When a group of opposition parties joined forces this April, they knew their goal of introducing true political pluralism to modern Russia was a tall order. Nevertheless, the Democratic Coalition forged ahead with plans to back candidates in regional elections this fall, with an eye on the national parliamentary elections in 2016. In recent weeks, however, the Coalition's grand ambitions have collided full force with the harsh reality of politics in Putin's Russia.
On September 13, a number of regional and district elections will be held across Russia. In preparation, the Democratic Coalition organized primaries earlier this summer to chose local candidates, and opposition leaders from Moscow such as Alexey Navalny toured key regional cities to drum up support. As the election date draws near, however, many Coalition candidates have found themselves unable to make it onto the September ballot.
In Russia, signatures from a certain number of supporters must be collected in order for candidates to take part in regional parliamentary elections, and the signatures must be verified by the local Election Commission. The verification process involves cross-checking the signee's identity and address with the database of the regional branch of the Federal Migration Service, and any discrepancies result in disqualification. Signature collection has been the focus of the Democratic Coalition in recent weeks, but this hurdle has so far proven insurmountable for the new opposition alliance. Many of the signatures declared invalid by local officials have been scrapped for dubious reasons, the Coalition claims.
In Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city, the Coalition submitted about 11,700 signatures. Alexey Navalny wrote online that those selected were the most perfect from a total of 17,500 signatures the Coalition had collected, and “were double checked by a graphologist, entered in databases for compliance with passport data, and a call center had telephoned almost all the signees.” On July 24, however, the regional Election Commission working group ruled that only 10,187 of the signatures were valid, leaving a total falling 470 signatures short of the required number of 10,657. Leonid Volkov, the Democratic Coalition’s campaign manager in Novosibirsk, detailed the working group's findings in a post to his website:
— Leonid Volkov (@leonidvolkov) July 25, 2015
I have posted details about what the Election Commission working group's decision means and what we will do next
After receiving the Election Commission's ruling, Volkov's campaign team in Novosibirsk undertook a 30-hour marathon session to review all the signatures that had been deemed invalid. They found that in many cases Election Commission employees had introduced typographical errors themselves when entering the signee's information into a computer so that it could be cross-checked with the Federal Migration Service database. They also asserted that the Federal Migration Service database contained outdated information, thus explaining the discrepancies that resulted in disqualification in many cases. The graphic below details the Coalition's findings:
Volkov's team then met with representatives of the Novosibirsk Election Commission on July 27 to present these findings. An official from the regional branch of the Federal Migration Service in attendance dismissed their claims, however, informing everyone that the FMS database was up-to-date and contained no mistakes, wrote Volkov on his blog. After being rebuffed, the Democratic Coalition representatives refused to leave the Election Commission building, and were briefly detained by police before being fined for disobeying police orders.
On July 28, Novosibirsk candidates Yegor Savin and Sergei Boyko and campaign manager Leonid Volkov began a hunger strike to demand that the ruling by the Election Commission to disqualify the Democratic Coalition's candidates be reconsidered. Three workers from campaign headquarters in Novosibirsk also joined the strike.
— Leonid Volkov (@leonidvolkov) July 30, 2015
Novosibirsk: third day of the hunger strike, three new participants
On August 7, Democratic Coalition leaders including Alexey Navalny appeared before the Central Election Commission in Moscow as the group met to consider an appeal filed by the Coalition. Navalny complained that the Democratic Coalition is being unlawfully blocked from participating in this fall's regional elections, and asked the officials to reverse the rulings preventing Coalition candidates from appearing on the ballot in Novosibirsk and other regions.
Navalny also beseeched the Central Election Commission officials to support his efforts to peacefully participate in formal political processes. He explained that this position is becoming more and more difficult to justify when elections are so obviously rigged. On the radio station Echo Moskvy, Navalny had recently debated this very question with journalist Oleg Kashin. At that time, Kashin argued:
Мы знакомы 10 лет, и надеюсь, будем еще знакомы лет 100, и просто когда ты поймешь, что действительно, все это было зря. То есть, о'кей – Путину 90, умер Путин, пришел Медведев опять, снова выборы в Песковской или Пензенской области, вот, товарищи, друзья, давайте еще раз попробуем собрать подписи, давайте еще раз попробуем победить, что будет тем пределом, когда ты поймешь: наверное, надо делать что-то другое, — может быть, вилы брать, может быть, наоборот, придумывать новую религию и вести за собой людей.
We have known each other for 10 years, and I hope we will know each other 100 more, and only then will you realize that, indeed, this was all in vain. That is, okay – Putin turns 90, Putin dies, Medvedev returns again, and again there are elections in the regions of Peskovskaya or Penza, and, you will say: comrades and friends, let us once again try to collect signatures, let us once again try to win; and only at that point will you understand that something else must be done probably — maybe picking up a pitchfork, or maybe, on the contrary, inventing a new religion to unite people behind.
The Central Election Commission upheld the disqualification of the Democratic Coalition candidates in Novosibirsk, apparently unmoved by the Coalition's appeal, Navalny's arguments, and the hunger strike in Novosibirsk. In response to the Commission ruling, the Democratic Coalition issued a statement. It read, in part:
Сегодня стало очевидно, что именно наша Демократическая коалиция является реальным вызовом действующей власти и способна сформировать достойную альтернативу.
