Political activism is nearly as old as human civilization, but using digital and online technologies to drive it is a 21st-century twist. This case study looks at the design, execution and outcome of a new kind of election in Russia. The use of technology to drive voter registration, ensure fairness, and to help provide legitimacy in a situation where legitimacy is critical, is arguably Russia’s biggest experiment in genuine democracy in recent years.
The Russian political climate in the early 2000s offered few civic alternatives for those who disagreed with Vladimir Putin’s policies. Various opposition parties were formed, but ultimately failed. By 2011, Russian society was seeing a growth in civic and political activism, increased public concern about corruption, and widespread frustration with government’s abuse of power. Helped by digital media, news about observed fraud in the 2011 Duma elections sparked an unprecedented wave of protests, many of which were led by an organizing committee of protest activities or Orgkomitet. To solidify its future, the Orgkomitet asked opposition activist and IT specialist Leonid Volkov to organize the election of an Opposition Coordinating Council, which would serve as a legitimate representative body of the protest movement. The elections had to be free and fair, all candidates would have equal opportunities and be allowed to campaign via social media, voting would take place simultaneously online and offline, and any attempts to manipulate election results had to be prevented.
In spite of government resistance, the vote was carried out and achieved its overarching goal of electing forty five new counsel members. For a number of reasons, including candidates who did not to run and lower than expected voter turnout, the goal of uniting the opposition movement was only partly achieved. The most important result of the project, however was not the creation of a Coordinating Council or an election system, but the experiment in democracy. Hundreds people learned what it was like to participate in election and to compete against other candidates; thousands for the first time felt that their votes counted.
After a brief period of chaotic but pluralistic proto-democracy in the 1990s, the Russian political system became increasingly authoritarian after Vladimir Putin rose to power in 2000. The new president quickly established control over bureaucracy, both on the federal and regional levels, national media, and big business (formerly known as the oligarchs). Opposition parties faced a tough choice: either accept the status quo and give up their ambitions of coming to power or be ejected from the political system and marginalized. The majority of parliamentary opposition (including the Communist Party, nationalist-populist Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia, and, with some reservations, liberals from the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko) chose the former option. However, at the same time, a more radical (although nonviolent) wing of the opposition was forming, spurred on by the increasing monopolization of power by Putin’s cronies and inspired by democratic breakthroughs in Georgia and especially Ukraine. This movement used street protests, online activism, and other forms of grassroots activities to challenge the regime and was often referred to as “non-systemic opposition”—as opposed to the “systemic opposition” that operates through Russia’s parliament. “Non-systemic” activists accused their “systemic” counterparts of being collaborators and puppets of the regime; “systemic” activists accused their rivals of being demagogues and provocateurs.
Opposition groups were also divided by ideological boundaries and personal rivalries between leaders. Non-systemic opposition groups were naturally more diverse than their systemic counterparts and consisted of dozens of small groups, some of which had just a handful of activists. But since, unlike elected groups, they didn’t have to compete for votes, non-systemic groups were better at cooperating with each other than the systemic opposition. For instance, an opposition coalition called The Other Russia was formed in 2006 and organized a series of major protests over the next several years under the name of Dissenters’ Marches. The coalition included several liberal organizations (following Russian tradition, most of them called themselves ‘movements’ even if they were small), the radical left-wing National Bolshevik Party, and some small right-wing groups. The coalition was headed by three well-known political leaders and formally managed by a Political Council, later renamed the Executive Committee. However, it eventually fell apart in 2009 due to infighting among its leaders.
The Other Russia attempted to create an even broader opposition coalition in 2007—2008. Several months before the scheduled 2007 Duma (lower house of the Parliament) elections, they organized meetings in fifty-seven of Russia’s eighty-six regions that were attended by about three thousand opposition supporters. The meetings, dubbed “opposition primaries,” were used to choose a united opposition presidential candidate and 374 coalition’s candidates for Duma elections. However, the authorities prevented all of the selected candidates from taking part in the actual elections and thus the whole campaign became merely a demonstration of defiance. In May 2008 these candidates were joined by representatives of other organizations to form National Assembly—a body representing a broad spectrum of non-systemic opposition and protest groups. This was perhaps the most ambitious attempt to unite and institutionalize the diverse opposition movement.
However, the Assembly never managed to gain significant support from ordinary Russians. There are several possible explanations for their lack of success: general political apathy in the country, marginalization of the opposition, little legitimacy of the Assembly members even compared to the Duma deputies who won rigged 2007 elections. Few people saw any significant political force or portion of the population behind this body. Having been elected by mere three thousand people (out of approximately 107 million of Russian electorate), the Assembly members could not consider themselves representatives of the Russian society, or even of “the discontent.” The Assembly itself was also bureaucratic and prone to infighting, which contributed to its eventual demise as a force in Russian politics. Although the Assembly still formally exists, it has little influence over popular political discourse and its work is dominated by utopian projects and internal debates.
Although this project was generally considered a failure, it was an early example of the use of democratic procedures to give the opposition movement a representative leadership. One of the principal heroes of this case study, Fyodor Krasheninnikov, says that he “knew almost nothing” about the National Assembly. He also points to two flaws of that election: its closed, internal character (“poetry for poets”, as he puts it) and using offline technology that, according to Krasheninnikov, can be easily abused by the regime. But perhaps the most significant difference between 2007 and 2012 was the level of activism that in the latter case allowed for a much more sophisticated, well-organized and large-scale system that we will be examining in this study.
The Duma elections of December 2011 ignited a wave of protests unprecedented in Russia’s recent history. Rallies held across the country, but concentrated in big cities, gathered as many as 120,000 participants—a figure that would have been unthinkable just several months earlier. The protests were sparked by numerous reports of fraud published by independent election observers who effectively utilized new media to distribute their findings. The unrest was also a result of overall development of the Russian society: growing civic and political activism, increased public concern about corruption, widespread frustration with government’s about abuse of power. The protesters formulated their five demands:
- Immediate release of all political prisoners.
- Invalidation of the results of the falsified [Parliamentary] elections.
