Ella Pamfilova Elected Head of Russian Central Elections Commission; Vows ‘Fundamental’ Change

March 28, 2016
Russian human rights ombudsperson Ella Pamfilova meets with President Vladimir Putin | Kremlin press office, November 2014

LIVE UPDATES: Ella Pamfilova, the Russian ombudsperson for human rights, has been appointed as head of the Central Elections Commission and is promising major changes

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Ella Pamfilova Elected as Head of Russian Central Elections Commission; Vows ‘Fundamental’ Change

Ella Pamfilova, the Russian ombudsperson for human rights, has been appointed as head of the Central Elections Commission and is promising major changes, Novaya Gazeta reported, citing RIA Novosti and TASS.
Among the changes is a decision to reduce the number of deputies to just one.
Pamfilova was elected by 14 members of the CEC; there was only one vote for the alternative candidate, Sergei Sirotkin. Ten of the members of the CEC are chosen by the State Duma and Federation Council, respectively, and 5 by President Vladimir Putin. Pamfilova was proposed by Putin along with four others including Aleksandr Kinev, head of the anti-monopoly service and Boris Ebzeyev, former Constitutional Court judge, State Duma deputy Vasily Likhachyov and Yevgeny Shevchenko, member of Patriots of Russia party.
“We will fundamentally change a lot, that I can promise you,” she said.
Even so, the new chair promised not to change “everything and anything” but preliminarily assess the situation, although there is not a lot of time for “ramping up” (translation by The Interpreter):

“We will be absolutely open to cooperation. And we will try in the small amount of time that remains before the elections to meet with everyone to the maximum extent, who has specific proposals, how we can ensure the transparency, cleanliness and fairness of the upcoming elections.”

Pamfilova said she plans to meet with her predecessor Vladimir Churov and other former chairs of the commission to hear their advice.

A test of Pamfilova’s liberalism is whether she will recognize the participation of candidates from the opposition in the September parliamentary election such as Andrei Pivovarov, head of the opposition’s Democratic Opposition in Kostroma, who was arrested last year and has now been released on bail.

Pivovarov was accused of breaking the law when he asked police to check signatures gathered to put him on the ballot because he suspected deliberate fraud in order to set him up. 

At a time when the Kremlin is only further cracking down on the opposition and civic groups, why appoint a liberal to this powerful position?

The answer is that not only was Churov enormously discredited for obvious participation in the fraud that kept Putin in power; the United Party, the Kremlin’s vehicle to stay in power, has also widely suffered reputational damage with poor management and outright corruption. In order to gain democratic legitimacy, a goal the Kremlin still pursues, it had to at least feign a clean- up of the system.

Then there’s another agenda beyond elections, if indeed they allow a few opposition members actually to gain seats in the parliament: to continue making them a magnet for criticism regarding perceived foreign and “fifth column” plots to undermine the regime, and to make them bear the blame for Putin’s economic failures. 

Pamfilova is remembered by many as a “perestroika liberal” who was among the members of the Interregional Group of Deputies (MDG), the first legal opposition faction in the Soviet-era Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, created by democrats Gavril Popov, Andrei Sakharov and others to challenge the leading role of the Communist Party.
Even non-system opposition still view Pamfilova as a liberal within the Kremlin regime although the limits of her influence can be seen notably with the fate of Golos, a non-governmental group that once critically monitored elections and was among the first to be declared a “foreign agent”. Pamfilova challenged this designation in court and was reported as having won the suit.
But in fact the designation was not removed from the “foreign agents” registry as reported although this continues to be claimed
In September 2015, the Justice Ministry entered Golos into the list although by that time it had ceased functioning and no longer received grants from foreign foundations.
In February of this year, the Justice Ministry said it intended to liquidate Golos, citing “infractions.” Golos says on its charter that its mission is to “conduct independent observation of elections.” But under Russian law, says the Justice Ministry, foundations cannot monitor elections
While Pamfilova is believed to have interceded with Putin on behalf of some human rights causes, she also makes it clear that she is part of the system. Recently, she reprimanded the Russian lawyers of imprisoned Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko for criticizing the Russian court system but then appealing to that same system to extradite their client to Ukraine.
“This is an oxymoron — Russian attorneys who do not recognize the judicial system. I believe this is a dead end,” she said, although the lawyers were doing their jobs appealing to legal principles.

“I do not have the right to interfere neither in the course of the investigation nor in the judicial process, I have the right to interfere only when the appeal is submitted,” she said. This is a common but not credible posture of Kremlin officials when anyone complains about the injustices of the system.

Whether Pamfilova will ultimately be a liberal enabler or mitigator of Putin’s authoritarianism remains to be seen, but either way, the outcome will likely be “managed democracy.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick