Russian language social networks are flooded with videos of people demanding that their signatures be recognised as valid. The online flashmob, using the hashtag #Допускай (“let them through”), comes after several opposition candidates who hoped to run in September’s Moscow Duma elections were rejected by the city’s electoral commission.
— Александрова (@katia1520) July 16, 2019
Графолог, который проверял подписи @IoannZH назвал поддельной подпись моей мамы!!! ААА При том что она ставила ее при мне, понимаете!
— Александрова (@katia1520), Twitter, 15 July 2019
Why do these signatures matter? In order to contest a local or mayoral election, independent candidates have to collect signatures from between five and ten per cent of the members on their city council, in a procedure known as the “municipal filter.” Critics of this bureaucratic hurdle see it as an attempt to prevent unwelcome competitive candidates from reaching the ballot. In recent years, those critics have even included Russia’s central election commissioner Ella Pamfilova. In February, the Russian authorities proposed lowering the upper limit on the filter, but critics argue that nothing less than its complete abolition can bring truly competitive politics.
In Moscow, it looked as though several of these candidates would pass the filter, potentially forcing pro-government candidates to contest a heated race. (Interestingly, candidates affiliated with the ruling United Russia party are running as independents in this vote. As such, they were also subject to these rules, but do not appear to have faced the same problem with signatures.)
So when the municipal filter failed, state-appointed “handwriting experts” stepped in, and discovered palpably absurd reasons to invalidate hundreds of signatures. This is not a new tactic; it was also used in the Moscow municipal elections of 2014. But this time, the scale is more audacious.
On 14 July, former independent parliamentarian Dmitry Gudkov described the signature invalidations as “another filter” and that “the time for overcoming it is catastrophically short.” Gudkov, who also hoped to run in Moscow, appealed via his Telegram channel for candidates to collect written confirmation from people whose signatures had been declared invalid. Several opposition candidates, such as Konstantin Yankauskas, have launched pages on their websites which allow local residents to check whether their signature was invalidated, urging them to publicly confirm their support again.
Big names in the Russian opposition, many of them linked to Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, have been barred from the race. They include former independent parliamentarian Dmitry Gudkov, liberal opposition activist Ilya Yashin, and Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and leading figure in Navalny’s organisation. (Sobol declared a hunger strike in protest at the electoral commission’s conduct on 14 July.)
For the past several days, thousands of protesters have braved the rain and the police to gather on Moscow’s Trubnaya Square to demand the registration of independent opposition candidates and meetings with Valentin Gorbunov, the head of the Moscow local electoral commission.
But they have largely gone unheard. Ilya Yashin, another influential Russian opposition politician, writes:
Всё, меня официально снимают с выборов. Основание: превышение брака в подписных листах. Все наши аргументы были просто проигнорированы. Отказались рассматривать письменные заявления граждан, подтвердивших свои подписи. Даже выслушать избирателей, пришедших на заседание, не стали: их просто не пустили.
Представитель Мосгоризбиркома Дмитрий Реут скалился: «Ну откуда мы знаем, может, вы их мотивировали? Оснований не верить экспертам нет». Ну то есть если эксперт говорит, что вы вносили данные в подписной лист не сами, то вы просто не имеете шансов доказать обратное. Мнение эксперта важнее заявления самого избирателя.
That’s it, I’ve officially been removed from the elections. The grounds: too many irregularities in the lists of signatures. All our arguments were simply ignored. They refused to look at written declarations from citizens confirming their own signatures. They refused] to hear voters who turned up to meetings: they simply were not allowed entry.
The chairman of the Moscow city electoral commission Dmitry Reut said: “Well, how should we know, maybe you encouraged them? There are no grounds to not believe the experts.” Well, that means that if an expert says that you didn’t enter your details into a list of signatures yourself, than you simply have no chance of proving otherwise. An expert’s opinion is more important than the declaration of the voter.”
— Ilya Yashin, Facebook, 15 July 2019
Even the signatures of prominent public figures have been invalidated; Yashin gave his signature in support of Dmitry Gudkov, a former independent Duma deputy who is running in Moscow. As the online magazine Snob reports, Yashin’s signature was invalidated on the grounds that he did not fill out the date himself.
There are now several reports of signatures and data from the handwritten lists being incorrectly entered into the electoral commission’s databases. Ivan Zhdanov, a lawyer for Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and independent candidate in Moscow, argued on Twitter that these misspellings were probably intentional, sharing an example of one woman’s patronymic, Vladimirovna, being entered into the register as “Vladimimrovna.”
А тем временем продолжим. Горбунов сказал, что читает наши соцсети. Пусть прочитает. Это как? pic.twitter.com/NJ1Of5ktuo
— Ivan Zhdanov (@IoannZH) July 15, 2019
In the meantime, let’s continue. Gorbunov says he’s reading our social media posts. Let him read. How’s this?
