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A Russian bill would ban election observers from traveling to regions outside their own. It’s a very bad idea.

Meduza
Varvara Gert / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

Russian Duma deputy Mikhail Romanov has announced that the legislative body plans to introduce new limits on election observers under which observers would only be permitted to monitor elections within their own regions. Central Election Commission Deputy Chair Nikolai Bulaev agreed that limiting the observation of regional elections to people who are eligible to vote in a given region would be a good idea. Meduza asked Grigory Melkonyants, the co-chair of the “Golos” (“Voice”) movement, to explain why observers travel to elections in regions outside their own and what dangers the new Duma bill might bring about.

Mass external observation began near Moscow when monitors from the capital began visiting nearby regions amid a wave of increased civic participation in 2012 and 2013. That movement followed mass falsifications in Russia’s federal elections. Observers began to reach areas where elections were a closed-door affair, and they pushed back against local traditions that violated voting rights. Now, this has become a widespread practice for volunteers from various regions when they take an interest in defending fair elections elsewhere, as they did in the primaries in Plyos or the elections in Khakassia. Golos has a number of regional offices where our observers participate in one way or another in the monitoring of elections in neighboring regions. For example, let’s say an election takes place in a region with 15-20 different precincts. There is some number of observers in the region itself, and five to seven people can come in from each of two or three nearby regions. That can allow a critical mass of observers to form and establish complete regulatory control over the territory.

There are problematic regions. All the republics in the Northern Caucasus, Krasnodar Krai — observers there tend to be stifled in very difficult ways. The residents of those regions are afraid to volunteer as observers. If they actively locate violations and write complaints to address them, we know from experience that those people start having problems. People intimidate them, and they or their relatives start having difficulties at their jobs.

The authorities don’t want a civilian force that can come to elections, observe them, give an objective assessment of what happened, and stick to those facts in court or in front of human rights agencies. One simple example can be found in the runoff election for governor in Vladimirskaya Oblast. I’m sure that it is only due to the arrival of a massive number of observers from neighboring regions that volunteers were able to uncover and demonstrate preparations for falsifications there, and as a result, they were able to defend the choice voters really made, which removed the ruling governor from office. That’s why the administration wants what happens in the region to stay in the region: they need everything to stay local so that nobody can find anything out. They’re especially eager for Golos and everybody else to stay away from Moscow and stop making a racket there when there’s election fraud in the region. In any case, there are more than enough people who would support limiting election monitoring.

The proposed amendments are an attack on civil society. There have been similar attempts a number of times before. In 2005, civic organizations were deprived of their rights to direct observers to various precincts. In 2016, new limits for both journalists and observers were introduced. In my opinion, it was all a response to the fact that civil society is observing elections and really doing all it can to regulate them actively and uncover corruption. That’s why they’re trying to infringe on its rights any way they can.

These amendments would do definite damage both to observers from specific political players — candidates and parties — as well as other volunteer observers. Political parties can mobilize observers from neighboring regions to work at some particular election. They bring them in and try to cover all the precincts as thoroughly as they can. Nonpartisan monitoring would suffer too, especially in smaller elections that happen somewhere almost every Sunday. Golos actively observes those elections: we travel around various regions to both referendums and elections to organize the monitoring of election procedures and vote counts. Clearly, it upsets them that we uncover violations and corruption. They want to limit citizens’ ability to move around their own country to monitor elections. It’s strange that they don’t want to introduce similar limits for candidates, who now have the right to run in elections in any region.

On one hand, you have a kind of liberation of voters through the development of absentee voting from outside voters’ home regions, where “mobile voters” can vote in other regions through “digital precincts.” On the other hand, at the same time, you have this artificial, totally groundless effort to confine the movements of observers who are supposed to ensure that elections are fair. These amendments are intended to decrease the transparency of elections and make citizens less informed about what happens during elections. They will absolutely have to be challenged in the Constitutional Court. This is a clear limitation on citizens’ voting rights. We will have to keep up our presence in election precincts under some other status: election commission members with veto powers, journalists. If they introduce limitations for those roles as well, then ultimately, no Russian citizen will be allowed to be present at voting locations outside their own region. And that’s what you call regional separatism.

Recorded by Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Hilah Kohen