Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, citizens could not fully do so because the government limited the ability of opposition parties to organize, register candidates for public office, access media outlets, and conduct political campaigns.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: On September 17-19, the country held elections for the State Duma as well as 10 gubernatorial elections and 39 regional parliamentary elections. The independent election observation group Golos concluded the elections were neither free nor fair. Golos noted the electoral campaign was conducted in an unfree and unequal manner and that many politically active citizens were deprived of their constitutional right to be elected. Observers also documented fraud and violations during voting and vote-counting that undermined public confidence in the elections and cast serious doubt on the integrity of the reported results. In the period preceding the elections, authorities intensified repression of independent observers and media, including by designating Golos and dozens of media outlets and individuals as “foreign agents.” In six regions including Moscow, opaque online voting procedures, the reported results of which often favored the ruling party by a larger margin than in-person voting, further called into question the integrity of the vote.
Ahead of the State Duma elections, the government adopted a series of repressive laws targeting independent media, human rights activists, and opposition politicians and used legislation to restrict the political participation of individuals or organizations designated as “foreign agents,” “undesirable,” or “extremist” (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). Authorities also banned many would-be candidates from running for office and pressured several to leave the country.
At the end of 2020, President Putin signed into law a bill that permits Roskomnadzor to block or entirely remove “certain” online campaign materials during federal or regional elections. At the time, experts assessed that the bill was adopted with Aleksey Navalny’s Smart Voting campaign in mind. On July 26, Roskomnadzor blocked 49 websites linked to Navalny, his associates, and his political organization, including his personal blog, the website of his Anticorruption Foundation, and websites affiliated with the local political offices for alleged “propaganda and extremist activity.” Authorities also adopted legislative changes to expand the number of voting days from one to three, ostensibly to allow physical distancing between voters. Critics of the changes noted, however, that the longer the ballots remained open, the greater the opportunity for fraud and the more time to ensure government loyalists voted. Many experts concluded that these actions were designed to ensure that the ruling United Russia party retained a constitutional majority.
During the year authorities routinely restricted gatherings, campaign communications, and other political activities of opposition candidates and prodemocracy groups. Authorities often charged the opposition and independent politicians with violating COVID-19 protocols, while not restricting similar gatherings by the ruling United Russia party. For example, on May 22, police broke up a gathering of approximately 30 independent municipal and regional deputies attending a conference in Velikiy Novgorod and charged participants with violating pandemic restrictions. The following month, however, dozens of persons attended the June 19 United Russia party congress in Moscow without facing similar restrictions.
Russian media and experts viewed the tightening of the “undesirable” organization legislation as a move intended to place further pressure on political opposition ahead of the September 19 elections, particularly on candidates affiliated with Navalny and exiled oppositionist Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia organization. During the year authorities routinely detained members of Navalny’s political operations throughout the country, conducted arbitrary searches of their homes and offices, and charged them with crimes on questionable grounds. In one example, on April 12, two employees of Navalny’s newly opened campaign headquarters in Makhachkala were reported missing only to turn up later in special detention centers in Dagestan. In another example, the Penza police sued the local director of Navalny’s organization for almost 900,000 rubles ($12,000) to offset the expenses the police department reportedly incurred on the weekend of the January 23 protest.
Authorities did not limit their election-related harassment to Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation or Open Russia. For example, on June 1, law enforcement officers searched the homes of former State Duma deputy and presumptive Yabloko party nominee Dmitriy Gudkov and his relatives before detaining Gudkov for 48 hours on suspicion of “property damage.” Upon his release, Gudkov fled the country and told media that sources close to the Presidential Administration informed him if he did not leave the country, the fake criminal case would continue until his arrest.
