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Grigory Melkonyants in court, Moscow, August 18, 2023

‘Even the establishment is in shock’ Meduza examines the rise and fall of Grigory Melkonyants, Russia’s leading electoral observer

Source: Meduza
Grigory Melkonyants in court, Moscow, August 18, 2023
Grigory Melkonyants in court, Moscow, August 18, 2023
Alexander Zemlyanichenko / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Story by Andrey Pertsev. Translation by Sasha Molotkova.

Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the independent voter protection movement Golos and one of the foremost figures in Russian electoral monitoring, has been arrested in Moscow. The case is far from credible. The Russian authorities brought criminal charges on the grounds that Golos has ties to the “undesirable” European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO), despite that relationship having been severed a few years ago. Meduza how Melkoyants, who long maintained a consistent dialogue with the Kremlin, dared to stay in Russia following the start of the full-scale war, despite the obvious danger, and what could become of him now.

Golos, a cooperative organization

Grigory Melkonyants was born in 1981, in the city of Astrakhan. His father, Arkady Melkonyants, was a well-known social activist who founded Ecology of the Soul, an organization which offered support to cancer patients and the first charitable foundation in the region. In 2005, local authorities honored the elder Melkonyants’ work, including him in the city’s Book of Memory — a list of Astrakhanies who have “glorified the city.” 

According to a member of Golos who prefers to remain anonymous, Grigory Melkonyants joined the election monitoring movement when he was still a student. At the time, the Golos Association was already coordinating electoral observers at a national level, with local activist Lilia Shibanova at the helm of the Astrakhan branch. “Melkonyants and Shibanova met through the monitoring movement,” the anonymous source told Meduza. 

What’s the difference between the Golos Association and the Golos movement? Following its formation in 2000, Golos officially began operating as an “association”. In 2013, after Russia’s Justice Ministry formally branded the organization a “foreign agent,” several undeterred members of the association, including Melkonyants, established the Golos movement. Continuing where its predecessor left off, the organization has since been at the forefront of the voter protection movement.  

In fall 2001, Shibanova was appointed the executive director of the entire association. Andrey Buzin, former co-chair of the Golos movement, recalls that Melkonyants joined the Golos leadership team as Shibankova’s deputy in 2003, quickly becoming her “right-hand man”. It was through his work in Astrakhan that Melkonyants “proved himself to be a capable organizer [of monitoring],” notes Buzin. 

According to Buzin, the work of election observers during the dawn of “early Putinism” in the early 2000s, was no less important than later on, when the falsification and manipulation of elections became the authorities’ favored instruments. With the dominant political force in the Kremlin beginning to realize its own might, the tables turned and “the new nomenklatura [began] fighting for control over the electoral commissions, the municipal administrations wanted the territorial commissions, the regional authorities set their sights on the regional commissions and the Kremlin — the Central Election Commission,” explains the former co-chair of Golos. 

In his own words, Grigory Melkonyants took on “all the technical and organizational work” of the association. This included preparing documents, planning work trips, maintaining the website, and interacting with Golos’ numerous regional branches.

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Alexander Kynev, a political scientist who worked with Golos until 2011, highlighted another one of Melkonyants’ managerial qualities. “Grigory has excellent communication skills, which is an important quality when it comes to coordinating social movements. Social activists are often difficult characters, and this must be considered if you want them to work together effectively. He had a knack for keeping discussions constructive,” Kynev told Meduza. 

An acquaintance of Grigory Melkonyants, who preferred to remain anonymous out of safety considerations, also praises his talent for communication: “Organizational work often requires the ability to connect with a wide variety of people with strong independent spirits and somehow still elicit a unified result from them. And this can’t be done through threats or rewards, as it is in the world of business and the civil service. Instead, all you can rely on is the power of the conviction that you are right.” He recalls how Melkonyants once read a well-known book about “Teal organizations,” companies that function without a strict hierarchical structure and instead make important decisions as a collective. “He sees Golos as precisely this type of organization: everyone knows the main goal, everyone is pulling their weight to reach that goal, but there is no centralized control,” he explains. 

‘You’re Kremlin propaganda’

The association played a vital role in the preparation of electoral observers for the Duma elections of 2003 and 2007. However, it was only when the Duma elections campaign of 2011 rolled around that most Russians began to show an interest in the electoral process. With the popularity of Putin’s party United Russia waning, an innovative campaign initiated by the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, dubbed “Vote against the crooks and thieves,” was garnering huge attention. 