- Resignation of [Central Electoral Commission Chief Vladimir] Churov; investigation of his activities; investigation of all facts of irregularities and fraud; punishment of those responsible.
- Registration of opposition parties; adoption of democratic legislation on political parties and elections.
- Holding new open [i.e. transparent] and fair elections.
Only one of these demands was met, partially: the government agreed to amend the electoral laws to significantly simplify the registration of political parties and their participation in elections. Apparently, this step was taken to defuse tension and redirect activists’ energy from protesting to party-building—and to competing among themselves. However, protests actually intensified, even after Vladimir Putin was declared the winner of the March 2012 Presidential election in the first round. On the eve of Putin’s inauguration, a large rally ended in clashes with the police. The incident, apparently provoked by the authorities, served as a pretext for a large-scale crackdown on the opposition. Tougher police measures and multiple new restrictive laws passed swiftly by the Duma contributed to a growing atmosphere of fear in the country.
In mid-2012, facing mounting pressure from the authorities and having few achievements to speak of, the protest movement approached a serious internal crisis. One of its persistent problems was the fragmentation of the opposition. While most opposition groups cooperated during the major rallies, there was little coordination of their activities between those events. More importantly, the vast majority of participants did not belong to any organizations. As a result, political leaders of the “old” opposition could not claim to represent these masses of people while the new “rising stars” were yet to build strong public support. This fragmentation impacted all aspects of the movement’s work, from operational issues such as deciding the time, location, and format of the next rally, to organizing negotiations with the regime.
Various attempts were made to form a leadership team to steer the movement. An Organizational Committee of Protest Activities (also known as the Orgkomitet) was established early on to prepare rallies, which was effectively a club of self-proclaimed opposition leaders without a clear mandate or strict membership. Several months later, another group of activists—including journalists, bloggers and writers—founded the Voters’ League, another body with a vague agenda that called on its supporters to “join the League and actively participate in the struggle for fair elections.” These and other attempts to unite the movement faced a problem: they could not provide a clear justification for why the movement’s supporters should trust and follow them. As unelected groups, they lacked legitimacy. As Krasheninnikov put it, “the people who were talking about fair representation [in the government] were in effect never elected by anyone.”
Planning an Election
On July 31, 2012, the Orgkomitet formally decided to organize an election of an opposition Coordinating Council, which was to become the legitimate representative body of the protest movement. It was not a new idea. Political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov proposed the solution in January 2012, just a month after the protests had erupted: “Everyone who is unhappy with Putin (and those who are happy with Putin and are ready to justify his right to future leadership) should meet on an Internet site where… after a discussion, demands and leaders of the civil society will be elected through universal direct voting.” He was referring to a specific online platform called Democratia 2 developed in 2011 by Krasheninnikov together with a Yekaterinburg opposition activist and IT specialist Leonid Volkov. In addition to social network functionality, the website allowed users to hold polls, which, as the site creators claimed, were fraud-proof. The project was supported by some prominent opposition figures including the popular anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny and the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. However, Krasheninnikov admits that “by the time the protests started, the project wasn’t popular enough,” which prevented its practical use. The idea was shelved, but Volkov and Krasheninnikov kept promoting it among opposition activists.
So, when the Orgkomitet decided to hold elections, Leonid Volkov was asked to organize it. He proposed the formation of the so-called Central Election Committee (CEC)—an analogue of the official Central Electoral Commission of the Russian Federation (CECRF)— to manage the project. Volkov suggested that the CEC should include representatives of election monitoring organizations and that the three major ideological camps (sometimes referred to as curias)—the liberals, the leftists, and the conservatives or nationalists—would have equal representation. This idea found support and the seven-member CEC was fully operational by mid-August.
On August 1 Volkov announced the election in his LiveJournal blog. It was the first of dozens of posts that Volkov would dedicate to the project over the next weeks. Voting was initially scheduled for October 7, Vladimir Putin’s birthday. Later, it was extended to last two days, and the date was shifted to October 20—21. The Coordinating Council would consist of forty-five members elected from four lists of candidates: left-wing, liberals, nationalists (five members each), and the general list (thirty members). Every voter would have forty-five votes and would be able to choose candidates from all of the lists, regardless of his or her own ideological inclination. Voting was to take place simultaneously online and offline. At first, it was planned that offline voters would use paper ballots, but ultimately laptops were provided at polling stations.
In August the CEC was busy developing election rules, designing the technological platform, and promoting the project on the Internet. Its task was clear: the elections had to be free and fair, all candidates were to have equal opportunities, and any attempts to manipulate election results had to be prevented. In contrast to national elections that have become heavily regulated by federal legislation under Putin, the Coordinating Council elections were to use minimal regulations, with only the most necessary and only practically enforceable restrictions. All disputes would be judged “based on common sense.”
Not everyone in the protest movement approved of the project. While some critics were skeptical about the team’s technical ability to organize the elections, others warned of possible negative side effects. Election expert Professor Grigory Golosov suggested, for instance, that core opposition activists—more radical than other movement supporters—were the most likely to turn out to vote. Therefore, they would elect the most radical representatives, which would result in deterring moderate supporters from joining the movement. He also warned that competition would deepen tensions between candidates and that “the damage from escalating conflicts will eclipse any positive effects of the procedure.”
The government was even more critical. A member of the CECRF (which organizes all official elections) Maya Grishina and her former colleague Igor Borisov, warned of the possible security risks for individuals providing their personal data to the CEC. Names, phone numbers, and even bank account credentials could leak on the Internet, the officials said. They also voiced skepticism over the accuracy and representativeness of the result. Volkov replied to their first criticism by claiming that the system did not store any personal data at all and thus nothing could possibly “leak out.” In fact, the system did store phone numbers associated with voters’ accounts (it was said to be made in order to allow for later selective survey of voters and for ensuring that they were real) while other personally identifiable information such as names and dates of birth was stored as hashes, that is using a one-way encryption.
