Sergei Nikitin on this month's Moscow city elections: "Influencing policy in the city by lawful means has become impossible"

posted 29 Sept 2019, 09:35 by Translation Service   [ updated 20 Oct 2019, 11:06 ]
29 September 

Sergei Nikitin headed Amnesty International's Moscow office from 2003 until 2017. He is a member of the advisory council of Rights in Russia.

This year, the second half of summer and the start of autumn were marked by the elections to the Moscow City Duma and the associated protests. Many people followed attentively how independent candidates prepared to stand in the run up to the elections. They collected signatures from supporters, tried to publicise as widely as possible their plans for what they would do if elected, and went out to meet people. It seemed an interesting prospect: not only pro-Kremlin candidates would take part in the elections to the Moscow City Duma, but also those who criticise the Kremlin and the current policies of the Moscow authorities. However, even at the stage of candidate registration, it became obvious that the authorities had the cheek to deny those who won’t dance to the Kremlin’s tune any chance of standing in the elections.

The authorities often refused to accept documents handed in by independent candidates. Candidates were physically prevented from entering electoral commission premises, or the commissions meant to receive documents suddenly closed their doors, or else just disappeared. Mosgorizbirkom, the Moscow City Electoral Committee (MGIK), refused to register any independent candidates who actually managed to bring in their documents. The reason given was the high percentage of rejected signatures among those who had signed in support of the potential candidates (10% is the maximum permitted proportion of rejected signatures). Independent candidates who – in anticipation of this sort of provocative behaviour by the authorities – took particular care in collecting signatures, accused MGIK of playing tricks when checking signatures. It’s just not possible that there could have been such a high percentage of rejected signatures in the documents submitted! But the authorities had their own reasons for preventing the opposition from participating in the elections. They upheld only one out of 23 complaints about unjust counting of signatures, complaints made by those disallowed from standing as candidates. Those who supported these candidates could not remain silent in the face of the authorities’ cynicism, as demonstrated by the actions of the electoral commissions.

Indignant citizens – mostly young people, of course – decided to express their disagreement with the obvious cheating and the brazen trampling on their rights as voters, as well as the rights of those prevented from standing in the elections. In July, Muscovites began to take to the streets in peaceful protests. The demonstrations on Sakharov Prospect in Moscow on 20 July and 10 August 2019 turned out to be the largest political protests in Russia since the wave of protests of 2011-2013. 1,373 people were arrested at the protest on 27 July, which is a record for the last few years: so many peaceful protestors had never been arrested before.

The particular cynicism of the Moscow authorities became apparent. Prospective candidates, whose documents had been refused for far-fetched reasons, were also arrested. There were a very large number of short prison sentences handed down (under administrative law) to candidates who had not been registered. And investigations were initiated in connection with two criminal cases: one case concerned alleged interfering with the work of the electoral commission, and the other concerned alleged rioting. Both charges were a mockery making out that innocent people were doing what, in reality, the authorities themselves were doing. The ‘riot’, including brutal beatings of peaceful and defenceless citizens, was carried out by uniformed members of the security forces wearing body armour, and it was the employees of the electoral commissions who themselves obstructed the work of these commissions.

A convenient myth was put about regarding alleged foreign interference. The FSB announced it was looking in the opposition’s links with foreign organisations and was trying to find evidence of foreign funding of the protests. Pro-Kremlin publications emphasised that it was non-Muscovites who had taken part in the protests, suggesting conspiracies with secret enemies. These sorts of rumours go down well in the Russian Federation, where many people remember the paranoia about the West during Soviet times.

The reaction of citizens has been simply outstanding: all protests bore a peaceful character and, with the exception of a small number of provocateurs, no one showed any resistance to those in uniform, who behaved brazenly and with impunity, and who resembled either cosmonauts or medieval knights with truncheons. Practically all those armed with police batons hid their faces under balaclavas and wore no distinguishing badges or identification. The number of concealed faces among the security forces grew after the protest with the most detentions on 27 July. It was after that event that an internet campaign to identify members of the security forces was launched.

Like the protest demanding the release of Ivan Golunov, as a result of which, many believe, the journalist was released, a campaign demanding the release of those jailed for taking part in peaceful protests over the elections began under the motto “Let them stand!” Moscow courts worked with unusual haste: contrary to habit, cases were considered quickly, lengthy sentences were issued without substantiation, and individual candidates were jailed under administrative law literally one after the other. Ilya Yashin was arrested just as he was coming out from the detention centre where he had served his sentence, and as a result of a lighting-swift court hearing he was sent back behind bars. And that happened five times in a row. One can no longer speak of fair due process in Russia’s courts.

All these events—which have apparently quieted down a bit, but have not entirely ended now that the elections to the Moscow City Duma have taken place — have demonstrated the dauntlessness and courage of Muscovites, of all those who did not fear police batons and went out time and again to protest. One can only admire these people and be amazed at their endurance and patience. In a situation of absolute injustice, in a situation where influencing policy in the city by lawful means — through their representatives in the City Duma — has become impossible, revolutionary attitudes may develop, and then it will be hard to expect peaceful events. It’s entirely possible that the authorities, having grown accustomed to speaking to the people only in the language of batons and violence, will provoke such a turn of events. And it seems to me that the release of just one unjustly convicted person—Pavel Ustinov, who by chance became a victim of police violence - was just a way of releasing a bit of steam in society and of creating the illusion among the credulous that the protest campaigns have been strong and effective.

The situation in Russia is bad, and I am ceaselessly amazed at the strength of human rights advocates and lawyers, of the staff of OVD-Info, and many other organisations, who have worked tirelessly day and night to at least somehow make life easier for the unfortunate people who have fallen under the Kremlin’s ruthless steamroller.

Translated by Suzanne Eade Roberts and Mark Nuckols