NGO Golos Pays Record $18,290 Fine for ‘Foreign Agent’ Status

April 19, 2016
The banner of Golos, the election-moniitoring movement

LIVE UPDATES: The Golos Association, an NGO that independently monitored elections, has been fined 1.2 million rubles ($18,290) for violating the law on “foreign agents

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

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Opposition Candidates Withdraw from Barvikha Elections, Citing Fraud; Blame Pamfilova, Who Denounces Them

A dispute over early voting in elections in Barvikha, a prestigious suburb of Moscow where many government leaders have their dachas or country homes, has pitted some vocal opposition members against the President Vladimir Putin’s chosen head of the Central Elections Commission, Ella Pamfilova.

Pamfilova, formerly the ombudsperson on human rights, is often described as a liberal who has opposed harsh measures like the “foreign agents” designation for some NGOs. There was both hope and skepticism from opposition groups regarding her appointment, which Putin appeared to maneuver in a bid to make the already-controlled September parliamentary elections appear more free.

Anna Litvinenko, Vitaly Serukanov and Stanislav (Stas) Volkov, members of the unregistered opposition Party of Progress led by Alexei Navalny, among the main leaders of the Russian opposition, as well as Ivan Zhdanov, the lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund and Georgy Alburov,  a staff member of the Fund, decided to run in Barvikha to test the system.

Nataliya Zotova of Novaya Gazeta wrote, the opposition had decided to make Barvikha a test in fact for Pamfilova.

Barvikha, population 16,000, has some of the highest per capita budget expenditures in the country due to the government vacation homes. There are still some very poor people who live in either old wooden homes or the crumbling five-storey Soviet-era apartment buildings, and of course an untold army of domestic employees and construction workers and handymen serving the dachas, mainly labor migrants from Central Asia.

Along the Rublyovskoye Highway out of Moscow, there are billboards for custom tailored suits and “elite pawn shops” and a real estate agency  with the slogan,  “Happiness is having a home and family in Russia” — perhaps a hint that many officials send their families abroad for education and vacations because of sub-standard conditions in Russia.

The opposition chose this location to make a point  — this is the area where sometimes they have uncovered top officials living far beyond their means in opulent homes. Alburov, who had a residence in the area, thought that with a seat on the local town council he might obtain access to property records and challenge corruption more effectively. 

A  local issue driving the election concerned a plan alleged to be afoot to merge Barvikha with another community, Odintsovo, which would then cost Barvikha some of its generous government subsidies. 

Zotova snapped a picture of Tajik men registering to vote at the election commission in Barvikha. She said many of them were indicating an address that in fact was the home of the United Russia candidate in the elections, Elena Zhdanova, whose last name was even on the gate of the yard. The license plate of the van being used to bring the Central Asian workers to vote turned out to belong to a car owned by Zhdanova’s daughter.

The liberal opposition were not the only ones challenging the United Russia machine in this particular district. Polina Kozlova, a candidate from the ill-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia chaired by Vladimir Zhirinovsky familiar with the local practices was cynical about the obvious bussing in of voters:

“I see Barvikha, Ltd is going on vacation in full complement. They know the Barvikha residents coming to vote by sight and are laughing, it’s a village, everyone knows everyone else. This is our governing company. And a day before the elections there is a subbotnik [clean-up day] they always bring them here by force! What vacations?”

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But Novaya Gazeta’s Zotova then learned that Zhdanova wasn’t embarrassed at all, and had a detailed explanation rather than any denials about her seemingly fraudulent behavior:

 “I am an entrepreneur, and one of the areas of my activity is renting out residences. When the election campaign began, there was a lot of mud-slinging about who lived with me and what ethnicity they were. I grew tired of explaining on every corner that I have citizens of Russia living with me and labor contracts.” 

The early voting of these residents is in the order of things. “These are workers who come to Moscow to earn money, many of them by serving as watchmen. Moreover, soon it will be Palm Sunday, and people from the regions will go to visit the graves of their relatives.” She admitted that the Gazel (at least once) did bring several voters to the precinct. ‘I don’t see anything criminal in this.”

