The myriad of ways in which post-Soviet democracies choose to break down

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Elections are fundamental to democracy, but elections are merely one pillar supporting a democratic system and there are growing numbers of countries where that pillar is crumbling.

The last decade in Europe and the US has shaken our faith in democracy. The US is no longer the archetype that others aspire to. Its electoral system, many features of which were exported around the world, have proved to be quite dysfunctional and manipulable. And while much of Europe still maintains strong elections which accurately reflect the views of the voters who participate, there are also countries where this is no longer always the case.

Elections by themselves are not enough to maintain a healthy democracy. They may increase accountability and inspire citizens, but they may also lead to nationalist hysteria, the oppression of minorities and can legitimise dictators. In post-Soviet Eurasia, many elections have had a negative effect on democratic progression and the events in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus in recent weeks have shown that change comes not necessarily from elections but from protests or rejection of elections.

International organisations in the West have focussed on elections as the lynchpin of successful democracy. Samuel Huntington’s two turnover test – two changes of power as a result of elections – is just one example of the western fixation on elections as central to democratic success.

But electoral fundamentalism, as David van Reybrouck calls it, is a gross simplification of how democracies function and survive. 

On a practical level, Paddy Ashdown thought similarly. When he became the High Representative for Bosnia Herzegovina he criticised the idea that elections were enough to bring peace and democracy to that country. He pointed out that the rule of law was vital and his efforts were in combatting corruption as a precondition to engendering citizen confidence in the system.

In the post-Soviet world there are a number of examples of what might happen. But as Tolstoy suggested, there is no single model for how democracy breaks down. Whilst we may think of the space as being solely led by authoritarian regimes, this is not the case and it is not possible to read across from one to another except to understand that our focus should be wider than simply counting ballot papers.

Belarus is perhaps the closest to the perceived authoritarian model. A leader who has been in power for many years – in this case having won in a genuinely competitive contest in the first place – dictates the desired result before election day. The state then makes his wishes come true.  In that case there was, for the first time, a sea change in public mood that has resulted in many weeks of street protests. Rather than a rise in pro-Western or anti-Russian feeling as some would have it, this may be a case where citizens see the types of democratic freedoms across their borders with Lithuania and Poland and desire some of that progress for themselves. In this case it is geography that may set them apart from, say, Tajikistan where a very similar result was declared in similar circumstances, but without any apparent public objection. So whilst the incumbent attempts to portray his rivals as stooges of the West, the protests continue to be successful precisely because they are homegrown and not dependent on American (or Polish, or German) money or influence.

Whilst Belarus looks to be a long and drawn-out battle, some recent elections have been set aside with remarkable swiftness. Kyrgyzstan has been referred to on many occasions as an island of democracy in a sea of central asian authoritarianism. The truth is that this is another country where electoral practices are a veneer over a deeply flawed democracy. The different parties there are not ideologically based but instead founded on clans and regional identity. Elections have long been a battle between the north and the south with most electors controlled either by clan loyalty or by payment. Even after a peaceful handover of power in 2017, the new President chose to imprison his predecessor rather than risk him trying to control the country from behind the scenes.

After last month’s parliamentary elections produced a deeply unconvincing result with just four parties declared to have met the 7% threshold, the public took to the streets. This was the third such revolution in two decades and Kyrgyz people are so used to rioting that there are established civilian groups that coalesce to protect property and businesses. In double quick time President Jeenbekov acknowledged the result was flawed and promised fresh elections. But this was not enough for the mob who demanded, and got, his resignation. The presidency, prime ministership and parliament itself is now in the hands of a nationalist politician who was elected to none of these roles and fresh elections are due next year. The EU has rung the alarm bells at this change and has stated that Jeenbekov is the only legitimate leader in the country until such time as new elections are held. But whilst these might result in additional parties being elected to Parliament and a formal change in President, it is unlikely that the institutions will be more firmly grounded. A fourth revolt is only a matter of time.

In Kyrgyzstan, as with any other country in the region, the role of Russia is a constant question. Russia has a lot on its plate at the moment with Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin does not appear to be paying much attention to Bishkek, mostly because they know there is little they can do, but also because there are none of the potential leaders who scare them. There is no move to unite with the West, with China or with any other strategic opponent. And Russia has proved able to squash every attempt so far among the central Asian states to co-operate more closely in their economies – the issue that concerns Moscow the most. These efforts are being led by the leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan but are routinely dampened down by Russia which wants its Eurasian Economic Union to be the only game in town.

Other countries – outside the former Soviet world – give greater hope that constitutionality and the rule of law can win through. In both Malawi and Kenya, deeply troubled elections have been declared void by constitutional courts and re-runs have ben ordered. But these results have only been possible thanks to strong and independent judges, something that is very rare in even the best of the former CIS countries.

Armenia and Azerbaijan and countries which are very different politically. Azerbaijan has modelled itself closely on the authoritarian model with an unwritten deal that promises economic prosperity and good living conditions in return for a loss of political and electoral rights. This trade, however, relies on the continued prosperity bought by petro-chemical resources and the gas price crash and general economic slowdown brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic may start to induce tensions.