Registration of Candidates
The election campaign started on August 20 when candidate registration opened. In order to appear on the ballot, every candidate had to:
- be a Russian citizen aged at least eighteen;
- share the fundamental goals and values of the Russian protest movement as expressed in resolutions of mass rallies in December 2011—June 2012;
- pay an organizational fee of 10,000 rubles (about $300);
- fill out an online form (including his or her name, birthdate, contact information, brief description and a bio) and attach a photo, a scan of one’s passport, and a fee receipt.
The organizational fee was non-refundable (unless the candidate was denied registration) and was the main source of funding of the election. To be included in one of the three “ideological” lists (liberal, left-wing, or nationalist), a candidate had to be recognized by the appropriate member of the CEC as a representative of a corresponding ideology.
These rules were much more liberal than those used for official elections, even at the local level. For instance, in order to become a member of a municipal council in an average Moscow district (approximately 50,000—100,000, ten to fifteen members of a council), a candidate has to file numerous forms, financial reports, documentary proofs of all biographical data and to collect several dozen signatures. Any mistake or inconsistency in these documents is enough to invalidate the candidate—a tactic that is used extensively by the authorities to disqualify strong opposition candidates. There are also a number of restrictions on who may run as a candidate: for example, a citizen who holds a foreign residence permit is disqualified automatically.
The most controversial part of Coordinating Council rules was, of course, the second requirement—to be committed to the protest movement’s goals and values—because it was inherently subjective. There was no formal way to define these “goals and values” or to verify a candidate’s commitment to them. This uncertainty caused several scandals that marred the registration process.
On September 7 the CEC denied the registration of Maksim “Hatchet” Martsinkevich, a notorious neo-Nazi and former leader of the skinhead grouping Format 18, who had spent three years in prison for “incitement of ethnic hatred.” Martsinkevich, who had previously criticized and threatened opposition activists, was believed by some (including most nationalist groups) to be acting as a Kremlin stooge and seeking to discredit the elections. The CEC justified its decision to exclude Martsinkevich by saying that he had “repeatedly publicly expressed his categorical denial of goals and values of the protest movement.” Volkov added that had Martsinkevich been registered, it would undermine the election and deter some voters and candidates. However, Leonid Volkov himself voted against this decision explaining that it would also alienate some voters (like radical liberals and radical nationalists) and would give the Kremlin an opportunity to attack the election procedure.
The decision was controversial: some liberals argued that the denial of registration was the same as the government’s filtering of unwanted candidates. Others pointed to the fact that another registered candidate Boris Stomakhin had publicly endorsed Chechen separatism and terrorism while yet another one, Nikolay Korolyov, was serving a life sentence for a racially motivated terrorist attack. In an attempt to quell criticism, the Orgkomitet cancelled the registrations of Stomakhin and Korolyov on September 21, noting that it held authority over the CEC. However, this caused additional outcry because the Orgkomitet was seen as less legitimate and transparent than the CEC. The scandal was, unsurprisingly, seized on by Kremlin-aligned media as evidence that the opposition movement was divided. While it is unlikely that the incident influenced the election outcome—neither of these unregistered candidates had any serious chances of winning—it did, to some extent, undermine the project’s overall credibility.
Aside from this scandal, candidate registration proceeded relatively smoothly. The first five candidates appeared three days into the campaign, but only one of them was well-known: Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Solidarnost movement. Fyodor Krasheninnikov, who unlike Leonid Volkov was not a member of the CEC and therefore was eligible to stand, also submitted his application on day one.
An average of three candidates registered every day for the majority of the campaign, which lasted from August 20 to September 15. In the final week of registration, the rate doubled, and in the last three days, 112 applications were submitted, more than a half the total number. The CEC was overwhelmed and it took them seven or eight days to process candidates’ documents, instead of the usual one or two days.
It is interesting to note that the “strongest” candidates—those who would eventually win the election—registered in two waves. A small group of “evangelists” applied during the first three days, but the majority preferred to wait. Only after Garry Kasparov and Alexey Navalny entered the campaign, on September 2 and 4, respectively, did the other “strong” candidates join in (see figure below). This pattern resembles a typical “bandwagon effect”: political leaders, initially uncertain about the seriousness of the project and cautious about becoming involved, felt compelled to participate as the number of influential candidates increased. The participation of well-known figures like Navalny greatly increased the political weight of the future Council and, therefore, benefits of competing for a seat in it. The “weak” candidates—those who did not win—were less likely to be encouraged by the presence of well-known candidates, since they had little political reputation to lose, and a growth in the number of strong competitors reduced their chances of success.
Figure 1: Percentage of “strong” candidates (eventual winners) among all registered candidates. Horizontal axis: date of registration.
As mentioned above, the candidate list was divided into four sections: civil, left-wing, liberal, and nationalist. This was done in order to prevent one or several flanks of the protest movement from being left completely out of the Coordinating Council and to guarantee at least some representation to all camps. In order to be included in one of the latter three ideological groups, a candidate had to be approved by that group’s respective member of the CEC. Each of the groups had its own rules for deciding whom to approve and this was not regulated by the CEC. In effect, these groups acted as ‘black boxes’, receiving candidates’ names and deciding whether that person was eligible to join their group or not. Though this approach was hardly transparent, it worked in most cases and there were few disputes.
Even though participation fees were reduced for left-wing and nationalist candidates, only forty candidates registered for these three lists (2.7 candidates per seat). 169 registered for the general “civil” list (5.6 candidates per seat). As a result, some lesser-known activists were elected to the Coordinating Council through the ideological lists.
Regional Election Committees
The decision to hold the election simultaneously both online and offline was adopted because a significant number of potential voters still had very limited or no Internet access. Although Volkov disliked the idea, he acknowledged that offline voter registration and voting was essential “even though it’s a hell of a hell.”
Creating a network of offline voter registration/polling stations, the Regional Election Committees (RECs), was a daunting task in a huge country like Russia, especially with the CEC’s limited resources. A reactive rather than a proactive strategy was adopted: the CEC would respond to initiatives from local organizers, register the RECs and provide assistance where necessary. REC operations were defined broadly by CEC documents and occasional communications. RECs were eligible for small grants from the CEC to fund the rental of office space.
