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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 39, New Delhi, September 14, 2019

Upcoming Moscow Election — Free and Fair? Russia’s Controlled Democracy

Sunday 15 September 2019

by R.G. Gidadhubli

Beatings of the potential independent candidates who are denied to contest in the upcoming election for the 45-seat Moscow City Duma legislature to be held on September 8, 2019 and arrest of over 800 of their supporters by the Moscow Police on August 3, 2019 have hit the headlines in many parts of the world including India. Not only young men but ladies have not been spared in the beatings; that is, those who participated in the protests and demonstrations. This has created anger among the common citizens in Moscow.

The timing of this unrest in Moscow is significant as on August 9, 1999 Vladimir Putin, an unknown figure in political circles working in the KGB, was appointed as the Prime Minister of Russia by the then President, Boris Yeltsin, that is, 20 years back. Putin has been in power and has total control of Russia being elected in turn as the Prime Minister or President; but he has yet to make comment publicly on the current issue of unrest in Moscow.

Amnesty International has condemned what it called the “indiscriminate use of force by Moscow Police”. Equally important is the fact that Germany, the USA, the European Union, the European Commission on Human Rights and a few human rights groups have also strongly criticised this “disproportionately tough police action” against demonstrations in Moscow. Hence this may adversely impact the Western perception of Russian administration.

In fact this was the latest among the protests which are being held in Russia during the last few weeks. On July 20 an estimated crowd of 20,000 protestors and on July 27, 1400 activists who participated in the rally were detained and many protestors were injured being beaten up by the Moscow Police. They were detained since they denounced the election officials in Moscow who have refused to register independent and Opposition candidates to contest in the September 8 election. For instance, on July 30 Opposition activist Dmitry Gudkov, one of those denied registration as a candidate, was sentenced to 30 days for what the court called a “repeat violation of the established procedure for organising and holding an assembly, rally, demonstration, procession, or picket”. Gudkov has denied the allegation.

Moreover, critics have reported that few Opposition members are blaming the Russian Government for even searching the houses of independent candidates as a part of a series of police actions in June and July against independent candidates seeking to run in the September election against pro-government politicians for the Moscow Duma seats.

Navalny Factor

IN fact the recent protests are part of agitations led by 43-year-old Alexei Navalny who has been organising protests against corruption in Russia and has been critical of the Russian Government led by Vladimir Putin. He has been sentenced and imprisoned several times during the last few years since he has been holding demonstrations in many parts of Russia against corruption in the country and Putin’s ‘undemo-cratic and authoritarian’ regime. It was stated by some analysts that in 2017 Navalny had been planning to organise nationwide rallies and campaign in his bid to run for the presi-dential election as he had a strong team to support him. For instance, Elvira Dmitriyeva coordinated Navalny’s attempted presidential campaign in the Tatarstan Republic’s capital of Kazan in 2017 and for that she was awarded by the European Commission for Human Rights. But Russian officials barred Navalny from contesting in the March 2018 presidential election on the pretext of alleged financial-crimes committed by him, which were false since Navalny himself has been fighting against corruption in the country as rightly opined by analysts including Prague-based Mike Eckel.

Coming to the current context, on July 27, 2019, as reported by AFP, Alexei Navalny was sentenced to 30 days of imprisonment for calling for an unsanctioned protest in Moscow. What has aggravated the situation is that apart from imprisonment, he had to be hospitalised for possible food poisoning which has been highly criticised by his supporters both in Russia and abroad and hence generated controversy. Navaly’s family doctor contended that this was done by the police during his detention; this was denied by the officials contending that it was a chemical reaction.

In reality support to Navalny’s agitation has been increasing among the young generation of Russians, who have been actively participating and organising protests for fair election in Moscow. Some activists closely associated with Navalny, including ladies, are also arrested. As per reports on July 29, prominent Russian Opposition activist Lyubov Sobol was taken away by the police when she was leaving her political headquarters. In fact prior to that news agencies reported that Sobol was fined 300,000 rubles (about $ 4596) for violating the country’s protest laws, which she has denied stating that it was political. Moreover, the Presnensky district court in Moscow ruled on August 5 that Sergei Abanichev, Daniil Konon, and Vladislav Bara-banov must be held in a pretrial detention centre until September 27, that is, till elections are held in Moscow. They are active members of the Navalny group.

Official Contentions

DISAGREEING with the allegations by the critics the contention of the Moscow Police is that the locations of rallies held in the 3rd and 4th week of July were not authorised by the adminis-tration. As per reports, there are differences between state administration and the protestors and their leaders of Russia’s Libertarian Party over possible sites for holding rallies. Hence the situation remains tense since Opposition groups are trying to galvanise support for street protests not only in Moscow but also in other places in Russia.

Secondly, Moscow’s election officials have also stated in July that they had barred some Opposition independent candidates to contest in the September 8 Moscow City Duma election because of insufficient signatures on nominating petitions. The Moscow Election Commission also contended that it excluded the Opposition candidates from the September race on the ground that they submitted too many invalid or false signatures of support. Each candidate had to submit about 5500 signatures in order to be eligible to run. Hence on August 7 Russia’s main election board upheld previous rulings barring the candidates from the September 8 Moscow City election.

Thirdly, the police have alleged that many protestors were outsiders and not those living in Moscow meaning that they were hired and paid for participating in these protests; however, this was denied by protestors.

Fourthly, placards of protestors with slogans such as ‘Putin is a Thief’ and ‘Putin Lies’ have possibly forced the government officials to take strong measures against them. Fifthly, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, speaking on the city-owned TV station, Tsentr, asserted that protesters were plotting to storm the City Hall and that their actions provoked the police to take violent and harsh measures. But organisers and observers said both those claims were false.

Sixthly, conspiracies of foreign intelligence agency meddling have also trickled down to the precinct level for the Moscow Police. It is reported by Western media agents that Moscow officials have alleged that protestors are paid from abroad to take part in demonstrations, which are denied by the protestors. On August 4, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, made the allegation on Russian state television that European involve-ment in promoting unrest in the country by allegedly urging Muscovites to take part in “unauthorised mass protests” and asserted about US interference in Russia’s domestic affairs. As per reports, German officials have rejected such allegations and contended “repeated inter-ventions into the warranted right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression violate Russia’s international duties and question the right to free and fair elections emphatically”.

In fact such allegations echoed the Kremlin assertions going back to 2011-12, during a wave of street protests fuelled by anger over evidence of election fraud and dismay at Putin’s decision to return to the presidency after a stint as the Prime Minister.

Challenges For Putin

PUTIN, who will remain in power as the President till 2024, faces several challenges. Because from what is stated above it is evident that, as opined by Russia analysts in Europe Mike Eckel, Matthew Luxmore and political specialists in Moscow, namely, Tatyana Stanovaya and Shevtsova, under the prevailing conditions, protests in Russia might increase and hence the government is confused and the Kremlin is at a loss in dealing with the Opposition groups. Denial of individuals to contest in the upcoming election and very harsh treatment of protestors could have been avoided as also unfair slogans against President Putin.

As opined by some critics, it is contended that this could be a showdown between the Opposition and the authorities. It is to be seen as to how a few political parties in Russia, including the Communist Party, will really react to the situation.

There were expectations that post-Soviet Russia, having set the objective of transition from the former Communist ideology and system to political democracy, would conduct free and fair elections. But this seems to be far from the reality. The current ongoing electoral process in the Moscow City Duma indicates that Putin’s Russia has adopted controlled democracy.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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