In contrast, Armenia has long practised the concept of seemingly competitive elections and changes of power. But at crucial moments the country has had to rely on street protest and revolution to change course.

In both cases, a fundamental flaw has become the absolutist nature of policy over the disputed territory of Karabakh, or Artsakh to the Armenians. During Soviet times this island of mainly Armenian inhabitants surrounded by the Azeri SSR was not a major issue. But since independence in 1991 there has been an almost constant conflict and the current battles demonstrate that it shows no sign of abating. This is not a frozen conflict but the positions of each combatant have atrophied to the extent that no person can come to power in Armenia unless they promise that Artsakh is and will always remain Armenian. And whilst an authoritarian ruler is not so hidebound to electoral promises, the Azeri position has become a lot stronger in recent years as they have developed their military with modern weapons including drones and now have the overt support of Turkey as that country seeks to demonstrate its aspirations to become a regional power. If parties come to power time and again promising the impossible then this weakens faith in the electoral process.

Three elections are imminent in the post-Soviet world and each presents a different case to show how democracy is weak when it relies simply on elections.

In Ukraine, contests are taking place to choose mayors and local authorities. These polls follow the overwhelming victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential election last year and his party, Servant of the People, in the parliamentary vote which followed soon after.

A novice politician, Zelensky has seen that in a country which has stronger democratic institutions than many, it is not possible to rule by presidential fiat. He has not been able to magic a solution to the Donbas or Crimean occupations, nor to solve the economic woes of the country. Frequent changes in government ministers do not help and, whilst his predecessors would marvel at his opinion poll ratings, these have been going steadily down as it becomes clear that likeability is not the same as administrative competence. In this case public confidence is not just waning in the individual, but also in the hope that a genuine change in the political system was in the offing. 

It is perhaps not too late to turn the situation around, but to do so probably relies on correcting the major failing in Ukraine which is the oligarchical system. With so many industrial leaders behind, and sometimes in front of, the scenes, the public realise that their elected leaders are not answerable to them but to the paymasters who control the media and jobs.

When it comes to local and municipal elections the system fails further. Most incumbent mayors do not align themselves with national parties but have their own local groupings. These groupings then control the allocation of municipal jobs and contracts. The national parties may divide the seats on local councils between them, but the power lies with mayors who are not answerable to anyone other than their oligarchic paymasters.

Moldova is another country where oligarchs have run riot, but the prominence of Vlad Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor does not tell the whole story as they control only one of three factions within political life. The second is the pro-Russian Socialist Party of incumbent President Igor Dodon and the third is the technocrat pro-western party led by Maia Sandu. Each of these groupings has at times aligned with another in an attempt to eliminate the third. The oligarchs were exiled for a while but then allied with Dodon to oust the government of Sandu before it could implement real change. Now it seems the oligarchs are backing Sandu as the best chance to knock Dodon off his perch – but at what price? In all of this, voters will continue to choose between contestants but their wishes only hold sway on a temporary basis as the real battles continue to take place behind closed doors. All the while the economy falls further and a portion of the country remains under effective Russian control.

In Georgia, elections exemplify a misplaced faith in parties as instruments of accountability and promoters of diffusion of power. Since 1991, some elections in Georgia have been genuine expressions of voter will, but most have solidified the parties in power and cemented the privileges of Georgia’s ruling political circles.

This is another country where street protests have borne fruit. In this case it is the opening up of the electoral system such that opposition parties are now more likely to gain representation. It is not quite the ‘everyone must have prizes’ system of the 1992-95 parliament when 26 parties were represented, but nonetheless the reduction to just 30 majoritarian seats (out of 150) and the lowering of the threshold to 1% represents a substantial change. In addition, the requirement that one in four list candidates must be a woman should ensure that female representation rises from the present, pitiful, nine, although there is no equivalent quota for national minorities. 

All these are important concessions from the ruling Georgian Dream grouping and they are a recognition of the need for compromise. Most importantly no one knows what the outcome will be – or at least whether Georgian Dream will win an overall majority. Uncertainty about the results is always a good sign. An NDI poll in the summer suggested an 88% turnout although 59% still didn’t know who they are voting for. Most voters will now have made up their mind, but the absence of constant polling – as in the US – means that the public, and parties, will enter election day uncertain as to the outcome.

For elections to work as instruments of greater accountability, they have to be competitive, definitive and enjoy voter confidence, with accessible information on party policies and the differences between them and they have to lead to visible outcomes. One would also hope the elections would promote a degree of social integration rather than fragmentation. But despite the signing by over 40 Georgian parties of a code of conduct on September 12, there is little evidence of electoral features which will lead to a more qualitative democracy. 

Most seriously, elected representatives should govern because they have been given the power to do so by electors. But in Georgia they will not due to Inashvili’s overwhelming economic and political influence. This is the greatest challenge in Georgia right now.