Authorities disproportionately denied registration for independent and nonsystemic opposition candidates. According to an investigation published by IStories on June 8, elections officials denied registration of opposition candidates at a rate of 25 percent over the past year, 10 times greater than the 2 percent of United Russia and systemic (effectively progovernment) opposition party candidates denied registration. In a related investigation, Golos reported on June 22 that at least nine million citizens were prohibited by the state from running in elections for various reasons, representing an estimated 8 percent of the voting population. In one example, the election commission barred prominent municipal deputy Ilya Yashin from running in the Moscow City Duma elections for his “involvement in extremist activities” due to his support of Navalny.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the 2018 presidential election “took place in an overly controlled environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices,” and that “restrictions on the fundamental freedoms, as well as on candidate registration, have limited the space for political engagement and resulted in a lack of genuine competition.” The OSCE also noted that “television, and in particular broadcasters that are state funded, owned, or supported, remains the dominant source of political information. A restrictive legislative and regulatory framework challenges freedom of media and induces self-censorship. Voters were thus not presented with a critical assessment of the incumbent’s views and qualifications in most media.” Observers noted that the most prominent potential challenger, Aleksey Navalny, was prevented from registering his candidacy due to a previous politically motivated criminal conviction.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The process for nominating candidates for the office of the president was highly regulated and placed significant burdens on opposition parties and their candidates. While parties represented in the State Duma may nominate a presidential candidate without having to collect and submit signatures, prospective self-nominated presidential candidates must collect 300,000 signatures, no more than 7,500 from each region, and submit the signatures to the Central Election Commission for certification. Presidential candidates nominated by parties without State Duma representation must collect 100,000 signatures. An independent presidential candidate is ineligible to run if the commission finds more than 5 percent of signatures invalid. On April 5, President Putin signed a law resetting his presidential term limits, reflecting amendments approved during the July 2020 constitutional referendum.
Candidates to the State Duma may be nominated directly by constituents, political parties in single-mandate districts, or political parties on their federal list, or they may be self-nominated. Political parties select candidates for the federal lists from their ranks during party conventions via closed voting procedures. Party conventions also select single mandate candidates. While any of the country’s formally registered political parties may run candidates on the party list portion of the ballot, only political parties that overcame the 5 percent threshold during the previous elections may form federal and single-mandate candidate lists without collecting signatures. Parties that did not overcome the 5 percent threshold must collect 200,000 signatures to register a candidate for the Duma. A total of 32 parties qualified to participate in the State Duma elections, of which 14 parties met this threshold. Self-nominated candidates generally must gather the signatures of 3 percent of the voters in their districts.
Observers and would-be candidates reported the municipal filter was not applied equally and that authorities pressured municipal deputies not to provide signatures to candidates who were not preapproved by authorities. They asserted that no independent candidate with the potential to defeat authorities’ favored candidates was permitted to pass through the municipal filter, while progovernment candidates were passed through the filter without fulfilling technical requirements.
In some cases opposition parties were repeatedly denied registration or faced court-mandated suspensions of their activities. The Central Election Commission announced on September 10 it had removed 16 State Duma candidates (from the Yabloko, Party for Growth, and Russian Party for Freedom and Justice parties) from their respective races for holding foreign assets. On September 11 in Sterlitamak, a Fair Russia candidate for State Duma, Vadim Iskandarov, and seven of his supporters were detained while distributing campaign materials. The candidate was participating in the City Day, an event where legal pre-election campaigns could be held, when National Guard officers detained the group claiming an official United Russia party event was occurring on the square. The detainees were later released; no charges were announced.
Systemic opposition parties (i.e., quasi-independent parties permitted by the government to appear on the ballot) also faced pressure. For example, on July 24, the Central Election Commission excluded from the party list candidate Pavel Grudinin, a prominent member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation who had run an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2018, on the grounds that he allegedly possessed foreign assets. Party members and other observers claimed Grudinin’s disqualification was politically motivated. On September 8, Roman Yakovlev, a Communist Party candidate for State Duma and deputy of the Novosibirsk Legislative Assembly, attempted to hold a meeting with voters. Local authorities allowed Yakovlev to organize the meeting, but later blocked the only road to the site of the gathering. The authorities cited COVID-19 regulations and concerns as rationale for their actions, despite the decision of Governor Andrey Travnikov to allow all candidate meetings with voters as an exception to bans on mass gatherings. On September 15, Yelena Beshtereva from Fair Russia, Yevgeniya Bogdanova from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Igor Kapelyukh from United Russia withdrew their candidacies for deputies of the Legislative Assembly of Eastern Petropavlovsk in protest of unfair elections and electoral procedures.
State entities or entities closely aligned with the state also influenced their employees to vote a certain way or in a specific location. For example, employees of the Orenburg Oblast Tax Service reported that they received a text message instructing them to unregister themselves at their home polling stations and vote instead in a precinct near their workplace.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women’s participation remained low, accounting for approximately 15 percent of elected seats in the national legislature. As of July women held approximately 10 percent of ministerial positions. While members of national minorities took an active part in political life, ethnic Russians, who constituted approximately 80 percent of the population, dominated the political and administrative system, particularly at the federal level.