Fifty-eight RECs were operational by election day, covering thirty-eight regions, as well as five other countries. The author of this study was the Chief of the Washington DC REC. There were fewer RECs than the number of meetings that had elected the Other Russia candidates (later to become members of the National Assembly) in 2007, but thanks to introduction of online voting, residents of all parts of Russia had, at least, in theory, an opportunity to vote.
Voter Registration and Verification
One of the cornerstones of contemporary democracy is the principle of “one man, one vote.” Implementing this notion in practice is not a trivial task on the Internet and widespread fear and mistrust of online fraud does not make it easier. The CEC therefore had two central goals that were not entirely complementary:
- to make the registration process highly secure, to ensure that only eligible voters would be registered (i.e. Russian citizens aged eighteen or above) and that each voter could only vote once;
- to make the process smooth, simple, and accessible regardless of a voter’s location.
The CEC divided the process into two parts: voter registration and voter verification (see figure below).
Voter registration could be completed online. To register online, a voter had to complete a form with his full name, birth date, mobile phone number, e-mail address and a password. The system checked to ensure that there were no duplicates; the electronic address and the phone number were then verified using codes sent by e-mail and SMS and the voter was included in a database. Only the individual’s phone number and e-mail were stored, while his name and birth date were hashed in order to protect voter’s identity. This procedure made him eligible to vote offline, but not online. The process only guaranteed, to some degree, that there would be no massive armies of “bots”, that is fake accounts, in the lists (because having to operate large numbers of SIM cards would be too costly). Voter registration closed before voting began, to reduce the chance of last-minute manipulations.
In order to be able to vote online, voters had to be verified. This could be done offline (at RECs) or online. For offline verification, the voter had to show her domestic passport (which all Russian citizens are supposed to have) to a REC officer, who then marked the voter as “verified” in the system’s back-end. Passport data was not transmitted or stored, satisfying the concerns of most cautious voters. Online voters could use a variety of methods of verification, such as transferring a specific, randomly generated amount of money from their bank account, or simply submitting their photo along with their passport. The verification process ensured that every voter on the list corresponded to one real, eligible person.
Figure 2: Possible routes for registration, verification and voting process.
Promotion and Campaigning
It was obvious that success of the project depended largely on securing a high turnout. Even the best-organized election with impeccable rules and a sophisticated technical platform would have little political significance if only a small circle of hardcore activists participated in it. But the broader the audience, the harder it would be for those voters to make informed decisions when choosing forty-five names from a list of over two hundred. Few opposition leaders were well-known among the general population, and many newcomers to the protest movement in the previous year were often unaware of the different positions political leaders held.
This presented the CEC with another two-fold task: to promote the election while helping voters get to know the candidates and make well-informed choices. Here we’ll discuss several ways in which the CEC pursued these aims.
Perhaps the single most important event in achieving both goals was a series of recorded debates held at an independent RainTV (Dozhd) channel. The station, available online and on some cable and satellite networks, had a weekly audience of approximately 2.6 million viewers in October 2012 and was the fifth most cited TV channel in the country. As a channel that openly sympathized with the protest movement, it was also one of the very few mass media that would host such a program.
The debates continued for three weeks and, in some ways, resembled a sports competition. All 215 registered candidates were allowed to participate in the first round; sixty would make it to the semi-final and only twenty to the final round. Winners were determined by voting on the CEC website (only verified voters could participate) and, in a few cases, on the RainTV website (anyone could vote). It proved to be a good indicator of candidates’ electoral chances: 15 of the 20 finalists (75 percent) and 27 of the 60 semi-finalists (45 percent) were eventually elected to the Coordinating Council.
A writing competition was organized in a somewhat similar manner, but with much less success. All candidates were invited to write essays on how they viewed the format, goals, and tasks of the Coordinating Council. The winners of an online vote were asked to write another essay on how Russia should be transformed after regime change; the finalists were then asked to write essays on a topic of their choice. The essays were posted anonymously to prevent biased voting. Eighty-six of the 215 candidates submitted their essays; fifty-one out of fifty-eight semi-finalists wrote the second round of essays; eighteen out of twenty submitted their final essays. Interestingly, only 5 of the 20 finalists (25 percent) were elected to the Coordinating Council and only 10 out of 58 of the semi-finalists (17 percent). None of the three winners of the contest became members of the Council. Voter turnout for the competition was not impressive, though: the most popular finalist only received 338 votes (compared to the 2,226 votes the winner of the final RainTV debate had received).
On September 27, the CEC website launched Political Compass, which allowed registered voters to check how their opinions on various issues correlated with those of the candidates. The Compass consisted of twenty-five statements ranging from ideological (e.g., “Labor migration of foreign citizens must be severely restricted”) to tactical (e.g., “Opposition politicians should focus on local and regional elections instead of mass street events”), to which the users might respond with one of five options, ranging from “Strongly agree” to “Strongly disagree.” Users’ responses were then compared to responses given by the candidates, and a list of the most matching candidates (and their answers) was generated. Users could mark some questions as unimportant or change their answers to refine their results.
Another feature introduced by the CEC during candidate registration was blocs. Any two or more candidates could form a bloc and candidates could be members of any number of blocs (some were members of as many as five blocs at the same time, although it didn’t deliver them victory). The blocs were mainly a decorative feature that might help voters identify candidates with similar views or backgrounds. There were twenty-four blocs, ranging in size from two members (the conveniently-named “Just Yura and Larisa”) to twenty members (“Let’s Bring Power Back to the People by Punishing Election Fraudsters”). Some blocs were formed ad hoc for the election, such as the “Real Deeds” bloc, while others explicitly or implicitly referred to existing groups, like “Solidarnost” or “Seven Candidates of Seven Projects”.
Candidates and blocs were allowed to campaign freely, without any financial or other restrictions. Since voters were scattered throughout the country and most were presumed to be Internet users, there was almost no offline campaigning. Some candidates created websites, published video addresses or discussed their ideas in blogs. Most used Facebook, Twitter or VK (the Russian analogue of Facebook) to engage potential supporters. The Cyrillic hashtag #выборыКС(CCelections) was a trending topic several times on Twitter Russia. Yandex finds 60,950 tweets with this hashtag between August 1 and October 19, 2012, and additional 27,605 during the three election days (Ocober 20—22).