The increased party list system helps opposition parties but it also helps solidify the powers of party leaders who control the lists and reduces the accountability of MPs to constituents. The elections are competitive, but how fair will they be. Georgian Dream has overwhelming financial resources and the apparatus of the state, particularly in the regions where the election process is opaque and GD has significant control over local government and over who gets appointed to the precinct electoral commissions. Polls suggest voter confidence in political parties and knowledge of what the parties are offering is very low. This is because parties have no staying power and appear and disappear frequently. There are a raft of new parties in this election, as in almost every election since 1991. But most parties – old and new – represent a clique or are crafted in the image of a strongman. Very few represent a coherent ideology. 

What is perhaps more worrying is that every election since 1991 has operated under different rules. This suggests a persistent disconnect between the population and the politicians. If every parliament so fails to reflect the will of the voters that the system needs to be changed then perhaps it is not the voting system that is failing. It is good that public pressure can bring political change, but in a democracy that should be through the ballot box rather than protests on the streets. 

For these reasons the 2020 election is unlikely to foster greater democracy or accountability. If these elections once again fail to produce a positive outcome such as better prosperity or increased accountability then they will chip further away at Georgian peoples’ faith in democracy.

All of this gloom and doom is not to suggest for a minute that elections and a wider democratic model should not be the aspiration of each country and should not be promoted by those in a position to influence things. There are signs of progress, albeit very slight. That Uzbekistan wants to eliminate polling day fraud and the ruling party in Kazakhstan is choosing its candidates through primaries are to be welcomed, even if they are comparatively tiny steps forward in countries which remain deeply undemocratic.

The UK Government is set to announce its strategic foreign and defence policy review next month and a focus on promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights must surely be front and centre. Equally, the election in the United States may well produce the return of an administration which values multi-lateral institutions and looks to promote its values more actively. Both Germany and France remain active in promoting liberal internationalism around the world, but the EU also needs to look close to home as both Poland and Hungary continue to present worrying evidence of democratic backsliding.

Reading List – 8th October 2020

Russia and Europe: Stuck on Autopilot

This is a long read which looks at Russia’s relationships with three key European players – Germany, France and the UK. Andrew Weiss of Carnegie argues that at a time when Russia could be exploiting EU and NATO weaknesses to subtly further its foreign policy ambitions, it is acting too bluntly. 

Germany has traditionally separated business ties from politics, but there are strong calls for the Nord-Stream 2 project to be cancelled or put on hold. Whilst these are being resisted by Chancellor Merkel and her likely successors, there is clearly a block to any new ventures.

President Macron has continued the French tradition of seeking closer ties with Russia, partly as a demonstration of an alternative view of Europe that does not rely on the USA. Russia has proved less responsive however and continues to undertake projects in Francophone Africa which the Elysee Palace views as treading on its toes. If Russia can have a sphere of influence then whay cannot France?

As for the UK, Russian money is deeply embedded here and the ISC report showed just how close the Conservative party and Kremlin have become. But activities such as the Skripal poisoning led to the UK co-ordinating a global response which Russia did not predict.

Europe’s Longest-Running Conflict Can’t Be Ignored

Another piece about the Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict, this time from Thomas de Waal of Carnegie. Her argues that the conflict cannot be ignored and can only be resolved with Russian assistance. 

The Foreign Secretary’s Evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee: 10 Things We Learned

Sophia Gaston, the director of the British Foreign Policy Group, looks at Dominic Raab’s evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for clues as to the outcome of the Government’s strategic foreign policy review.

There appears to be a very nuanced stance on China with a desire to keep them in the room and talking whilst also making sure they cannot dominate multilateral institutions while America is focussed elsewhere. There is even talk of a boycott of the forthcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.

However it seems the UK will continue to press the idea of being a champion of democracy and human rights whilst maintianing strong ties to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes.

As far as Russia is concerned, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of new policy around the corner. Perhaps sensing that strong action to counter corrupt money housed in London would simply highlight the claims made in the ISC report, Raab downplayed the issue, although he did raise the possibility of Magnitsky type action in the future.

The Challenge of Observing American Democracy

This is a great read for those of us interested or involved in the election observation business.

Reading List Special – The Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict 2nd October 2020

Three links today which all explore issues surrounding the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Is Peace Possible Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

The first comes from Carnegie Europe and brings together a wide range of expert views on the conflict and when/whether it will be peacefully resolved. There are some views which appear more pessimistic and some which are pure pie in the sky – you can judge for yourself which might be which.

Turkey backs Azerbaijan in war with Armenia as Russia stands by

AL-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman takes the general view that Russia is letting this conflict play out for a while so that both sides are exhausted and to show that the Minsk Format is ineffective. By then stepping in and determining a ceasefire (if not peace), Russia will reassert its regional dominance.

No peacemakers for the new/old Caucasian war

On the other hand Pavel Baev for Brookings suggests that Russia was largely caught out by the conflict flaring up at this time as its attention was focussed on Belarus.

