A Look at the Russian Presidential Election From Crimea
Editor’s note: Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels, Belgium. His latest book, “Does the United States Have a Future?” was published in October 2017. In a talk at The National Press Club in December, Doctorow explored U.S.-Russia relations and their impact on the world.
In this piece, I will share impressions from my mission as an international observer to the Russian presidential election. The event was of historic importance given Russia’s rising standing in the world under the leadership of its front-runner candidate in the election, Vladimir Putin, and it has been covered widely in world media.
What will set this account apart from the rest is firstly the focus on one location, the Crimea, which I visited as monitor within a varied delegation of 43. The Crimea, for its part, had unusually high importance to the Russians and to the world at large, because the election there was rightly viewed as a second referendum on the reunification of Crimea with Russia in 2014, and that reunification or annexation, depending on your point of view, underlies much of the acrimonious confrontation today between Russia and the U.S.-led “international community.”
A little remarked fact underscores my argument for the key importance of the Crimean vote: the precise date selected to hold the presidential election across the Russian Federation, March 18. That is the anniversary of the formal unification, the culmination of the Crimean Spring of 2014, which followed by several days the original referendum approving unification. It will be recalled that the validity of that first referendum has been denied by Russia’s Western detractors, who insist the result was forced by the presence of Russian troops in the streets and an atmosphere of intimidation coming from pro- and anti-Russian demonstrations. The vote in 2018 has taken place in a totally calm situation, which removes all possibility of reservations about validity unless violations at polling stations could be identified. At a minimum, the task of a monitoring group such as mine should have been to watch that issue very closely.How that functioned in practice, what I/we actually saw and did will make up the first part of this essay.
The entire force of international observers who spread out across Russia was quite heterogeneous and I will spend some time in the second half of this essay describing us: who we are, why we and not others were present in Russia for election monitoring work. In this second half, I will also discuss something highly important that other commentators have avoided entirely: the fact that the elections come within the context of an intense political, economic and information war between Russia and the West that has in the past couple of years reached the level of the worst days of the Cold War. Consequently, once we look past the technical aspects of the vote, where there is, among serious professionals, a consensus that these elections were well administered and transparent, we find ourselves back in the midst of tendentious interpretation by both sides to the issue, if not outright propaganda. I will not dodge this question, and I do not expect to receive bouquets from anyone. The task before us will be very simple: to try as best I can to give details about the circumstances of the balloting so that the reader can arrive at an independent conclusion. Without naming names, I will produce my evidence from personal experience on the ground that is missing from media accounts till now given their broad brush approach.
What we saw
The bare facts are that voter turnout in Crimea was similar to turnout in Russia at large, coming to about 67 percent while ballots for Putin exceeded by far the Russian average: about 92 percent for Putin versus the national average of approximately 77 percent for Putin.
What I am about to say to flesh out these bare bones comes from our group visits to 10 polling stations over the course of as many hours. The first two were in the city of Yalta. The next two were in small villages situated along the main highway running from Yalta north and west to the provincial capital of Simferopol. And the last six were in the city limits of Simferopol. The distance we covered was 80 kilometers. Given the poor state of repair of even roads of regional importance in Crimea, the time in transit, had we not stopped along the way, would have been nearly two hours.
Our group of about 20 traveling together was split between two mini-buses, one predominantly French speaking and the other predominantly German and English speaking. Each bus had local chaperones who, together with those of us monitors fluent in Russian could assist our linguistically handicapped colleagues.
Except for the very last polling station which was close to where we had lunch and was chosen spontaneously by our group without objection from our chaperones, all the polling places had been selected by our hosts in advance, which obviously is not the random selection you would like ideally to have in such an exercise. In several stations we were met by television film crews who were expecting us.
However, we were let loose in the polling stations and could speak directly not only with the senior administrator but also with voters, with the volunteers manning the registration desks, with the monitors from the local social chambers and representatives of the candidates, if any happened to be where we were, given that they moved around all day. That is to say we had every opportunity to hear complaints, to remark any peculiar goings-on, such as organized groups of voters showing up together. There were none. We heard of no scandals, and we saw no demonstrations or protesters of any kind around the polling stations. Instead what we witnessed was an intermittent flow of voters arriving, being processed efficiently, casting their ballots and departing.
In this connection, I want to stress that our group seemed to take its responsibilities rather seriously. To be sure, when we started out in the morning we descended on our first polling booths like a group of aliens—everyone attached to their mobile gadgets and texting, arranging travel on line for their next destinations and not paying much attention to where we were. However, that phase passed quickly and my colleagues took an interest in the here and now throughout the rest of our rather long work day. We had the usual group photos outside a number of polling stations taken not only for official record but using our own mobile phones to create personal souvenirs. And we gave interviews to the waiting television crews, though that was only a minor diversion.