— Ivan Zhdanov (@IoannZH), Twitter, 15 July 2019
Alexander Zamyatin, a local politician and editor of Russian Mirror, a zine about inequality in Russia, noted the following:
Чтобы понять уровень идиотизма происходящего оцените следующий факт. В подписях за единоросса Зверева нашли нашего товарища Александра Фирсова, который точно не подписывался за него. Зато его же настоящую подпись за Янкаускаса рабочая группа признала недействительно.
— Александр Замятин (@zamyatin_aa) July 15, 2019
To understand the level of idiocy, consider the following fact. Among the signatures in support of United Russia’s candidate Zverev was discovered the name of our comrade Alexander Firsov, who certainly didn’t sign in support of him. Therefore, the working group declared his real signature for Yankauskas to be illegitimate.
— Александр Замятин (@zamyatin_aa), Twitter, 15 July 2019
Bizarre stories are surfacing in St Petersburg, which holds a gubernatorial election in September. Fontanka, a local newspaper, reported that 15 signatures in support of a candidate from the opposition party Yabloko were declared invalid because the nominees had written the words “political party” in lowercase letters. Independent candidate Irina Fatyanova shared the following case:
26.96.2919 – неверная дата взятия подписи в листе, где остальные даты людей из той же семьи стоят 26.06.2019. ИКМО Смольнинское, я иду в ГИК и СУД и вернусь в качестве Кандидатки, потому что проголосовать большинством за то, что есть месяц 96-й в году – маразм! Сюр.
— Фатьянова Ирина (@irmachinsky) July 8, 2019
26.96.2919 – an incorrect date taken from a list of signatures, where the dates given by other members of the same family is 26.06.2019. To the Smolinskoye district electoral commission: I’m going to the general electoral commission and the COURT and will return as a candidate, because there will be a majority vote against the insane idea that there is a 96th month in the year. It’s surreal.
— Фатянова Ирина (@irmachinsky), Twitter, 8 July 2019
Elena Rusakova, running in Moscow’s 37th district, even wrote on Facebook that the signature of Vikor Sheynis, one of the authors of Russia’s constitution, had been declared invalid by the electoral commission. When the prominent sociologist Grigory Yudin discovered that his signature in support of Rusakova had been declared “non-existent,” he shared the following existential reflections:
С моим несуществованием можно было бы как-то смириться. Я бы постепенно привык к тому, что все вокруг смотрят мимо меня и театрально шагают сквозь меня, когда я протягиваю руку. Однако вместе со мной нет ещё моей мамы, сотен моих соседей по округу и десятков тысяч других москвичей. Все мы – призраки. We are the nobodies.
Так вот, как московский призрак я хочу сказать, что всё это могло произойти только по одной причине. Потому что кто-то сверху сказал «чтобы вот этих кандидатов на выборах не было, а как вы будете это решать, меня не волнует, и больше ко мне с этим не приходите». И как всегда бывает в таких случаях, такая команда ровно в таком виде была спущена до окружных избиркомов, которые получили её в последний момент и решили действовать как придётся. А поскольку все подписи были настоящими, то им пришлось объявлять живым людям, что их нет
I could come to terms with my non-existence. I could gradually get used to people looking straight past me and theatrically walking through me as I stretch out my hands. However, beside me are still my mother, hundreds of my neighbours and tens of thousands of other Muscovites. We are all ghosts. We are nobodies.
So, as a Moscow ghost, I want to say that all of this could only have happened for one reason. Because someone up above said “get rid of those candidates; I don’t care how you do it, but don’t bother me again.” And as always happens in these cases, this task was delegated lower down, to the district electoral commissions, which received it at the last moment and did what was necessary. And since all the signatures were real, they had to declare to living people that they did not exist.
— Greg Yudin, Facebook, 17 July 2019
Yudin demanded that Moscow’s mayor Sergey Sobyanin meet “non-existent” Muscovites to explain himself. It appears to be a widespread sentiment; Ivan Kurilla, a professor at the European University at St Petersburg, concluded that social protests of recent years had not been forgotten, and that the opposition movements of 2019 were of an entirely different, and more resolute, character than those of 2011:
И это ощущается всеми: молодые политики идут на обострение, власти ужесточают позицию, отбрасывая видимость законности, – все это из-за все более различимого гула в “зрительном зале”.
Young politicians go head-first into confrontations, the authorities now tighten their position, disposing with the veneer of legality. And all of his because of the ever more noticeable murmurs at the back of the “observers’ gallery.”
— Ivan Kurilla, Facebook, 16 July 2019