The monitoring movement became an integral part of the unprecedented opposition-led protest campaign, eventually becoming synonymous with parliamentary elections that year. That wouldn’t have been possible without Golos. “The organization of the national network of electoral observers for the 2011 State Duma elections was handled by Grisha. The association was lucky to receive support from several foundations, which helped to facilitate the work”, explains Andrey Buzin. 

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It wasn’t long until the authorities caught wind of the strengthening movement and began taking measures to counteract it. Notably, the state-controlled channel NTV released the film The Voice from Nowhere, which alleged that the association was fabricating data to falsely indicate electoral violations. The provocations continued when a film crew broke into one of the training sessions being held for observers in Moscow. Melkonyants took the events in stride. “You’re Surkov propaganda,” he said over and over in response to questions posed by the NTV correspondents, referencing Vladislav Surkov who was at that time the head of the Kremlin’s political bloc. 

On the eve of the 2011 Duma elections, the Golos Association and the prominent online news outlet established an initiative called the Map of Violations. The program enabled voters to report any instances of electoral violations noticed prior to and during the election day. One of the driving forces behind the initiative was — you guessed it — Grigory Melkonyants. 

In November 2011, a banner advertising the joint initiative on the website was mysteriously removed. The outlet’s first deputy editor-in-chief, Roman Badanin, resigned in protest of the unprecedented action. Mikhail Kotov, the editor-in-chief of at the time, said that the banner had been removed for commercial, not political, reasons. It was later revealed that it the United Russia party wanted to take the advertising space from Golos. 

A few days before the election, against the backdrop of the full-blown public disaster that was the affair, Golos successfully found new partners in publications (subsequently known as and The New Times. The Map of Violations initiative prevailed and, alongside the formidable network of electoral observers and array of independent journalists whose work exposed the true scale of electoral fraud, it helped trigger the protests of 2011-2012. They were the Putin era’s first mass demonstrations. 

In 2011, the Map of Violations was recognized as one of the Top 20 best websites in the “State and Society” category by the prestigious Runet Prize. In 2016, Ella Pamfilova, chair of the Central Election Commission (CEC), promised to include a link to the map on the Commission’s “non-official website.” It never happened.  

The first ‘foreign agent’

In 2013, Russia’s Justice Ministry officially branded the Golos Association a “foreign agent.” It was the first organization in Russia to receive the politically disadvantageous status and shortly afterwards the association was disbanded. Undeterred, a movement bearing the same name quickly emerged to continue the fight for voters’ rights. Its co-chairman was none other than Grigory Melkonyants. “Once again, he took on an organizational role and continued to prove himself to be brilliant at his job,” comments former Golos co-chair Andrey Buzin. In the spirit of change, Melkonyants started to become the face of Golos, frequently opting to speak to the media despite previously preferring to stay out of the limelight. 

In its new capacity, Golos began actively cooperating with the Committee of Civic Initiatives, founded by the former finance minister and so-called “systemic liberal”, Alexey Kudrin. The former minister became a frequent participant of the All-Russian Civil Forum, with Melkonyants joining him on more than one occasion. “Grigory was always very diplomatic: he could find common ground with almost anyone, including government officials,” Buzin told Meduza. 

In 2016, at the request of Ella Pamfilova, Andrey Buzin founded and led the Expert Advisory Group within the CEC. The group’s members included experts on electoral legislation Arkady Lyubarev and Stanislav Rachinsky, as well as political scientist Alexander Kynev. Melkonyants was never an official member of the group but, as Kynev recalls, would often drop in on meetings. “He came to the CEC frequently and we always valued his input during discussions. Grigory was never a radical person, always remaining very moderate,” Kynev said.

Melkonyants’ acquaintance characterizes him as a “moderate centrist” but emphasizes that the co-chair of Golos is always “ready to speak up if he feels that his convictions are just.” Vitaly Averin, the former regional offices coordinator of the Golos movement, recalled his first meeting with Melkonyants: “In 2010, I became the coordinator of the Ivanovo branch [then still part of the Golos Association]. During that time, we managed to discover, publicize, and eventually stop a mass drive to force students to vote in the Ivanovo City Duma elections. Grigory Melkonyants played a big role in helping us prepare our public response. He was steering us away from making lots of unnecessary noise and escalating the conflict, instead emphasizing the need to take a firm and competent stance on the matter.” 

