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‘Nothing more than a PR campaign’ Independent experts say Russia’s constitutional plebiscite violated domestic and international standards

Source: Meduza
Pavel Korolev / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Voting in the nationwide constitutional plebiscite did not meet Russian or international standards, reports the independent voter protection movement “Golos.”

According to the movement’s experts, a number of norms were violated during the lead up to the vote, the voting processing, and the counting of the ballots. Roughly speaking, Golos divides these violations into the following four categories:

  • The lack of a legal framework for the vote
  • The problematic formulation of the question
  • The Central Election Commission and government agencies campaigning in support of the amendments
  • Forced voting and the falsification of votes

The legal framework. Since the State Duma, the Federation Council, and all of Russia’s regional parliaments approved the amendments to the constitution, holding the plebiscite was not a legal necessity. According to Golos, the nationwide vote was “nothing more than a PR campaign” aimed at reinforcing the idea that the constitutional changes represent the will of Russia’s citizens. Golos also underscores that the norms for carrying out the vote were not written into the law on the amendments, and were only outlined in the Central Election Commission’s departmental instructions — a low-status document.

In addition, Golos highlights that government agencies repeatedly overstepped their authority during the organization of the vote. For example, President Vladimir Putin gave instructions to the Central Election Commission, despite the fact that formally, this agency is independent from other branches of the government. Meanwhile, the Central Election Commission itself illegally restricted journalists’ rights to access polling stations. 

The question’s formulation. According to Golos, the very fact that an entire roster of changes were introduced as a single package, expecting a single answer, contradicts international standards for conducting elections and referendums. In other words, Golos considers the formulation of the question that was put to a vote illegal. Furthermore, state media and the Central Election Commission’s materials covered the amendments unevenly — a very small percentage of these materials were devoted to the “zeroing” of Putin’s presidential terms, despite the fact that from the point of view of the country’s future, this is one of the most significant amendments (it paves the way for Putin to remain in president until 2036).

Campaigning. Experts from Golos note that the de facto ban on pluralistic public discussion also makes it impossible to identify the free will of Russia’s citizens. In violation of the law, the Central Election Commission and government agencies effectively assumed the position of supporters of the amendments, while those opposing the constitutional changes had limited opportunities for campaigning: they were even denied the paid placement of their political ads with media outlets and on billboards, and the opposition’s site for the “Nyet!” campaign was blocked. 

Forced voting and falsification. Experts from Golos also refer to forced voting in the plebiscite as “ubiquitous,” noting that the Central Election Commission itself created opportunities for voter coercion, “allowing practically unchecked voting to be conducted for the duration of the week.” During this period, a significant number of votes were collected at enterprises, effectively under the control of management.

According to Golos, given all of the violations listed above, it was clear from the very beginning of the campaign that the vote itself wouldn’t be decisive, because of the very rules that its organizers “consciously created.” But even under these conditions, the official results were probably falsified. “In this sense, the vote that just passed was indeed unprecedented and will go down in the country’s history as an example of an assault on the sovereignty of the people,” Golos concludes. 

Against the backdrop of the “Golos” movement publishing its report on the plebiscite, the Federation Council’s Commission for the Protection of State Sovereignty announced that they are in possession of information about the involvement of Golos activists in attempts at “external interference” in the voting process. “Recent events confirmed the information received by the commission’s monitoring group. In particular, we were made aware of certain instructions on the fabrication of provocations during the voting period, distributed among the so-called activists [from] Golos. The last one was noted, in particular, in connection with Americans,” announced the head of the commission, Andrey Klimov. In response, Golos called the allegations groundless.

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Summary by Grigory Levchenko

Translation by Eilish Hart 

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