Unsurprisingly, the regime did not welcome the opposition’s attempt to collaborate and mobilize their supporters. “Government’s resistance was quite strong and we felt it throughout the process,” says Volkov. It appears that the authorities tried not to prevent the election altogether, but to discredit it. Their “general idea was to turn the CC elections into one big scandal,” according to Volkov. So, instead of conventional police measures, they concentrated on more subtle and often sophisticated techniques.
The most serious attempt to undermine election’s legitimacy was connected with a project called MMM-2012, organized by convicted fraudster Sergey Mavrodi. Mavrodi became infamous in the 1990s when he stole up to $10 billion through a Ponzi scheme called MMM. Even though his name had become a synonym for “crook,” thousands of naïve citizens believed his promises of quick enrichment again in 2012. Although his schemes were apparently fraudulent and very overt, the authorities paid conspicuously little attention to his activities. This official inaction may be explained by the role Mavrodi simultaneously played in the campaign against the Coordinating Council elections.
The first thing Mavrodi attempted to do was to take over the Council by fielding sixty-four members of his scheme as candidates. All were denied registration by the CEC, which said the candidates were organizing a “planned provocation” and MMM was being used to force its members to vote. Unlike the Martsinkevich decision, this denial of registration didn’t raise serious criticism. Given the voting system used in Coordinating Council elections, whereby every voter can choose up to 45 candidates, consolidated voting could significantly alter the election outcome.
After his plan failed, Mavrodi claimed that he would still derail the elections. Mavrodi instructed all members of his MMM-2012 project to register to vote, thousands of whom did so. Later he blocked MMM-2012 accounts of those who hadn’t. At the same time, the CEC was quietly conducting their own investigation into voter registrations. The CEC was recording the websites that where registrants originated from and checked their phone numbers against the MMM database. This produced a list of about twenty thousand “suspicious” voters. On the eve of election, Mavrodi published a list of thirty-eight candidates who his supporters were to vote for. The list was mostly random—the point was to affect the election result and undermine the legitimacy of the future Council. The CEC then decided (a decision that was published only after the voting was over) to invalidate all ballots that followed the Mavrodi list from the voters who registered after Mavrodi had begun blocking their accounts (and therefore, in CEC’s opinion, “forced” members to register). This nullified 8,879 of approximately 16,600 votes that appeared to be cast by MMM members. The decision to invalidate only some of the votes was a compromise, Volkov said, but it did not change the result significantly: a complete elimination of all MMM votes would only have affected two candidates in the Council.
Mavrodi’s activities went further, however. MMM followers who had been denied registration filed official complaints saying that their organizational fees were “stolen” from them. The police, which had been turning a blind eye to MMM’s shady schemes, began investigating the alleged fraud. Even though the CEC claimed that the fees would be returned, the criminal case has not yet (as of March 2013) been closed, only “suspended.” Mavrodi’s supporters also organized several protests next to polling stations and the CEC headquarters in Moscow, denouncing the elections as dirty and fraudulent.
The second-biggest threat to the election after MMM was a DDoS attack on election day. Mere hours after voting opened at midnight October 20, a robust DDoS campaign brought down the servers and halted voting from homes and from RECs. Volkov says that despite the strength of the attacks, “they were preventable and our [system’s] breakdown was caused to a large extent by our own mistakes and not by the attacks.” The servers went up and down several times during the first election day, and the CEC decided to extend voting by twenty-four hours to ensure that everyone would be able to cast their votes. By the second day of the vote, October 21, system security was improved and it was able to repel subsequent attacks.
There were other attempts to discredit the project by taking advantage of the election’s relatively loose regulations. The failed candidacy of Maksim Martsinkevich is one example; another was the so-called “vote exchange.” An anonymous website, which some suggested was made by members of the pro-Kremlin Nashi group, claimed to be buying and selling votes, paying 350 rubles ($11) for each. The site’s creators claimed that they acted legally, citing the lack of explicit prohibition of voter bribery in the Election Statute. Despite fierce promotion of the project through spam and some publications, only about forty voters appear to have been linked to the site. Volkov claimed later that no votes were actually sold at the “vote exchange.”
More broadly, elements aligned with the regime attempted to undermine the election through a propaganda campaign, mostly in the state-controlled online media and by Kremlin-aligned bloggers. In some regions overt police measures were used, such as the search of Chelyabinsk REC conducted by FSB officers.
Voting and Results
Voting began at midnight on October 20. Verified voters could use one of three websites—one designed by the CEC team and two made separately—to cast their votes: these sites served as frontends, each with a slightly different user interface, but they all connected to a CEC server via an API to report votes. This architecture was used, as Volkov explains, for improved stability (so that a failure of or an attack against a frontend would not put down the whole system) and for portability to popular social networks like LiveJournal and VK.com (these were not implemented). The CEC server then checked whether the voter had been verified and had not already voted, and if so, recorded his choices. Votes for the four groups (the civic group and the three ideologically-aligned curias) were submitted separately, so that a voter could fill out only those choices that they were interested in. As mentioned earlier, one could select up to 30 candidates in the general list and up to five in each of the ideological lists. One could also vote against all candidates, although that course of action had no effect on the election outcome.
Offline polling stations organized by RECs opened at 8 AM local time and closed at 8 PM—the same schedule as Russian official elections (although the CC election lasted three days instead of one). Voting at polling stations was conducted in a similar manner to conventional online voting systems, using one of the same three frontends. Polling stations were also allowed to verify registered voters, which meant that voters who had not been unable to verify themselves earlier in the process had another opportunity to do so.
The DDoS attacks described above meant that neither voting nor verification was possible throughout most of the first day. Voters formed long queues, waiting for the system to be restored. Others, who had already passed verification, tried to vote from their homes. At times the system would become operational once again for a few minutes and voters would immediately announce its resumption on social networks. Despite these efforts, only about ten thousand people were able to vote on the first day. By the morning of the second day, October 21, system improvements meant that voting was able to continue without serious interruptions.
