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The strange death of Russia's ‘Democratic Coalition’

Source: Meduza
Photo: Gennady Gulyaev / Kommersant

The “Party of People's Freedom,” better know as “Parnas,” is one of the few political parties in Russia that represents what is called the “nonsystemic opposition”—Russia's generally anti-Kremlin, typically Western-leaning activists and disaffected former government officials. Earlier this month, Parnas tried and failed to carry out a primary to determine its candidate list for parliamentary elections later this year. The party was meant to be the vehicle for a larger “Democratic Coalition,” but that project suffered a major blow when anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny's “Party of Progress” pulled out from the alliance. Parnas went ahead with the primary, anyway, but voting was halted abruptly when hackers leaked the electorate's personal data. Meduza takes a closer look at how the primary flopped.

In April 2015, a handful of Russian opposition political parties banded together and formed the so-called “Democratic Coalition.” The group consisted of Parnas and several other unregistered parties, including Alexey Navalny's Party of Progress. The unregistered parties needed Parnas to field candidates in the coming general elections, in order to avoid requirements for collecting mass signatures to qualify for placement on the ballot. (Parnas has “parliamentary party status,” thanks to one of its former leaders, the late Boris Nemtsov, who had a seat in the Yaroslavl regional Duma.) In 2015, the Democratic Coalition held primaries to determine the group's candidates in regional elections that year. The campaigns all failed, in some places thanks to interference from the authorities, and in other places they collapsed without any outside help. 

The Democratic Coalition was created with the 2016 Duma elections in mind, so Russia's “nonsystemic opposition” could offer voters a single list of parliamentary candidates. In December 2015, the group's various parties agreed that former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, the chairman of Parnas, would lead the coalition's ticket. This would be Kasyanov's first time participating in elections. Alexey Navalny, who won 27 percent of the vote in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race, is unable to run for elected office, because of his criminal record. (Navalny has been convicted and implicated in multiple cases that are widely regarded outside Russia to be politicized.)

In early April 2016, the pro-Kremlin television network NTV aired a film about Mikhail Kasyanov and Parnas member Natalia Pelevina that contained footage of an intimate nature, filmed by hidden camera. After the release of this film, several members of the Democratic Coalition, including Alexey Navalny and oppositionist Ilya Yashin, called on Kasyanov to remove himself from the top of the coalition's ticket, arguing that the primary should determine all spots on the list. (The December 2015 agreement stipulated that the primary vote would determine the coalition's ticket, except for the manually assigned top three spots.) When Kasyanov ignored these demands, Yashin and Navalny responded by withdrawing their support for the primary, also persuading Vladimir Milov and his party “Democratic Choice” to drop out. This effectively brought an end to the Democratic Coalition.

Parnas went ahead with the primary, regardless. The voting was scheduled to take place between May 28 and 29, hosted at Parnas' website and at a handful of physical voting stations in select cities across Russia. On Sunday, May 29, a file appeared on Parnas' website containing the personal information of everyone who'd voted in the primary. There were roughly 7,000 names, along with their logins and passwords. Parnas later declared that this was the work of hackers (though it first said the data had appeared due to an “administrative error”). The party's biggest mistake appears to have been storing voters' personal data without any encryption. 

Before hackers interrupted the process, the candidate leading the voting was a man from Saratov named Vyacheslav Maltsev. Little known in Moscow, Maltsev says he considers himself the “best replacement” for the president's current first deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin (the two were born in the same city). Maltsev is also openly anti-Semitic. He used to have a seat in the regional parliament, but today he's busy mostly with his video-blog, every episode of which typically attracts tens of thousands of views. Parnas' top five primary winners, before voting was suspended, included better known politicians, as well, such as Konstantin Yankauskas, a Moscow city councilman, who's also a suspect in an investigation into illegal campaign financing for Alexey Navalny's 2013 mayoral campaign. Even these limited primary results appear to be compromised, however. In the leaked data, there were roughly 80 voter accounts with the same password, suggesting that these were bots operating to inflate support for particular candidates. Who benefitted from these bots is unclear.

The Party of Progress has harshly criticized Parnas for how it's handled preparations for the 2016 election, and Navalny himself has personally asked Kasyanov to step down from his position as chairman of Parnas. Ilya Yashin says the government's security forces are behind the cyberattack on the Parnas primary, but he believes they had help from some of the website's administrators, who he says have ties to Kasyanov's former mistress, Natalia Pelevina. Kasyanov, meanwhile, has refused to resign. Parnas will go ahead with its campaign, shaping its party ticket without considering the results of the interrupted primary. 

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