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Yekaterinburg mayor Alexander Vysokinsky speaks with local residents during a protest against plans to build a new cathedral in place of one of the city’s downtown squares. May 16, 2019

Yekaterinburg protesters get a survey, but not a referendum. What difference will it make?

Source: Meduza
Yekaterinburg mayor Alexander Vysokinsky speaks with local residents during a protest against plans to build a new cathedral in place of one of the city’s downtown squares. May 16, 2019
Yekaterinburg mayor Alexander Vysokinsky speaks with local residents during a protest against plans to build a new cathedral in place of one of the city’s downtown squares. May 16, 2019
Yevgeny Feldman for Meduza

The claim

“If we go for a referendum, the situation will be suspended for a year. It would mean really major preparations, really major costs. That’s why, right now, we have to put maximal efforts into making sure this survey is maximally correct in procedure, in form, and in representativeness,” Yekaterinburg mayor Alexander Vysokinsky said on May 17. After several days of protests against the city’s plans to build a cathedral for its patron saint that would replace a central square, he was explaining the local government’s decision to run a survey instead of a referendum to gauge public opinion on the project.

How long would it take to prepare a referendum?

Regional law dictates that 170 – 200 days or less must pass between the day an application for a referendum is submitted and the day it is conducted. That 30-day gap is intended to allow officials to choose a convenient day for voting.

What happens in those 200 days?

Sverdlovsk Oblast’s statute on referenda includes maximum time scales for every stage of the local referendum process from the day a referendum petition is submitted. Here is how that schedule would look in Yekaterinburg:

  1. Yekaterinburg’s Election Commission considers the petition: 15 days
  2. Yekaterinburg’s City Duma checks the referendum’s questions: 20 days
  3. A working group for the referendum is registered: 15 days
  4. At least 53,905 signatures for the referendum are collected: 25 days
  5. The Election Commission checks the signatures: 14 days
  6. The resulting protocol is sent to the City Duma: 1 day
  7. A decision is made about whether to hold the referendum: 30 days
  8. A date is chosen for voting: 50 – 80 days

In practice, however, it is possible to pass through each step faster. In early 2019, when the Yekaterinburg City Duma declined to hold a similar referendum, 40 days, not the maximum 50, passed between the initial petition’s submission and the government’s refusal to register a working group.

If we assume that collecting the 53,905 signatures required to hold a referendum would take 25 days, the legal maximum, and that verifying those signatures would take a full 14 days, but every other stage of the process would take no more than 5 days, preparing for the referendum could take as little as 109 days. In such a case, a referendum first proposed on May 17 could be held on September 8, the day of Russia’s nationwide elections.

How will the survey work?

Yekaterinburg’s mayor has made contradictory statements on that count. On May 16, Vysokinsky said the survey would be held “on the [municipal] administration’s website and on city streets,” suggesting that what he had in mind was a typical public opinion survey. However, the next day, the mayor said, “We are working in strict correspondence with Yekaterinburg’s city charter. We’ll sit down and take a look at it. We understand that the survey must be legitimate before all else.” That statement describes a fundamentally different type of survey whose procedures are dictated both in the city charter and in Russian federal law.

Yekaterinburg has conducted surveys according to the procedure outlined in its charter many times. The most recent survey took place in January 2016 when city residents living on Tolmachev Street were asked whether they would approve of the street being renamed Tsar’s Street. The majority said they would not. That survey was organized as follows:

  • The survey was conducted from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM over the course of seven days.
  • Officials walked through all three apartment buildings on Tolmachev Street.
  • The minimum response rate required to validate the results was 60 percent of the voters registered in those buildings.

How is a survey different from a referendum?

Only individuals who have the right to vote and are registered as residents of the survey’s location are permitted to participate in official municipal surveys. Participants must present their domestic passports to vote, just as they would in a referendum. To prevent repeat voting, participants are checked against a list of registered voters.

However, survey regulations do not include any observation mechanisms. This means there could be no external monitors observing the actions of survey takers. Referenda take place in specified voting locations with ballot boxes, surveillance cameras, and external observers. Even when ballot boxes are carried to voters’ homes, monitors can follow along. None of these checks are included in current municipal survey procedures.

Referenda take place in a single day, and a high-quality survey can take months. Yekaterinburg has attempted to carry out a citywide survey in the past. In 2014, local officials planned to ask residents throughout the city whether they would agree to change Yekaterinburg’s legal status, making it an urban okrug, or district, with internal municipal divisions. Officials planned to survey no less than a quarter of the city’s registered voters (270,000 people) over the course of two months (from the end of July to the end of September). Ultimately, the survey was canceled after Igor Kholmanskikh, the presidential envoy to the Ural Federal District, interfered, and the city’s status did not change.

Yekaterinburg’s mayor has claimed that a survey would be much less costly than a referendum. In February, Yekaterinburg’s Election Commission estimated the cost of a referendum to be 118 million rubles (about $1.8 million). No cost estimates for a survey on the construction of the planned cathedral have been released.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Hilah Kohen