Voting finished at 8 PM on October 22. About an hour later results were announced on RainTV and published on the CEC website. A total of 82,108 votes were counted, including all the MMM voters who were to be excluded. Accounting for the exclusion, sixty-five thousand genuine voters participated in the election. Some 35 percent lived in Moscow or its suburbs, based on their telephone area codes. About 80 percent had passed online verification; the rest verified and/or voted offline at RECs.
Most of the winners were well-known politicians or celebrities. It suggests that most voters had been conservative in their choices. Some activists were disappointed by lack of “new faces” and by the prevalence of Muscovites in the Council—thirty-five out of forty-five elected candidates lived in Moscow. Fyodor Krasheninnikov, one of the first proponents of the election and a Yekaterinburg citizen, did not win.
The election also reflected the fact that most voters preferred liberal (in the European sense of the word) candidates. As analyst Mikhail Rogov points out, “the first places were given by voters to right-of-the-center liberals.” This trend is obvious even without extensive quantitative analysis: only four out of the thirty candidates outside ideological quotas were members of left-wing groups, whereas five Board members of a single liberal organization, Solidarnost, were elected. No members of the nationalist wing were elected through the general list. Voting patterns in the three ideological lists also suggested most voters were leaning toward liberal candidates. According to the official CEC results, that include about half of the MMM members, 25,335 voters did not vote for any candidates in the left-wing list and 31,540 voters did not vote for nationalists. Only 20,166 ignored the liberal list. The real difference may be even bigger since most MMM members voted for nationalists and leftists, rather than the liberal list.
Fifteen out the twenty-four blocs managed to get at least one of their members elected to the Council. Some were much more successful than others; the Civic Platform bloc, for instance, which consisted mainly of celebrities, had eight of their ten members elected. No other bloc came close to matching that achievement. Fourteen elected members of the Coordinating Council, including the most popular candidate, Alexey Navalny, were not members of any bloc. With the exception of Civic Platform, the blocs were too diverse and too small to later form long-term factions in the Council.
The project achieved its formal, overarching goal: to elect a Coordinating Council of the Russian opposition. The forty-five winners of the vote gathered several days later in Moscow for their first session. In this narrow sense, the project was entirely successful. However, as is usually the case with elections, the quality of the process itself had tremendous impact on its long-term outcome. A poorly organized election will not give a high degree of legitimacy to the body it produces and therefore will not be able to build trust in those representative structures. Therefore, it is important to examine more carefully the specific process goals of the project.
The first such goal was to involve the broadest range of opposition groups and leaders in the election. As we noted earlier, previous attempts to coordinate the movement were variations of self-appointment and, inevitably, some parts of the opposition movement were always absent. Tensions between activists and leaders, both ideological and personal, are very difficult to overcome, especially when there are no common measurements of their relative popularity, such as elections. Creating a system that includes the widest possible spectrum of voices is particularly important in countries where activists face a strong, repressive state. Only by uniting can regime’s opponents survive, grow and eventually win.
In this sense, the project was somewhat successful. Groups representing almost all parts of the political spectrum joined the elections and were among the winners: from communist Sergey Udaltsov to social liberal Garry Kasparov to libertarian Andrey Illarionov to nationalist Vladimir “Thor” Kralin. In fact, the majority of the “non-systemic opposition” organizations participated in the election. Volkov says they had intended to have at least twice as many candidates as there were vacant seats, that is about ninety candidacies. In the event, there were more than two hundred pretenders.
There were exceptions to participation, though. The Left Forces Forum gathered in September 2012 to denounce Coordinating Council elections as a “farce” manipulated by the liberals. Udaltsov’s attempts to change the minds of his comrades were in vain. Another left-wing heavyweight, Duma Member Ilya Ponomaryov stood for election and expressed enthusiasm, but dropped out of the campaign just one day before the vote, citing CEC’s lack of attention to offline voters—who are presumed to be more left-leaning than Internet-connected ones. Leonid Volkov said he believed Ponomayov’s behavior had been “a well-planned provocation.”
Some liberals were not as optimistic about the project as the leftists presumed. Two newly formed political parties, RPR-Parnas and Democratic Choice, decided to ignore the election. Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the former party ran regardless, and won, but his co-chairmen Vladimir Ryzhkov and Mikhail Kasyanov, both well-known liberal politicians, preferred to stay away from the election. The leader of Democratic Choice Vladimir Milov did the same.
The nationalists, despite being even more fragmented than the liberals or the Left, were enthusiastic participants. Most of their leading politicians ran in the election, although their results were unimpressive. No nationalists made it through the general list; five were elected through the quota. Two well-known one nationalists, Alexander Belov and Dmitry Dyomushkin, did not participate. This may be explained, at least in part, by the scandals with Martsinkevich and Korolyov, which may have left some of the nationalist electorate with the impression that the election process was being controlled by their opponents.
All the “systemic opposition” parties boycotted the election. The Communist Party and liberal Yabloko forbade their members to run in these elections. Only the socialist A Just Russia allowed it initially; the party later demanded that its three elected members leave the Coordinating Council, which one of them did. The two others refused and were expelled from the party. This party’s attitude is perhaps not surprising given the degree of collaboration between the “systemic opposition” and the Kremlin.
Overall, the goal of uniting the opposition movement was only partly achieved. In one respect, it was undermined by the perception that the liberals would somehow manipulate the election to their benefit. The other, possibly greater, problem was the unwillingness of many politicians to test their real popularity—and face the risk of failure. For the most ambitious, even second place would be unacceptable and so they had a clear incentive to ignore and denounce the election.