Her implication was evidently that because many Barvikha residents would be traveling during the Russian Orthodox holiday Palm Sunday to their relatives’ graves, a Russian custom, the Central Asians who were mainly Muslims and wouldn’t celebrate that holiday would be left to watch their employers’ homes while they were away and wouldn’t be able to come and vote. 

But on the other hand, Zotova saw the precinct building by turns empty and then so full a line extended down the hallway, with many of those unable to explain why they needed to vote early. One election worker reprimanded a man, telling him that he had already been to vote there before.

The opposition candidates met with Pamfilova earlier this week to express their concerns about what they observed, she acknowledged there was some fraud and promised to take action. But given that this might take 30 days, and with the election only 6 days away, the opposition candidates didn’t think problems would be corrected soon enough.

Then they saw things get worse. 

Opposition observers had earlier seen “carousel” voting, a technique whereby authorities bus around people from one poll to another and have them vote multiple times. Now they saw more of it.

At one point, the lights even went off, and when they were turned on, there were less votes than were registered. 

Translation: News from Barvikha: electricity outage, the light in the commission building went out. Nature doesn’t stand for the scam which is being perpetrated there : )

Translation: The lights went out in Barvikha. You’re going to laugh. The observer counted 52 voters, but there are only 44 envelopes. Mysticism. Now there will be a recount.

The local pro-government elections commission seemed to be relieved.

Translation: an observer says about the turnout in Barvikha: it was cut off starting at 18:00. Navalny’s post about the removal of the candidates appeared at 17:12. “Coincidence?” (c)

But there were confusing reports as to whether all the opposition candidates were now taking themselves off the ballot due to obvious election fraud. Novaya Gazeta reported reported that four out of the five candidates had decided to withdraw themselves. Then Slon ran an explanation:

Translation: Correction: Zhdanov, the main lawyer of the Anti-Corruption Foundation has decided that he will not remove himself from the ballot.

More importantly, the issue became whether the opposition was correct in their findings of fraud and had applied the law on withdrawing from elections correctly or not — or whether Pamfilova was right that the fraud was not significant, and they didn’t know that regulations would prevent them from withdrawing so late.

Pamfilova made a tart statement claiming the opposition didn’t know the law, Novaya Gazeta reported, citing Govit Moskvaand TASS. In an interview with Govorit Moskva, Panfilova said (translation by The Interpreter):  

This is an expected scenario. The illiterate little boys’ nerves didn’t hold out, they know the law poorly. Well, that’s their problem.  

This does not affect my work in any way and the work of the commission in general. We are operating according to our plan, and they according to theirs. they demand the resignation of Pamfilova over elections, for which I don’t have any responsibility in general. Without waiting for any of our actions after yesterday’s meeting. That is, understandably, no matter what I did, they decided to make of me some sort of scarecrow, monster, that’s what they will do.” 

She said the Barvikha situation would be reviewed at a planned meeting on Wednesday.

Irek Vildanov, chairman of the Moscow Region Electoral Commission, who did have direct responsibility for these elections, refuted the claim that there were violations in Barvikha:  

“It’s true, the percentage of those voting early is something higher than usual. But out of 200 who voted early, only 30 had ‘fresh’ registration, and the rest have lived for a long time in Barvikha.” 

He said he would take no action.

” But what can be done? These are residents of Barvikha. They say they can’t be here on the day of elections, that they are working.”

He added that the opposition candidates who had submitted statements that they were removing themselves from the ballot had not indicated the reasons, so technically, they still remained on the ballot.

But the opposition, starting with Navalny objected directly to Pamfilova and said she had the facts wrong. 

Translation: I wonder to what extent the head of the Central Elections Commission and the head of the Moscow Region Elections Commission don’t know their own law.

He cited a Facebook post from Vyacheslav Gimadi noting that the Moscow Region commissioner who had said the candidates would not be allowed to remove themselves contradicted regulations that said a candidate in fact could in fact remove himself up to 5 days before the elections — which would be today, April 19. 

He then concluded:

“So let Vildanov and Pamfilov not humiliate themselves in front of the whole country, before citizens, the monitoring and legal community unlss they want to show everyone that the botton has been punched through finally and they have nothing to lose.”

Zhdanov then posted a screenshot of the election commission’s own calendar that showed that today, April 19, would be the deadline for removal from the ballot:

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He then called for Pamfilova to step down from the commission.