In 2021, the Justice Ministry set its sights on Golos once again, this time labeling the movement a “foreign agent.” This didn’t stop Melkonyants from becoming the co-chairman of the working group on Moscow’s Remote Electronic Voting Technical Audit, convened through a government initiative that same year. 

In the 2021 Moscow City Duma elections, voting figures showed that United Russia candidates lost at regular polling stations in almost all the capital’s single-mandate districts. However, following the addition of the Remote Electronic Voting (REV) results into the system, they instantly became winners (by fall 2021, electronic voting was already being trialed in seven Russian regions). 

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It wasn’t long until the opposition began accusing the Moscow Mayoral Office of falsifying the electronic voting results. To ease tensions, a working group was convened, with Melkonyants being invited to join its leadership. Its function was to prepare a report detailing the use and implementation of REV. But good things rarely last forever and the group was disbanded in 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“The REV technical audit group has held a series of expert discussions on various aspects of remote voting. Discussions focused on topics including the design and principles of REV, the formation of the electronic voter lists, personal voting, the privacy of the vote and the fairness of the counting process. All arising questions were sent to the Central Election Commission, the Moscow City Electoral Committee and The Department of Information Technologies (DIT). The responses that were received to the questions posed were not sufficient for the completion of a full-fledged audit,” Melkonyants explained at the time. 

Choosing to stay in Russia following the outbreak of the war, his movement continued its work in preparing reports on regional elections and methodological recommendations for members of electoral commissions and observers. “He stayed out of principle. Grisha and other members of the movement had already been targeted last fall [for allegedly ‘discrediting the army’]. That was when they confiscated his passport. But he never even tried to get a new one and make a run for it,” Melkonyants’ acquaintance told Meduza. 

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A favorable electoral picture

Stanislav Andreychuk, co-chair of the Golos movement, is convinced that Melkonyants’ arrest is connected to Golos’ past relationship with the “undesirable” European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO), though the two organizations severed ties in September 2021. 

All the individuals that spoke to Meduza have called the case against Melkonyants “absurd.” According to Kynev, the co-chair never participated in Golos’ international activities: “Grigory was never involved in that line of work. He wasn’t part of the Russian observation delegation working abroad and that was all that the relationship had entailed.” 

On August 17, the homes of Grigory Melkonyants and another 14 activists from the Golos movement were raided. Andrey Buzin believes that the persecution of Melkonyants and the other Golos activists was purposefully instigated on the eve of the Russian regional elections, which will be held on September 10, 2023, as a means of “spooking the observers.” Kynev disagrees. In his opinion, the election is happening too soon for such scare tactics to be effective. “They want to crush the observers well before the start of the presidential campaign [2024], to avoid creating a negative atmosphere during it. It’s clear that [the Russian authorities] want to create a favorable picture during the campaign itself,” reasons Kynev. 

This tactic, Kynev asserts, will not be successful either. “In spite of everything, there will be [international] reports and Wikipedia articles with entire sections about the persecution of observers on the eve of the elections,” he says. “Even if they can stop one group from talking about problems [during the campaign], there will always be others that appear in their place.”

Andrey Buzin believes that another factor is at play in the persecution of Grigory Melkonyants. “A dictatorship never forgets its opponents, it’s vindictive. Golos’ work over the years has gotten under the Kremlin’s skin. They will purge all those who disagree with it,” says Buzin. 

Melkonyants tried to take a “moderate position,” and his arrest symbolizes an “evolution in our country,” his anonymous acquaintance believes. “Previously, the presidential administration tried to act in the spirit of ‘divide and rule,’ they could distinguish the social activists and oppositionists who showed willingness to negotiate from the radicals, and tried to build a dialogue with them. But now that’s all over. Even members of the establishment are shocked, thinking they could be next,” Kynev observes. 

We might consider Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, one such “member of the establishment.” In the early 1990s, she occupied the role of Minister of Social Protection in Yegor Gaidar’s liberal government, though she now publicly criticizes the opposition, hates the West, and vehemently supports the war. Pamfilova doesn’t deny her acquaintance with the co-chairman of Golos and is even cautiously supportive. “I really hope that they handle his case fairly,” she said, “because his largely professional criticism was sometimes actually quite useful.”

Original story by Andrey Pertsev

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