The second goal was to have as many voters as possible participate, to ensure the Council was representative and legitimate. Volkov says his own estimate before the election was two hundred thousand voters; Navalny predicted half that number, while Kasparov was even less ambitious, expecting fifty thousand people to participate in the process. It was a difficult guess to make, Volkov explains, because there was nothing to base an estimate on. The only number available at that time was the size of the crowds that had protested in the streets of Moscow since December 2011, but even these figures were very inaccurate, ranging from a few thousand in police estimates to two hundred thousand according to the most optimistic activists. Volkov considered that two opposing factors could affect the number of voters, compared to the number of protesters: on the one hand, an election has a lower threshold for participation than a rally; on the other hand, people have a greater fear of losing their anonymity by registering as voters.
The actual turnout of sixty-five thousand was therefore below both Volkov and Navalny’s expectations. To be sure, it is much more than the three thousand people who had elected the National Assembly five years earlier. The higher turnout can be attributed primarily to the use of online voting and the fact that the protest movement was much stronger overall in 2012. In fact, 168,571 people registered as voters, but only about a half of those passed verification. It may be that the complicated verification process was a bottleneck that prevented more people from participating in the election.
Another factor reducing participation was the lack of incentives for people to vote in these “mock elections.” From the beginning, it was unclear—and it remains so—what exactly the Coordinating Council would actually do. Some saw it as a forum for discussion among political leaders; others wanted to use it to organize protests; others hoped that it would become a delegation for negotiations with the regime; yet others even though it might become an alternative parliament—like the American colonists’ Continental Congress or the Deputies’ Councils (Soviets) in 1917. Each of these options would require different people with different skills. It was also clear that the Coordinating Council, unlike any official institutions, would have little or no real power. Therefore, the benefits of participation in this project were quite small, while the costs were significant: voters had to learn about a large number of candidates, most of them completely unknown, and potentially risk repression by the authorities if they were identified as a participant in the election. As a result, this goal was also only partially met.
The third factor that would determine the legitimacy of the future Coordinating Council was the way election process itself was organized. It had to be fair, free, transparent, and ideologically neutral. This factor was of particular importance for the movement, which had appeared as a reaction to the corrupt 2011 Duma elections. The public paid particular attention to electoral corruption, so the CEC had to prove that the opposition could organize an election that was impeccably democratic. Their process would be inevitably compared to official Russian elections. We will do that explicitly below.
The first issue that may undermine the credibility of an election is the perceived bias of those who organize it. The CEC had seven members: three representatives of the three political camps (the leftists, the liberals, the nationalists), three representatives of election monitoring initiatives (Golos, Citizen Observer, Sonar) and Leonid Volkov as the author of the system—and Chair of the Committee. RECs were composed differently in each region and the “political” members of the CEC had the right to veto formation of any “suspicious” RECs (although there were no known cases of the veto being used). Members of the official CECRF are appointed by both houses of the parliament and by the president, and are therefore de facto controlled by the ruling party.
Neither of these approaches guarantees the objectivity of election organizers. While CEC members represent all the movement’s major players, those groups are not homogenous and may have internal divisions. The “neutral” members of the CEC were selected as potentially honest technocrats, but this approach relies on the personal approach of a few individuals, many of whom were not well-known. The fact that Volkov and the election monitors were believed to have liberal views enforced the perception that the election was a liberals’ project. This, according to the Left Forces Forum, led them to to boycott it—although in reality their non-participation may have been the result of leftists’ frustration with their limited role in the protest movement.
One of the best ways to deal with accusations of bias in an election is, of course, transparency. All activities of the CEC and RECs were to be broadcast live and recorded on Ustream.com. This was perhaps inspired by installation of Web cameras on many Russian polling stations during the 2012 presidential election. More importantly, all CEC data was open. Voters lists and, later, the database of votes were published to allow independent checks. Initially, organizers planned to update the votes database every 30 minutes during voting, but DDoS attacks made that impossible. Numerous studies of these databases appeared later, some of which have been cited here. An individual could also use this data to check that her own vote had been counted. The results of official Russian elections are also published online, down to the level of polling stations, although they are released in a format that makes large-N analysis difficult.
Candidate registration was a relatively simple and transparent process, especially compared to the extremely complicated procedure used in official elections. The key problem that the CEC registration process faced was the need to assess each candidate’s commitment to protest movement’s “goals and values.” As described above, this issue caused several scandals, but the results might have been even worse if the CEC had to register every candidate who submitted an application and paid 10,000 rubles. This vaguely-worded condition actually helped prevent some very serious manipulations (such as an MMM takeover), although giving too much discretion to CEC members in pre-screening candidates may be dangerous in the future.
Indeed, in Russia’s official elections, blocking unwanted candidates from running has become a key method for the authorities to achieve their desired results. Technicalities are usually cited as a reason for disqualifications, although a very broad conception of extremism also allows the authorities to filter opponents purely on the basis of their beliefs. In this respect, the CEC rules are certainly more liberal than officials ones, but they could benefit from some clarification.
Campaigning was completely unregulated at the Council elections. Candidates could use any means to attract voters. It caused few problems, in part because the scale of election itself was not large enough for candidates to resort to expensive or complicated methods. Though there were a few conflicts, they never went any further than verbal exchanges in social networks. Campaigning for official posts, on the contrary, is over-regulated, but is nonetheless marred by numerous violations and the extensive use of so-called administrative resource by the authorities. This resource includes bribery (often using taxpayers’ money), forcing voters or employees to act as unpaid canvassers or turning state-owned media into propaganda outlets. The Coordinating Council elections avoided all these negative outcomes.
In addition to these three factors, there were a number of positive, largely unanticipated side effects that the project had on the protest movement, civil society, and the state. One was the indirect pressure on the regime that was created by contrasting these alternative elections with the official ones. The credibility of the Council election was significantly higher than that of the voting organized by the government in most areas. The fact that the authorities felt the pressure is highlighted by their reaction: harsh, often clumsy criticism by CECRF representatives and also by United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party, and persistent attempts to discredit the process. Volkov himself admits that this battle was “largely lost” by the election organizers: “the man in the street remembered CC elections for the raging scandals.” However, while individuals may be harmed by these scandals, the concept of opposition elections itself appears to have escaped much of the criticism.