A solo protester also appeared in front of the election commission.

Then some of the sardonic comments began; this one is about state TV coverage.

Translation: Devoted to “honest elections” in Barvikha. With initiative by Ella Pamfilova. “Now we will clap.”
Translation: the elections in Barvikha already remind me of the movie “Naked Gun.”

And further arguments about the facts:

Translation: @navalny You must all understand that Pamfilova personally is irrelevant. And in general it’s not a fact that the letter of the law was violated.

Translation: Well, yeah, strictly by the law, 100 Tajiks were registered in one apartment and then brought to vote. Panfilova is not to blame. 

The question now is whether either Pamfilova or Navalny and his people will back down from their rhetoric.

“Carousel” voting or having factory owners or officials bus in people to make votes for certain candidates or multiple votes has often been called out in Russian elections by both domestic and foreign monitors.

Vitaly Serukanov, a staff member of Navalny’s Fund, said  they felt they had to resign in protest against Pamfilov’s lack of action about another issue they flagged, which has been dubbed “rubber homes,” i.e. fake voting registration addresses that many can “bounce” from to the polls.

The problem of the “rubber homes” where migrant laborers in particular are registered in efforts to stuff the ballot box has been called out in Russian elections in past years. Putin himself got involved in stopping it, and the State Duma passed a law mandating stiff fines for officials caught making false registrations. But it persists among the main means of stuffing the ballot box in favor of regime-approved candidates. Said Serukanov:

“Pamfilova didn’t take any measures, she simply sent a representative who was simply nominally present and didn’t play any role, and evidently doesn’t plan to play one. What happened in Barvikha are not elections but a farce, and we are inclined to accuse Pamfilova specifically for this. After all, these were little elections [but] with federal significance, and they were followed closely.” 

Georgy Alburov, another staff member for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund who was sentenced to community service last year in a contrived “art theft” case involving a street artist’s sketch said he and his colleagues had tried to deal with the election process in good faith but announced their withdrawal when they felt no one would address what seemed to be obvious outrages.

“Early voting has been going on for three days in the election for deputies. During these days, 189 people voted. The majority of these 189 are voting in our district. These people were all registered in Barvikha one or two weeks ago, and they were all registered at the same addresses.”

Alburov said the decision was difficult after spending so much time campaigning with voters. 

While some might perceive the opposition as too hasty and using up all their ammunition early in the elections, they evidently felt that they had to take a strong stand against this type of fraud early on. There is still time for Pamfilova to correct this particular situation, and ironically, the opposition people may be left on the ballot due to a technicality or at least some interpretation of regulations.

Navalny has posted a straw poll on Twitter:

Translation: 20% of the ballots were dropped before the meeting with the head of the Central Elections Commission. After — another 10%. Should Pamfilova resign?

As of this hour, 60%  of those responding — which could include non-Russians and of course bots and trolls — were in favor of the Barvikha elections “as is,” and 40% were for Pamfilova resigning. 

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

NGO Golos Pays Record $18,290 Fine for ‘Foreign Agent’ Status
The Golos Association, an NGO that independently monitored elections, has been fined 1.2 million rubles ($18,290) for violating the law on “foreign agents,” reported.
Activists in the group failed to put the “foreign agent” label on their publications and web site, as required by law, Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the group’s council told RBC.
Melkonyants said a court proceeding to issue the fine took place on April 11 without his organization’s involvement, because they were informed about the imposition of the fine only on April 15. A court official told Golos that the bailiffs had not found their address.
The Ministry of Justice sent a complaint about Golos to Roskomnadzor, the state censor, in early March about the failure to include the “foreign agent” label and also said the group was functioning as election observers, with an implication that this was against the law. The State Duma recently passed a law reducing the number of observers and requiring that they can only observe one polling station and must register in advance at least 3 days before the vote.
Golos was declared a “foreign agent” in 2014 and put on the registry of such organizations maintained by the Ministry of Justice. The organization was then forced to cease its work and decided to found a movement by the same name instead, and not register as a legal person so as not to be declared an agent.

Although human rights ombudsperson Ella Pamfilova appealed to a court and won a ruling in favor of Golos, this had no effect ultimately on the Justice Ministry.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick