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Russia's Democratic Coalition The opposition is being barred from elections again. Here's what you need to know

Photo: Kirill Kukhmar / Kommersant

A group of several opposition parties and movements is doing what it can to register for regional elections taking place across Russia later this year. The going hasn't been easy, however, and just getting on the ballot is proving to be an insurmountable obstacle. Meduza breaks down everything you need to know about Russia's latest misadventures in democracy—the short and sweet version.

What is the Democratic Coalition?

The Democratic Coalition is a collaboration between several opposition groups: Alexei Navalny’s Party of Progress, "Parnas" (the People's Freedom Party), the Democratic Choice Party, the 5th of December Party, and the Libertarian Party. The coalition was founded to provide a platform for like-minded candidates to participate in the upcoming elections in several Russian regions. The Democratic Coalition has lined up candidates for regional races in Kaluga, Kostroma, Magadan, and Novosibirsk.

What do you need to do to qualify for elections in Russia?

Elections—even regional votes—take place simultaneously across Russia on a single Election Day, when citizens all over the country vote for various levels of public office, from governors to regional and local parliaments. The next Election Day is scheduled for September 13, 2015. In order to run in regional parliamentary elections, you can either represent a registered political party, or run as an independent candidate (from “single-mandate independent constituencies”). In both cases, you first have to submit signatures from a certain number of supporters. The Elections Commission then verifies the legitimacy of the signatures and decides if you are allowed you run. Only the verified signatures are counted in your favor. If the Elections Commission verifies only a fraction of the signatures, and you do not make the cutoff, you cannot run in elections. Verification includes checking the identity of signers, but a signature can be scrapped for other reasons, too (for example, if the number “15” is written in the date in place of “2015”).

What’s happening in Novosibirsk?

Most media attention, so far, has focused on the Democratic Coalition’s campaign in Novosibirsk, a region in Siberia. Here, the opposition has lined up three candidates, two of whom are now on a hunger strike. Leonid Volkov, who headed Navalny’s campaign when he ran for Moscow mayor in 2013, is the leader of the Coalition’s Novosibirsk campaign. He has also joined the hunger strike in protest against the local Elections Commission, which has refused to register the Coalition's candidates.

To run in Novosibirsk region, candidates need at least 10,657 signatures. The Coalition's activists gathered more than 16,000. Leonid Volkov says he verified the signatures using social media and open-access state databases, allowing campaigners to identify signature-gatherers who were systematically submitting forged lists. After throwing out the "bad campaigners" and fakes, Volkov says the Coalition was able to gather only the "finest" signatures. But the Elections Commission disagreed.

An Elections Commission meeting. Leonid Volkov stands on the right.
An Elections Commission meeting. Leonid Volkov stands on the right.
Photo: Kirill Kukhmar / Kommersant

At a meeting on July 27, the Novosibirsk Elections Commission determined that only 10,187 of the Democratic Coalition’s signatures were valid, putting it 470 signatures below the minimum, and disqualifying the group's candidates from running in that regional election.

Leaders of the Coalition say the Election Commission’s decision is unlawful, arguing that mistakes occurred in the verification process because the Commission used an outdated ID database to check the signatures. After the meeting, Coalition representatives refused to leave the Election Commission's building and were detained by the police. On July 28, they were fined for disobeying police orders.

In the meantime, the Novosibirsk regional Investigative Committee has received two complaints: one from a signature-gatherer who worked for the Democratic Coalition, and one from the Democratic Coalition claiming some of their campaigners had forged signature lists. The signature-gatherer claims the opposition did not pay him for his services, in accordance with his contract. Leonid Volkov says this man had been caught forging signatures. The Novosibirsk regional Investigative Committee has launched a fraud investigation into the incident.

On July 28, Novosibirsk Coalition campaigners began a hunger strike. Leonid Volkov and candidates Yegor Savin and Sergei Boyko began the strike, claiming they will continue to protest until the Elections Commission reconsiders its decision on the Coalition’s signature lists. Alexei Navalny praised the Coalition members on his blog, writing: “These three brave and honest men have gone on a hunger strike to protect the electoral rights of all Russians.” Navalny wrote that the Siberian election looks like a dress rehearsal for Russian Duma elections, scheduled to take place next year.

What’s going on in the other regions?

On July 27, Alexei Pivovarov, leader of the Democratic Coalition campaign team in Kostroma, was detained at a Kostroma police station. Pro-Kremlin news channel LifeNews claims he was trying to buy signatures from a local police database. Opposition activist Ilya Yashin (who is running in the Kostroma elections) denies this and says Pivovarov had come to the police station to check signatures gathered by campaigners against the official databases. A criminal case has been launched against Pivovarov in connection with unauthorized access to computer data.

The signatures gathered in Kostroma and Kaluga regions have not yet been submitted to the local Elections Commissions.

On July 29, a local Elections Commission working group in Magadan region recommended removing the Democratic Coalition’s candidates from the race, based on findings that 18 percent of the signatures the group submitted were allegedly forged, and another 4 percent could not be verified against the databases. According to regulations, if over 10 percent of the gathered signatures are scrapped, the candidates cannot run. A minimum of 650 signatures were required for the Magadan elections. The Commission will announce its final decision on the matter in the coming days.