The other important result of this project is creation of a system, not only a technical platform but also a set of rules and solutions, that can be used for future elections. This has happened already. In March 2013, citizens of the small town of Zhukovsky near Moscow used the system to elect their People’s Council. A total of 1,783 people voted for a fifteen-strong Council that would act as an alternative to the official local administration. The result is is still a fraction of the number of votes a pro-government candidate received at the official mayoral election in the same month: 11,365—but already a much bigger one compared to the Coordinating Council elections. Volkov even says that his system could be adopted for the official elections without any major revisions, although at this point it seems extremely unlikely.
The election of the Coordinating Council was an unprecedented project that tested the Russian opposition’s capabilities and its commitment to practicing democracy within its own ranks. The outcome of this process was indicative not simply of the effectiveness of specific decisions by election organizers, but also of the present state of the democratic movement in the country. Democratic elections were always destined to face some problems and many of those experienced were difficult or impossible to avoid. The question of whether there were better solutions than those attempted remains open.
It is not self-evident that movements seeking democratic change in their countries necessarily have to be organized in entirely democratic ways. In fact, few such examples are known; very often pro-democracy movements were based on hierarchical structures (sometimes very rigid) or on following charismatic leaders. Even in cases where internal elections exist, suffrage is usually confined to core members. The idea to hold a completely democratic, open election of the Coordinating Council emerged from the idealism of its authors and the people’s demand for such an approach. The movement, which was based from the beginning on the value of free and fair elections, would not accept anything less. But it was not completely satisfied with the imperfect outcome, either.
Arguably, the most important result of this project was not the creation of a Coordinating Council or an election system. It was the country’s biggest experiment in genuine democracy to date. Hundreds people learned what it was like to participate in election and to compete against other candidates; thousands for the first time felt that their votes counted. A whole generation, which had grown up under Putin’s “managed democracy,” had their first opportunity to watch candidates discuss important issues and to participate in an election whose outcome was not known in advance. This experience of democracy, especially if repeated, can play an important role in forming a new political culture—one that recognizes and embraces real democracy, in all its imperfection, and yet strives to improve it.
About the Author
Oleg Kozlovsky is a Russian pro-democracy activist and researcher of non-violent resistance. He writes and blogs about politics, democracy and human rights, and the use of new media for advancing freedom and democracy. He was a co-founder of the Oborona youth movement that aims to form a democratic political system in Russia and has held leadership positions at pro-democracy NGOs including Oborona, The Other Russia coalition, and SPS party. He has organized numerous non-violent protests, civil disobedience campaigns, online projects, etc. and has written for The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and The Huffington Post.
- http://www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=46C94EC4C3340 Elections of a united opposition candidate (in Russian). Kasparov.ru, 2007-09-27.↵
- My interview with Fyodor Krasheninnikov, 2013-03-27.↵
- http://slon.ru/russia/foto_dnya-723966.xhtml Photo of the day: Resolution. Slon.ru, 2011-12-10.↵
- http://izvestia.ru/news/544064 Human Rights Council accused police of provocations at May 6 march. Izvestia, 2013-02-01.↵
- Declaration of the Voters’ League. http://ligaizbirateley.ru/pages/declaration.html↵
- My interview with Fyodor Krasheninnikov, 2013-03-27.↵
- Fyodor Krasheninnikov. The power and “the opposition” in Russia. Kasparov.ru, 2012-01-12.↵
- My interview with Fyodor Krasheninnikov, 2013-03-27.↵
- Leonid Volkov. The big election story. 2012-08-01. http://leonwolf.livejournal.com/415677.html↵
- Election Statute. Orgkomitet document, 2012-05-15. http://www.cvk2012.org/dokumenty/polozhenie_o_vyborah/↵
- Grigory Golosov. To not be Churov. Slon.ru, 2012-08-13. http://slon.ru/russia/ne_byt_churovym-818815.xhtml↵
- Experts are not sure about security of personal data at OCC elections. RIA Novosti, 2012-09-26. http://ria.ru/politics/20120926/759493056.html↵
- Leonid Volkov. Churov endorses! 2012-09-26. http://leonwolf.livejournal.com/434225.html↵
- Candidate Registration Procedure. Orgkomitet document. 2012-08-15. http://www.cvk2012.org/dokumenty/poryadok_registracii_kandidatov/↵
- CEC Decision #18. CEC document. 2013-09-07. http://cvk2012.org/news/reshenie_cvk_18/?Year=2012↵
- Leonid Volkov. On Martsinkevich casus. 2012-09-10. http://leonwolf.livejournal.com/427078.html↵
- See this for example: Polina Nikolskaya. Inciting political struggle. Lenta.ru, 2012-09-20. http://lenta.ru/columns/2012/09/20/nikola/↵
- Data based on official CEC documents. Registration date usually lagged one to two days after candidate’s application; after September 14, the lag increased due to a large number of last-minute applications.↵
- Maria Eysmont. How the opposition will hold its all-Russian elections. PublicPost.ru, 2012-08-08. http://www.publicpost.ru/theme/id/1899/kak_oppoziciya_provedet_svoi_vserossiyskie_vybory/↵
- TV Rain data based on TNS survey. http://tvrain.ru/media/upload/files/TVRAIN_2013.pdf↵
- Medialogia. http://www.mlg.ru/ratings/federal_media/2223/0/0/↵
- Interview with Leonid Volkov, 2013-03-29.↵
- Leonid Volkov. How we covered MMM. 2012-10-24. http://leonwolf.livejournal.com/449430.html↵
- Same source.↵
- Same source.↵
- Interview with Leonid Volkov. 2013-03-29.↵
- Mikhail Rogov. First lessons of elections of the Coordinating Council of the Russian opposition. Version 2. 2012-10-24.↵
- Interview with Leonid Volkov. 2013-03-29.↵
- Interview with Leonid Volkov. 2013-03-29.↵
- Same source.↵
- About 50 thousand have voted in Coordinating Council elections. RBC Daily, 2012-10-21. http://www.rbcdaily.ru/politics/562949984973962↵
- Interview with Leonid Volkov. 2013-03-29.↵