A few hot (bad) takes from me:

  • The US is distracted and showing once again that it does not have the will or capacity to be the world leader as it once did. This can change, of course, but shows no signs of doing so at the moment.
  • Turkey’s overt intervention on the side of Azerbaijan is new and one further example of Erdogan’s desire to be a regional power (or more). Whilst Russia might be prepared to tolerate Turkish actions in Syria and Libya, will they be happy that this is also happening in their own backyard, the ‘near abroad’?
  • Armenia is Russia’s most dependable ally. So why has the Kremlin not immediately come down on the side of Yerevan? Partly, I suspect, because they want to chastise Pashinyan for using the ‘my big brother is going to beat you up’ threat.
  • The Minsk process is at risk of failing completely. The three co-chairs are Russia, France and the US. Of these, only France seems to be fulfilling its remit at the moment – without great success. Minsk is a subsidiary of OSCE which has been bogged down with internal arguments largely started by Azerbaijan and Turkey.
  • Diplomatic calls for both sides to stand down and negotiate are the equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers’.

United Russia still the Kremlin’s favoured party for Duma elections, local polls suggest

The end for United Russia is not nigh. The party that has dominated Russian politics since 2003 thanks to its connections to Presidents Putin and Medvedev suffered some reversals in last week’s local and regional elections, but it has not been abandoned by the Kremlin as some had predicted.

Overall, United Russia (Единая Россия) saw its vote share fall from 59% in the regional elections held in 2015 to 47.6% this time – a drop of 11.4%. That is a big chunk and falling below the 50% mark is certainly a blow to the pride of the ruling party. Also losing ground was A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) whose vote share fell from 9.8% to 7.8%. Two parties from the systemic opposition gained ground. The Communist Party (КПРФ) rose from 12.3% to 13.5% and the LDPR (ЛДПР) from 9.9% to 11.6%.

But these tiny gains don’t explain where all of United Russia’s votes went. The answer is a mix of candidates standing as independents and new parties which may or may not be controlled by the Kremlin.

The reason for United Russian’s fall is that over the past few years the party has been the lightning rod for protests against unpopular government policies. From domestic waste disposal to plans for new church buildings, there have been a number of local issues which have seen large-scale protests. These are protests not against the system, nor against oligarchic corruption – issues which might be expected to draw a heavy handed response – and as such they have flourished. One national policy that has cut through has been the repeated attempts to cut public spending on pensions. To protect President Putin as much as possible, it has been United Russia – a party to which Putin has never belonged and which merely endorses his independent candidacy – that has taken the blame.

The concern has been that maybe United Russia has taken on too much of the burden of unpopular decisions. Maybe it is time to cut it adrift and ally the Kremlin to a new political party, or even to a range of them. These results seem to indicate that although significantly bloodied, United Russia will still be a major player in the Duma contests next year.

But for the immediate contests, a large number of candidates for single mandate seats, including those for regional governor, decided to stand as independents. And such a tactic worked. No incumbent governor who stood for re-election was defeated.

In addition, the move towards more proportional voting systems for regional assemblies is being reversed. To take the exampe of Astrakhan. Back in the elections of 2010 there were 35 seats on the assembly, all elected by first-past-the-post and therefore favouring strong individual campaigns rather than parties. The Medvedev reforms led to a balance of 18 majoritarian seats and 18 elected via party lists – a boost for the chances of United Russia when that party was running strongly in the polls. But this time around there was a reversion to 36 single member seats and no list. The unpopularity of United Russia could not have a chance to affect the result and a slate of loyalists could be assured, albeit running under a number of banners. Other regions have seen the relative proportions of single member and list seats change in different ways, but the trend has been towards electing individuals rather than parties.

The new parties also bear close inspection. I wrote a few months ago about the Kremlin’s efforts to set these up. Four new parties eventually competed across a number of regions, although some of these suffered from the usual attempts by authorities to limit competition by keeping them off the ballot paper.

The four new parties were the New People’s Party (Новые люди), the Direct Democracy Party (Партия прямой демократии), For Justice (За правду) and The Green Alternative (Зеленая альтернатива). They were joined by The Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice (РППСС – Российская партия пенсионеров за социальную справедливость) who have been around for a while and sought to capitalise on the unpopularity of the pension reforms. 

The Pensioners Party won seats in seven of the nine regions they were on the ballot and gained an average of 5.9%. The New People’s Party (which includes some outwardly liberal figures in its leadership) won an average of just over 7% where they were on the ballot and took 15% in Tomsk, a student city which has been the subject of widespread protests recently. For Truth (apparently a nationalist party) averaged just 2% but obviously enjoyed administrative support in the Ryazan region where they got almost 7% and won seats. For Direct Democracy (a party apparently set up to draw gamers to the polls) was the only new party to fail to win a seat anywhere as they scored between 0.3% and 2.3% in the various regions in which they competed – although that might be too strong a term as there is no evidence of much campaigning taking place.