The polling stations we visited were for the most part secondary schools. Some were in buildings of the local civil administration. All were serviceable and well prepared to receive the public. Many of the buildings had several stairs at their entrances. Among them some had permanent ramps, as is becoming very widespread in Russia to accommodate those in wheelchairs, parents pushing baby carriages and the elderly or infirm. Where no permanent ramp existed, temporary wooden ramps were installed, obviously at considerable expense and effort in what are otherwise quite poor districts. The Crimea obviously received no infrastructure investments during the 23 years when it was ruled by post-independence Ukraine, and is simply a poor region, however promising its future development may be.
This effort to facilitate voting also had another dimension, what I will call ambulatory ballot collection. Each station had a small sealed plexiglass ballot box which was taken out by volunteers on visits to voters who were too frail or too ill to come down to the polling station. The numbers of such voters were not big, something like 50 or 60 out of polling districts numbering between 1800 and 2500 registered voters. But the symbolic message was clear: that each citizen, each vote counts.
A special welcome was being offered at all polling stations to young people, specifically to those who had just turned 18 and were voting for the first time. They were each given a paper diploma issued by the city elders. Again, the numbers of such cases were tiny, running from 5 to 10 in the districts we visited, but the welcoming hand was visible.
I have mentioned measures taken by local volunteers to raise voter participation. The biggest effort to ensure eligible voters registered and easily found a voting station convenient to them was done at the federal level via the internet resources of the Central Election Committee using online registration and sms communications. In this regard, the Crimea was no different from any other region of the Russian Federation.
The single biggest impression from visiting polling stations was their sophisticated equipment to guarantee transparency, to empower the broad public to do citizen monitoring over the internet and to efficiently record the votes.
One of the first things we would see on entering the polling stations was the row of voting booths, with simple standardized assemble-disassemble frames and light cloth draw curtains for privacy. That was the only holdover from the simple past. Each polling station now had two sets of “eyes”: CCTV cameras positioned to oversee the voter registration tables and the ballot boxes. These cameras fed live images to the internet and could be viewed by anyone in Russia online. Still more important for guaranteeing fair elections were the new electronic ballot boxes that were installed in about half the polling stations we visited, the rest being manual count boxes. The automated ballot boxes are autonomous, meaning they are not connected to the web and so are not subject to hacking. They are topped in effect by self-feeding scanners which automatically record each vote. Unlike purely electronic systems, the new Russian boxes receive and store paper ballots, meaning that if any dispute over the automated count arises, a manual count can always be done later.
A peek into some of the plexiglass ballot boxes on our visits showed up only check marks next to Putin’s name. That was about the only indication, wholly unscientific to be sure, of how sentiment was running.
Otherwise the polling stations were notable for being inviting to the public through their engagement of DJs operating simple loudspeakers blaring pop music at the entrances. One of the tunes that came up in various places was telling: “Crimea and Russia Together Forever!” One polling station had costumed teenage entertainers out in front of the building to amuse and babysit smaller kids while their parents were voting. At another polling station, girls and boys aged 8-10 wearing military cadet uniforms greeted each arriving voter and sent off the departing voters with a hearty “goodbye.” In that same station, retro patriotism also came up in another form, which possibly was spontaneous, possibly organized in advance: an 8-year-old girl reciting quite loudly and with good histrionic training a patriotic poem with the repeated refrain “Russia is Rising!”
Voting day ended in Simferopol on a pronounced patriotic note. There was a free pop concert in the main city square which drew a good-natured crowd of several thousand of all ages and ended in a magnificent fireworks display. During the 10 minutes or so of the fireworks, the orchestra and showmen sang the Russian national anthem, which was lustily supported by the entire audience.
To anyone with a recollection of the Soviet Union, all of this collective jollity and distinctly Russian pop music, which was always rather tame, seems all too familiar. However, it was well-intentioned, and it may be that a substantial part of what was promoted as Soviet models and tradition was always just a variation on Russian national culture.
Our work day ended in a municipal administration building of Simferopol where we held a press conference. Five of us with the best command of Russian, myself included, were assigned places on the dais. There were only a handful of journalists in the room, but questions were pitched to us by a moderator and the proceedings were broadcast live by several television crews. This was in lieu of a group report.