Демократическая коалиция рассматривает позорное беззаконие, ныне творимое властями, как наш успешный старт в подготовке к выборам в Государственную Думу. Мы обещаем нашим избирателям, что придем к этим выборам более консолидированными, закаленными и подготовленными к любым провокациям этого обреченного режима.
Today it became clear that our Democratic Coalition represents a real challenge to the current government and can generate a worthy alternative.
The Democratic Coalition considers the shameful lawlessness perpetrated by the authorities today to be a successful start in the preparations for the elections to the State Duma. We promise our voters that we will approach these elections more consolidated and hardened, and prepared for any provocation by this doomed regime.
Outside the Central Election Commission building in Moscow, activists have held pickets, flying black balloons marked with the words: “These are not elections, but a sham.”
Это не выборы, а надувательство pic.twitter.com/8kf5p24nEQ
— Николай Ляскин (@nlyaskin) August 7, 2015
These are not elections, but a sham
On August 8, Volkov announced that the twelfth day of the hunger strike in Novosibirsk would also be its last. While acknowledging that the strike's demand to allow Coalition candidates on the ballot remains unfulfilled, Volkov wrote that he still viewed the action as useful due to the publicity it had generated regarding the “lawlessness” of the local Election Commission. After Novosibirsk candidate Sergei Boyko was hospitalized on the night of August 7, Volkov said that the Coalition leadership had asked the hunger strikers to end their campaign because the continued health and strength of the strikers would be needed for other things.
Magadan and Kostroma
Beyond Novosibirsk, a similar story has been unfolding in the various other regions where the Democratic Coalition is also trying to run candidates in elections this September.
In Russia's remote northeastern region of Magadan, the Election Commission working group also recently barred Democratic Coalition candidates from the upcoming vote. Only 615 signatures were required to make it onto the ballot in Magadan, and Georgy Alburov, who heads the Coalition's candidate list there, personally led an effort to collect more than 1,000 signatures. However, the Magadan Election Commission ruled that over 10 percent of the signatures submitted by the Coalition were invalid, which automatically disqualified Democratic Coalition candidates from running this fall. Alburov elaborated on the developments on his blog:
Написал про наш отказ в регистрации и что мы будем делать http://t.co/tTivqKKadp
— Георгий Албуров (@alburov) August 1, 2015
I have written about the refusal of our registration and what we will do next
In Kostroma, a city several hundred miles northeast of Moscow, officials have also recommended against allowing Coalition candidates to take part in this fall's parliamentary race. Coalition efforts there are being led by Ilya Yashin. Yashin heads the Coalition's candidate list in Kostroma and is a deputy chairman of Parnas, a leading party of the Democratic Coalition which is formally sponsoring the regional candidates on the Сoalition ticket. Even after collecting over four thousand signatures, Yashin's team was initially ruled to have fallen short of the 2,738 valid signatures needed.
Ну вот, похоже, и нас в Костроме с выборов снимают. Рабочая группа избиркома забраковала 352 подписи ПАРНАСА, т.е. не хватает 78 подписей.
— Илья Яшин (@IlyaYashin) August 6, 2015
Well, it seems that we have been barred from elections in Kostroma. The Election Commission working group rejected 352 signatures from PARNAS, leaving us 78 signatures short.
The regional election commission in Kostroma will reportedly make a final decision on the matter by the end of August 8.
Earlier, on July 28, the Democratic Coalition's campaign manager in Kostroma, Andrey Pivovarov, was detained by police under suspicion of trying to buy a database of signatures from a police officer. Yashin wrote on Facebook that Pivovarov was detained when arriving at the local police station to check databases of signatures in order to prove that the signatures his volunteers had been gathering were valid.
National elections next year
The Democratic Coalition's efforts to field candidates in various regional elections this September in part represent a test run for 2016, when Russia's next round of national parliamentary elections is scheduled to be held. The Coalition plans to run candidates on the Parnas ticket for the elections to Russia's lower house of Parliament, the Duma, in September 2016, taking advantage of the fact that registered political parties will be able to bypass signature collection requirements in these elections due to a recent change in Russia's electoral law.
However, this does not necessarily mean that new hurdles will not be erected to derail opposition plans for 2016. On April 29, less than two weeks after the creation of the Democratic Coalition this spring, the Russian Justice Ministry canceled the legal registration of the Progress Party, the political party of Alexey Navalny that was a co-founder and leading member of the Democratic Coalition alongside the Parnas Party. The official reason given for the Justice Ministry's ruling was that the Progress Party had failed to register its regional branches within the required period of time. If the Parnas Party is also stripped of its legal status in the lead up to the national elections in 2016, the Democratic Coalition may find itself again unable to run any candidates.
The Democratic Coalition's efforts to participate in regional elections this fall have so far been foiled at every turn. While the administrative obstacle of signature collection requirements has been the favored tool of local officials in these cases, the Democratic Coalition has more generally run up against the limits to political competition informally imposed in Russia today.
As Coalition leader Alexey Navalny explained to the Central Election Commission, these developments make it more and more difficult to convince disenchanted opposition forces to participate in formal political processes instead of turning to more radical forms of resistance. The Democratic Coalition has announced plans for a mass protest in Moscow on September 13, the day that it had hoped to run candidates in various regional elections across Russia. Meanwhile, the Coalition's own future appears uncertain if it cannot pursue its main goal of participating in elections.