Perhaps most interesting was The Green Alternative which also did not appear to have any real presence on the ground but who nevertheless managed to win seats in the Chelyabinsk region through suspicious activity in the city of Zlatoust. Here the new party won up to 39% of the vote in some polling stations and averaged almost 20%. Conversely, United Russia was declared to have won just 3%. In concurrent city elections United Russia won 20-30% in the same areas. The local suspicion is that the party vote totals on result sheets were simply swapped around.

But why should such results matter (except to people in the Chelyabinsk Region, of course). It is because any party which holds at least one regional seat can stand candidates for the Duma without having to collect voter signatures. The requirement to collect at least 200,000 voter signatures has long been the means by which genuine opposition candidates such as Alexey Navalny have been kept off the ballot. So at next year’s Duma polls we will see candidates from three of the four new parties on the ballot. The options for the Kremlin are still therefore wide open. They can continue to seek an overall majority for United Russia. They can allow new parties into the Duma and have a broad coalition of deputies who will back President Putin on key issues or they might even allow the Communists and LDPR to gain greater representation.

Keeping the options open assists in the battle against the ‘smart voting’ tactic currently being advocated by Navalny. Whilst some of his allies have made it to the ballot paper and even been successful in municipal elections, his main effort is now focussed on backing whichever candidate looks most likely to beat the Kremlin loyalist. He has been happy to back both Communists and LDPR candidates in recent contests as well as independents. With multiple parties aiming to compete in each seat in the Duma elections next year it might not be obvious who is the Kremlin favourite until the last minute, making it difficult to set up a contest that the opposition has any chance of winning. Navalny might even end up backing the candidate also favoured by the Kremlin. It is a cat and mouse game in which voters are often left out in the cold.

These recent election contests were also notable for formalising some of the new practices brought in during the ‘National Vote’ on the new constitution. Voting was spread across three days with more electronic voting and, supposedly because of worries about Covid-19, voting could also take place outside the confines of the polling station. None of these did anything to boost turnout – the ostensible reason – and participation actually fell in most areas, but they will almost certainly have helped to marshall the ‘payroll vote’ to back establishment candidates.

This article uses figures from research carried out by Alexander Kynev, Associate Professor, Higher School of Economics, and presented to a Chatham House seminar (held on the record). I am grateful for his work.

Reading List – 10th September 2020

After a few weeks off, here is some catch up reading on key issues:

What Russia Really Has in Mind for Belarus – And why Western leaders must act

A look at one possible plan that President Putin has for his troubled neighbour and how it migh unfold. The authors argue that rather than an army of Little Green Men, there are a load of Little Grey Men inside Belarus gradually moving it closer and closer to Russia.

Democracy After Coronavirus: Five challenges for the 2020s

This is a long read – a great study on the difference that the pandemic has made to elections and the wider issue of democracy. In this regard, this paper argues that there are five main challenges for democracies after coronavirus: protecting the safety and integrity of elections, finding the right place for expertise, coping with resurgent populism and nationalism, countering homegrown and foreign disinformation, and defending the democratic model.

Lessons learned with social media monitoring

Another long read – this time a look at how different domestic election observers have tried to tackle the task of monitoring what is being said and by whom on social media. Regular readers will know this is a keen area of interest of mine and this paper sums up the great work done by the various NGOs as well as the frustrations they face.

How President Putin won his National Vote (and gave himself 12 more years in office)

Russian voters have approved President Putin’s plans to change the constitution (and coincidentally allow him to serve two further six-year terms in office) by a margin of more than three to one in a national vote held over the past week.

The fact, and even the margin, of victory should surprise no one since there was no opposition campaign allowed and the regime pulled out all the stops to both boost turnout and secure a yes vote. There were also no effective election observers on the ground to highlight foul play.

The constitutional changes were announced in January, supposedly as a means of rebalancing power towards Parliament and away from the President. But at the last minute, in a carefully choreographed intervention, President Putin’s supporters in the Duma suggested that the term limits slate should be wiped clean, effectively allowing the incumbent a further twelve years in office after his current term ends in 2024.

Originally scheduled for April but postponed due to the coronavirus, the decision has been made over the course of the week of voting following the massive Victory Day parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary the end of World War 2.

Putin’s efforts to boost turnout are not unique to this poll. For his re-election in 2018 he received more than 70% support on a turnout around 65% and he asked for the same again this time. And once again there are a massive range of measures, both official and not, in place to help him get his wish. So many measures, in fact, that even the loyalist chair of the Electoral Commission, Ella Pamfilova, has warned that turnout fraud could discredit the entire process.

The most legitimate (and a move that other countries could do well to learn from) allows electors to change their polling location via an app to make sure they don’t miss out because of work or travel commitments. Train stations, ice breakers and even the polar research base all had their own polling stations for this purpose and cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin became the first person to vote online from space.