Russia’s Central Election Commission reportedly issued accreditation to 1,500 international observers whose nominations were put forward by a variety of sponsors, including Russian NGOs, the State Duma and international organizations. Some monitoring was done by diplomats from foreign embassies who requested accreditation, allowing them to visit polling stations and gather information. These monitors would later report only to their respective governments.
I was invited to Russia by a Moscow-based NGO called the Russian Peace Foundation, which entrusted administration of its allotment to a Warsaw based NGO called the European Council for Democracy and Human Rights.The original intention was to invite and accredit 150 individuals from all over the world. In the end, only about 80 monitors arrived in Moscow via this channel, myself included. On the ground, in our Moscow hotel, I saw about half this number, and I never learned where the others may have been lodged. Out of that number only a couple of us were sent to Crimea, where we joined accredited monitors from other pools. We never discussed among ourselves who came from which sponsor group.
In the Crimea-bound contingent, I was the only American, and, one of the handful of fluent Russian speakers. This put me under the spotlight but also heightened my ability to engage the local electoral officials and voters.
The monitors with whom I came into contact, both in my own pool from the Peace Foundation with whom I associated in Moscow and coming from other pools with whom I associated in the small contingent sent to Crimea were all of mixed backgrounds. Some were academics with think tank affiliation, or professional political analysts like myself. Some were elected legislators in their home countries or members of the European Parliament.
The politics of the elected deputies appeared to be mainly from what is called “far Right.” Specifically, I met with a Bundestag deputy from the Alternativ fuer Deutschland, with a French MEP formerly in the Front National and now in a group cooperating with Brexit campaigner and EU skeptic Nigel Farage. There were also a couple of Italian deputies from the Veneto Region said to be members of the Northern League. Though I did not meet with him on the mission, I was aware of the presence in Moscow of one observer coming from the “far Left” party Die Linke. Centrist parties seemed to be absent. Within the contingent sent to Crimea there were also several who fit none of the descriptions above. I have in mind the representative of the President of Pakistan and the representative of the President of Malaysia.
The political convictions of those monitors with whom I spent some time could be characterized as ranging from mildly to extremely pro-Russian. Those who were in the latter category constituted perhaps 10 percent of the total. From our table talk over lunch, I understood that the several very pro-Russian monitors had a latent conflict of interest: they each made some of their professional income in Russia, or, as was the case with one of the Italians, they are developing businesses in Crimea with local partners. From among this sub-group, two were particularly fluent in Russian and presented their propagandistic observations to the local journalists with whom we met in the polling stations and at the press conference. This is how one Crimean newspaper received the choice quotation which it duly published: that “today Crimea is the most democratic place in the world.” An over-the-top assessment that is frankly embarrassing to read.
I would call this case a distortion of the observer mission that was preconditioned by the general background of political, informational and economic warfare being waged between the West and Russia for the past several years. To my knowledge, the Russian Duma had extended invitations to all Members of the European Parliament, but the major centrist parties there opposed sending any representatives to observe elections which they knew in advance would be a sham because of their own ideological anti-Putin prejudices. Thus, who actually came and took part in the monitoring was the result of a self-sorting process. The MEPs and parliamentarians from national legislatures who came did so in the face of moral pressure from the majority of their peers, and they received strict prohibitions in particular against going to Crimea. I saw how one of the French MEPs initially in our Crimea contingent backed out at the very last minute and remained in Moscow to avoid scandals back home.
Propaganda and information warfare on all sides
The fierce political winds in the West against Putin, against Russia directed mainstream U.S. and European media reports on the Russian election campaign for weeks in advance of the vote. The media denounced the process as fake because of the near certainty of the outcome, the re-election of Vladimir Putin. This mind-set even exerted a discernible influence on the most authoritative foreign observation body to come to the elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The OSCE contingent was the single largest group of international election observers, receiving 580 accreditations. Within that overall number there was a core group of 60 who were deployed in Russia six weeks before the elections. They met with local election boards, candidates’ representatives and others to build an information base on the elections. Then there were 420 additional short-term observers sent by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. And about 100 accreditations for the election-day mission were issued to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, who were nearly all European MPs in their respective countries.
I wish to stress that the OSCE did not send any election observers to the Crimea. In a statement issued by the United States Mission to the OSCE on March 22, the reasons that evidently also guided the OSCE in its entirety are set out with the crystal clarity of a Cold War blast denouncing Russia’s “invasion and occupation of Crimea,” its staging of “illegitimate elections … [with] frequent and severe abuses, specifically targeting the Crimean Tatar community and others opposed to Russia’s occupation.” Russia is charged with coercing Ukrainian citizens in Crimea to vote in illegitimate elections. The March 18 elections are, per the U.S. Mission, “another attempt by Russia to give its purported annexation of Crimea a semblance of legitimacy.”
