Norway should not recognise the Russian Duma Elections 2021

The Russian Duma election on 17-19 September was neither free nor fair. The election was marred by obstacles to participation in advance, by direct violations during voting and systematic manipulation of results. Repercussions against election observers and media continue also after the elections.

The official result of the election, which many dubbed a “vote of confidence for president Putin’s regime” showed that the ruling United Russia Party has won around 50% of the vote. This result is less that the Kreml hoped for, and it comes even after independent politicians were removed from election campaigns, the pressure on media has been massive, internet applications were blocked, and thousands of instances of falsifications were recorded.

The Communist party, recommended by Navalny’s Smart Voting campaign in most places, came in second with around 20%. However, the turnout was low, and independent domestic election observers report that the number of reported violations beat those of the Duma elections in 2016 and presidential elections in 2018. Many candidates representing other parties than the ruling party United Russia were barred from participation in advance whilst independent election observation and media coverage were banned, by being put on the list of so-called foreign agents.

“These elections cannot be recognised as free and fair” , says Geir Hønneland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “Several politicians from the European Parliament have already encouraged European leaders to not recognise the new Russian Parliament. We call upon the Norwegian authorities to do the same”.

For the first time Russia held elections over three days, – on September 17, 18 and 19. Coronavirus was stated as the main argument for arranging for voting over three days, and e-voting. Citizens of seven Russian regions could vote electronically. 225 of 450 Duma representatives are elected according to party lists, where 3812 candidates have been registered from 14 parties. The other half – 225 candidates – are elected from single – mandate areas, where 2020 names have been registered in total. In addition to the Duma elections, citizens also elected heads of 11 regions and local representatives in 39 regions this weekend. The international observers from OSCE/ODIHR declined observing these elections as their representation was cut by the Russian authorities from 500 to 60 observers.

The Association Golos, which has been professionally observing elections in Russia and Europe since 2000, noted that tens of thousands volunteered and received trainings as domestic election observers. Despite continuous attacks from the government towards the organisation and concrete individuals, independent observers were able to cover the voting processes in 51 regions. The observers have reported a range of manipulations of the Duma election. The first two days of voting, the observers reported high presence of state officials, military and security services in the polling stations. They reported coercion of voters, “voters’ carousels”, ballot stuffing and other violations. At least 60 representatives from voting commissions and election observers have been detained by police. Several election observers have been attacked. In total, the independent election observers reported on more than 3000 cases of election violations.

During the last several years Russian authorities have adopted repressive laws which seriously limit electoral rights. The possibility to participate in the elections as an independent candidate, to conduct independent election observation or to criticize the authorities publicly have been made impossible by means of law. The most profiled example is Alexey Navalny, the oppositional leader who survived a poisoning in August 2020 and returned to Russia only to be arrested upon arrival in January 2021. Being a convict makes him unable to run as a candidate or even to vote. His organisation, the Anti-corruption Fund FBK, was put on the list of extremists to limit also other members of his network, or proponents of the “Smart Voting” tactical campaign, to run for office or observe. His closest colleagues have been prosecuted or forced to leave the country. Google, Apple and YouTube even succumbed to pressure from Russian authorities to remove the “Smart Voting” app from their platforms in Russia , and the last day before elections, Telegram also removed the Smart Vote bot. The “Smart Voting” campaign encouraged voters to vote for the second most popular candidate in the list, no matter who that is, in order to unify against United Russia, and succeeded in many districts.

Independent NGOs, media outlets and journalists have been put on the list of “foreign agents” – aiming to threaten and prevent citizens from providing independent information or organising election observation. The following rights have been limited –

  • The right to vote and stand for election During the last 14 years, around 120 000 politicians have been refused registration as candidates to elections, and at least
    9 million Russian citizens have lost the opportunity to participate in elections as candidates through legislative limitations, according to association Golos.
  • Monitoring and media coverage limited – Independent media and NGOs were branded as “foreign agents” and banned from covering elections. In addition, the association Golos reported on uneven access to media for various parties. The opportunity to monitor the elections online, introduced by Vladimir Putin, has been recalled. Election observers have been hindered to observe, they were detained, and even removed from polling stations by court judgments.
  • Freedom of expression – The “Smart Voting” app of Alexey Navalny was made inaccessible for Russian users by Apple, Google and YouTube after targeted pressure from Russian authorities. Telegram also blocked the “Smart Voting” bot with reference to “the day of silence”, even though this practice was abolished in Russia in April 2021.
  • Unprecedented number of falsifications before and during elections according to Golos. Top officials from the Central Election Commission showed clear signs of support for United Russia. Prior to the elections, there were multiple cases of “cloning” of independent candidates, aimed to confuse the voters. During the first two days the turnout was high, which can be linked to coerced voting by state officials. Ballots were observed stuffed in tens of regions, “voting at home” has also been falsified in many cases, and people found their dead relatives in the lists of voters. The results of the electronic voting were delayed by days, and proved the suspicion of systematic manipulation of results also afterwards. In many districts the support for United Russia increased manyfold when the results finally were published. Electronic voting was used for the first time in a national election in Russia.
  • At least 200 citizens of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass region of Ukraine, travelled to the Rostov region in Russia, where they voted during the elections, after they had received Russian passports. Some of the residents received their passport only a few days before the elections.