But, less officially, many tricks have been used to tempt people to vote. There were lots of beautification contests giving electors a choice over municipal spending to clear up local eyesores. Many polling stations hosted childrens concerts or offered cheap food and drink to encourage people along. Others held raffles with each voter given a ticket just for turning up. Sadly these might not have been quite the draw if the example of one Omsk polling station is anything to go by as the polling station chairperson conducting the draw happened to pick his own name in the contest to win an apartment.

Because of Covid-19, there was a fear that many electors will be dissuaded from voting through health concerns. A new law passed earlier this month extended the limited right to vote from home and allowed electors to vote in courtyards outside polling stations where it is thought the virus cannot be transmitted so easily. And in Moscow region a new internet voting system has been developed with more than 93% of those who registered to use the system turning out to vote, although there are allegations that people have been able to vote both over the internet and in person.

These changes would make life a lot more difficult for independent poll watchers if such existed. Longstanding domestic groups such as Golos no longer have the right to attend polling stations. If they want to observe they must join state-run Civic Chambers whose leaders – themselves state employees – will decide the wording of any observation statement. And because it is not a formal referendum, the law ‘does not envisage’ the presence of missions from the OSCE or any other credible international group. A group of far-right and other Kremlin-loyal politicians from Germany’s AfD and Italy’s League parties have been flown in to give approval to the poll, however.

There are reports of an effort to develop tracking software so that businesses can see whether their staff have voted. Such concern is usually unwarranted. Most companies rely to a greater or lesser extent on state contracts and, with the result of any poll or election a foregone conclusion, most employees recognise that their jobs are at risk if their firm does not record a high turnout. The odd vote against is accepted so long as participation is high. With the popularity of the regime so low, however, extra precautions have been taken. Notwithstanding that, there are some sections of society where high participation can be guaranteed and more than 90% of the military have voted.

In the past, apartment blocks in areas with historic records of low turnout, mainly in Moscow and St Petersburg, would find themselves ‘accidentally’ left off the voter list. Residents who turn up to vote receive an apology and are added to a special supplemental list. But anyone who fails to turn up was never on the list in the first place and so does not impact on turnout levels. Without observers on the ground, it is impossible to tell if that tactic is in use again, but it is reasonable to assume so as the President seeks the strongest mandate possible for his reforms. There are also the usual allegations that polling station officials have cast votes on behalf of those who do not turn up, even if they are dead. Anything to ensure that the area they are responsible for doesn’t draw attention to itself with a significantly low turnout.

Perhaps the only constraint on President Putin is that he could not afford to stretch credibility too far. Those who voted against the proposals or who boycotted the event altogether needed to see their decision reflected in the locally declared result. Whilst a WCIOM poll found that just 42% of Russians believe that the results will relate to the actual choices made by voters, the 70/70 formula was devised to be just about credible whilst giving a comprehensive thumbs up to the idea of President-for-Life Vladimir Putin.

 

 

 

Reading List – 19th June 2020

Belarus will hold a Presidential election on August 8th and Ryhor Astapenia, a Fellow at Chatham House has written a piece suggesting that, although President Alexander Lukashenko will win this time, the three pillars on which his rule is cemented appear to be crumbling and it is time to consider a Belarus without him in charge.

In his preview of the election, Andrew Roth for The Guardian looks at the measures being taken by the Lukashenko regime to crack down on the candidates running against him. Many of these opponents come from within the establishment and therefore have more credibility than previous electoral contestants.

At the same time, the Director of ODIHR, the election observing wing of OSCE, has publicly called on Belarus to issue the necessary invitation for international organisations to observe the election. Issuing such an invitation is a requirement of Belarus’ membership of OSCE.

Screen Shot 2020-06-19 at 11.52.41

 

Ben Noble has written a very interesting article looking at the national vote in Russia which starts next week. The point that stood out for me was that the vote only goes to emphasise the weakness of existing state institutions such as the Duma and Constitutional Court.

 

 

Quinton Scribner and Dr Richard Connolly have written a Chatham House article on the likely effect of the virus on Russia’s economy. For me this provided the clearest explanation yet of why Russia is so reluctant to spend the national ‘rainy day fund’ that they have built up over the years.

 

Parsing Putin – what the Russian President’s article says about World War 2 and modern history

President Putin’s article in National Interest on the Great Patriotic War is very well worth reading to understand how is is seeking to portray the history of that period, particularly in light of the proposed changes to the constitution which would make it a criminal act to deny the official version of history. That is the message for domestic consumption at least.

But it’s message to an international audience is contained in its last paragraphs. It calls for a new conference of the modern great powers – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – a plea for Russia to be readmitted to polite diplomatic society. Given the context of an article about the destructive power of world war, this is a none too subtle hint at the alternative.

The structure of the article is a selective tour through the history of the 20th century. First and foremost, Putin states that it was the Soviet Union – all component parts of it – that was primarily responsible for defeating Hitler and Nazism.

