refused to recognize the election results and the parliament they produced as legitimate. After the vote, more than 100,000 protesters gathered in downtown Moscow to denounce the fraud and demand new elections. The rallies continued into the spring of 2012, when they were brutally put down by force.

Little-noticed in the indignation and excitement of the protests was a lawsuit submitted to the European Court in December 2011 by a group of opposition candidates and election observers from St. Petersburg. They alleged widespread irregularities, including the rewriting of vote tallies that changed the election outcome. The original vote-count showed the principal plaintiff, St. Petersburg lawyer Andrei Davydov, elected to the city legislature from an opposition party; the altered official tally handed his seat to a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia. As is customary in election fraud cases, Russian courts refused to hear the claims, leaving the ECHR as the only option. Indeed, with domestic courts firmly under government control, the court in Strasbourg is often the only recourse to real justice for Russian citizens.

The significance of the ruling in “Davydov vs. Russia” is difficult to overstate. The fraudulent nature of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary election is no longer an opinion of a partisan political group, a reputable NGO, or even international monitoring organizations like the OSCE, but an official verdict by Europe’s highest judicial body. The Russian government has already indicated that it will appeal the decision to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber. If that body upholds the ruling, it will mean that the 6th Russian State Duma, which sat from 2011 to 2016, was the product of fraud and thus an illegitimate institution, with the resulting question marks over the legitimacy its decisions—from restricting the freedom of assembly and labeling undesirable NGOs as “foreign agents” to banning US adoptions of Russian children and ratifying Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

It will also be a useful reminder to those politicians in the West who have a habit of equating Russia with the Putin regime that the current authorities are not the legitimate representatives of the Russian people, and that one should be cautious about asserting a false equivalence—either in rhetoric or in action.

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