As for the causes of the Second World War (and he does give the conflict that name on one occasion), he says that it was inevitable following the Treaty of Versailles and the feeling of injustice that this provoked in Germany. That’s a cause that is referred to also in western history teaching – or at least it was when I was at school. In addition, he says that Western firms helped Germany by investing in factories there that would be used to produce arms and that the borders drawn by the First World War victors (the Soviet Union being concerned in its own on-going revolution by this point) meant continued resentment in many parts of the continent.

But it is the ‘Munich Betrayal’ to which President Putin returns on a number of occasions as his pre-eminent reason for the Second World War. He says that France and the UK regarded Hitler

“as quite a reputable politician and was a welcome guest in the European capitals”.

He points out that Stalin did not meet with Hitler and that it was the division of Czechoslovakia, in which Poland was also complicit, that was the final straw.

And it was as a result of the Munich agreement and the decision by the Western Powers to allow Japan a free rein in China that the Soviet Union was forced to sign a non-aggression pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement)

“to buy precious time to strengthen the country’s defences”.

Putin accepts that the secret protocols to Molotov-Ribbentrop (those that agreed the division of Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia) were worthy of condemnation but notes that the Soviet Parliament did just that in 1989 whilst the West continues to deny the impact that their joint agreements with Hitler had.

Once the war started, Putin claims that the decision by the French and British not to fight hard in the West allowed the German to concentrate their resources in the East. He suggests that this was a deliberate ploy to break the Soviet Union and that Soviet forces only invaded Poland as a last resort.

Putin identifies Churchill as being in favour of working closely with the Soviets (despite his hatred of Communism) to defeat Germany and acknowledges the efforts and sacrifices of UK, US, Chinese and French nations in the fight against Hitler but is clear that these were a mere supporting act to the leading role played by the Soviet army.

Finally, Putin turns to the United Nations and says that having countries with veto power is necessary to keeping the peace as it forces the big powers to negotiate and to find compromise, just as they did at Yalta, Tehran and other wartime conferences.

Reading List – 12th June 2020

Twitter has disclosed more than 32,000 accounts which have been part of three state backed schemes to promote disinformation and acting in an inauthentic manner. These accounts are said to be part of state sponsored operations and existed in China, Russia and Turkey.

The 1,152 Russian accounts were said to be promoting the ruling United Russia party and denigrating rivals. The Turkish accounts were engaged in similar activity related to the AK Parti.

Twitter’s opening line of their press release is particularly interesting. They state:

“Today we are disclosing 32,242 accounts to our archive of state-linked information operations — the only one of its kind in the industry.”

That Twitter should have such an archive is welcome. But it seems a shame that other platforms do not and that there is not an industry-wide archive. A similar case can (and has) been made for a multi-platform library of political adverts. Combatting improper and illegal behaviour on social media cannot be undertaken on a platform by platform basis.

 

 

RFE/RL reports apparent confirmation that Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc has been hiding out in Moldova.

Plahotniuc was the power behind the Democratic Party and fled in June 2019 after a joint action by Russia, Europe and the USA to try to end the corruption that was endemic under his regime. It has been claimed that he stole more than $1bn, the equivalent to roughly one eighth of the Moldovan economy. 

Plahotniuc apparently made his way to the USA where his request for asylum was rejected and he was ordered to be deported. That deportartion has not happened yet however and it is claimed that he has multiple passports and identities.

 

The Carnegie Moscow Center seems to be going all in on President Putin at the moment. Tatiana Stanovaya argues that Covid-19 and the fall in the oil price have exposed the holes in the Russian regime, whilst Alexander Baunov says that Putin has gone missing during the crisis.

 

Another Carnegie piece, this time looking at the electoral challenges faced by Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus.

Russia’s remote voting proposals will lessen transparency and trust

In an already controlled environment, the latest moves to change electoral systems in Russia have the potential to further tighten the grip of the Kremlin. A Bill to enable candidate registration signatures to be collected via the state services app has been amended at the last minute to allow remote voting via a number of means. It passed the Duma (the lower house of parliament) after lawmakers were given just 36 minutes to see the proposed amendments. Covid-19 restrictions limited the amount of media and public scrutiny that was possible of the procedings.

What appears to have emerged from the process is a Bill that will allow for the development of internet voting, for postal voting and to expand the range of people who are qualified to vote at home on election day. In addition, for health reasons, voting will now be allowed in the precincts of the polling station as well as the voting room itself.

There is an axiom that any time you take the ballot paper out of the control of election officials, that vote becomes less secure and more susceptible to fraud. These new measures all remove the oversight that election administrators – and observers – will have over the process. It is perhaps no wonder that Russia’s leading independent election observation group – Golos – have said of the changes: 

“Their implementation without simultaneously ensuring guarantees of effective control will increase the level of distrust of citizens in elections.”

To take the changes one by one:

Internet Voting

Internet voting is often seen as the solution to many election problems. In the UK it was trialed as a response to declining turnout in the early 2000s. But just because someone tells a pollster that they are more likely to vote if they can do so from home via the internet, doesn’t mean they will actually do so. TV programmes which use internet voting have many hours of positive broadcast coverage and still only get a small proportion of their audience to vote.

As I have written before, internet voting is doubly problematic. First in that it takes the vote out of the polling station. Second, that it is reliant on ‘black box technology’ so the voter cannot see directly how their vote contributes to the result and there is no paper trail. If some malign actor, either within the election commission or hacking in from outside, wanted to fix the result then it is far more possible with internet voting and almost impossible to prove.

The only country which successfully uses internet voting for national elections is Estonia which has spent many millions (in a very small country) on security. This includes a reader for every household so that voters can insert their national identity card to be validated. Even then, I would argue, it is not completely secure as other members of the household could vote using a person’s card – particularly if they are vulnerable or disinclined to vote. And the chances of pressurized voting are obvious.

Postal Voting

Postal votes have been the subject of many election fraud cases around the world. It is not quite true to assert, as President Trump does, that all postal voting is riddled with fraud. But postal votes are subject to many of the risks of other forms of remote voting.

Where a person cannot make it to vote on election day, postal votes can be a good thing. In the UK we used to have a ‘for cause’ system which meant you needed a valid reason for asking for one. Now we operate an ‘on demand’ system. This avoids the need to tie up doctors and employers and for election administrators to deal with lots of paperwork.

Where the UK – and others – have largely failed is when they seek to adopt universal postal voting – ie every voter is sent a postal vote to their registered address. I have dealt with such issues here. In short, if a person is not aware that their vote is being sent by post then it is easy to abstract and cast illegally. Switzerland is a country where all-postal ballots do work well, but is a very different electoral culture.

In order to have an effective postal vote system, a country needs to have a means of verifying that the application and the resultant vote come from the registered voter. You don’t want to allow others to apply and then vote on your behalf. This means having lots of staff, lots of time and specialist signature matching software. My experience of the Russian system is that the elections staff are generally pretty well trained and motivated, but they are short staffed and would need a significant increase in their budgets and allocation of high quality hardware from local administrations which are often reluctant to let them have anything other than the oldest computers.

Traditionally, Russia has sought to address the problem of people being away from home on election day by allowing ‘place of stay’ voting. This system, managed by the state services app, allows a voter to move their polling station up to a couple of days before the election. If you are away from home on business or an economic migrant, you can simply change where you vote to a local station. And there are special polling stations created in hospitals and railway stations, and even on ice-breakers and at the Antarctic Research Station. So with all these options, are postal votes really needed?

Early Voting

Early voting has been used for some time in a number of countries. It is not the most susceptible to fraud as it still requires the voter to attend a polling station (their own or a central hub) where they are dealt with by election administrators in the same manner as on election day. However, it can stretch the resources of party and other observers who are there to ensure that nothing untoward happens. And it can make it easier for the same voter to cast multiple ballots by going from polling station to polling station.

Home Voting

Home voting has been the traditional means by which Russia allows those who cannot come to a polling station on election day to vote. It has always been restricted to the old and people with disabilities and requires an application by the elector which is then adjudicated by the polling station committee. If approved, then on election day a subset of the committee, plus observers, takes a small version of the ballot box to the home of the voter. Although in most cases this is a workable solution, it requires the intrusion into the voter’s home of up to eight people and it is often difficult to ensure the secrecy of the vote.

The proposal now is to allow carers as well as those being cared for to vote in this way. That may seem a logical step, but simply extends the problem, I would suggest.

Precinct Voting

The proposal is to allow voters to cast their ballots not just in the confines of the polling booths, but also within designated areas within the precincts of the polling station building – in courtyards, for example. This is being done, it is claimed, for health reasons.

Fairly obviously, loss of secrecy is a big problem with this proposal. If people are wandering around with their ballot then it can be seen by others. In my experience in Russia at least one third of voters do not bother to fold their ballot after completion. 

I don’t know whether there will be polling booths set up in the courtyards where voting will be allowed, but the chances are that these will be as unpopular as those in the officisl voting room if there is a fear of Covid-19.

Perhaps the other major problem is that election officials and observers will find it difficult to track what is happening. This makes frauds such as carousel voting, illicit pressure, family voting and proxy voting all more easy to achieve.

On the other hand…

I certainly would not suggest that the Russian voting system is in the dark ages. The place of stay voting system is very good indeed and deserves to be studied by many supposedly advanced democracies. And the state services portal makes it possible to accomplish a lot of tasks related to the elections process in a simple and speedy manner. That’s a boon to voters as well as to the state. If there were to be a form of internet voting then this might well be the basis for such a system.

That said, however, it is clear that the changes being developed as a result of this Bill are not going to make the Russian system more secure and will actually do only a little to enhance access to voting. Fundamentally, they open the way for those who wish to rig the vote to do so. Citizen confidence in elections stems from knowing that votes are cast freely and that the result is an accurate counting of only legitimate votes. Sadly I think that this Bill takes Russia away from those principles.