Without further ado, I condemn this official U.S. statement as an ignorant, willfully blind rejection of the realities on the ground in Crimea that I and other members of our monitoring team unreservedly established.
As for the OSCE monitoring mission to the rest of the Russian Federation, the various constituent groups mentioned above issued two pages of Press Releases on their findings at a press conference held in downtown Moscow the day after the elections. Given the institution’s credibility, that report has received a good deal of attention in global media.
The general conclusions were summarized at the top of the Releases:
“Russian presidential election well administered, but characterized by restrictions on fundamental freedoms, lack of genuine competition, international observers say.”
On the one hand, the OSCE report gave the Russians, and in particular the Central Election Commission, high marks for the professional administration of the elections as witnessed by their teams in the field on election-day. In particular, the press handout mentions as welcome the accuracy of voter lists and the legal changes that enabled voting in polling stations away from the permanent place of residence, a facility which was used by 5.6 million Russians. Tabulation was also assessed positively.
These bland-sounding compliments have to be put in an historical context to be fully savored.
The background is the 2011 Duma elections which were shown by Russian activists at the time to have been fraudulent due to ballot box stuffing, “carousel voting,” i.e. multiple voting and the shepherding of company employees and civil servants to the polling stations by their superiors. Incidents were reported of voter turnout in some districts exceeding 100 percent of registered voters. These outrages sparked mass street demonstrations that were fanned by encouragement from Western governments and media at the time. The Kremlin took note and instituted several procedural reforms and widespread implementation of CCTV cameras already the next year for the presidential election, which passed without incident and prepared the way for the extensive measures supporting transparency and fair voting that we saw on March 18, 2018. The government also took measures to protect itself and society from the would-be actors of regime change though mass demonstrations: the rules on foreign-sponsored pro-democracy NGOs were tightened, as were rules on public assembly.
On the other hand, the OSCE Press Releases go far beyond the voting mechanisms, far beyond the specifics of this electoral campaign to challenge the entire Russian political culture.
“Elections are a critical part of democracy, but democracy is not only about elections. …[I]mproving the real state of democracy in Russia requires full respect for people’s rights between elections as well,” Marietta Tidei, head of the delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly is quoted as saying on page one of the handout.
The OSCE spokespersons direct attention in particular to limitations on rights of assembly, on free speech in Russia and to media control by the state, with unequal allocation of air time going to the president that short-changed his challengers
Perhaps the most condemnatory remarks in the OSCE Press Release relate to registration of candidates for the presidential race.
“After intense efforts to promote turnout, citizens voted in significant numbers, yet 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 …”
This was a thinly veiled reference to the rejection of the candidacy application of the famous blogger and corruption-fighter Alexei Navalny, who from the beginning to end was held up in Western media as the only real opponent to Vladimir Putin. This characterization of who was real opposition and who was a “Kremlin project” was itself a highly politicized issue that outside observers would have done better to side-step entirely.
There are several serious problems with the overarching negative analysis by the OSCE, which slotted very nicely into the predisposition of the Western media to trash the Russian elections. Whether by intent or by ignorance, the OSCE authors of the critique of the electoral campaign circumstances acted as the mouthpieces of the opposition candidates, most particularly the Liberal party candidates among whom Ksenia Sobchak was the most visible and vocal. They did not give any thought to counterarguments, which I will present here.
First, there is the issue of applying double standards and expecting the ideal of fair competition for all candidates to the nation’s highest office, when that standard is very rarely if ever met in the West itself. I would name little, neutral Switzerland as one country with credible civic freedoms, campaign and voting procedures. I was about to name here Finland, another small and relatively homogeneous country which always gets high marks on democratic institutions, but then I recalled that a couple of years ago there was a great scandal over abuse of the newly introduced remote voting facility via the internet. That noisy scandal ended in one parliamentary deputy, a party leader and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, being stripped of her mandate for violations. So there can be problems even in Eden.
Then, at the risk of being accused of “what-aboutism,” I am obliged to mention an egregious and relatively recent case of suppression of mass opposition movements in the United States. I have in mind the case of Occupy Wall Street, which broke out in the midst of the Crash of 2008 and was on the point of achieving political traction when it was brutally crushed by police and court actions that blatantly violated constitutional protection of freedom of assembly and speech. No one has ever paid a price for those abridgments of civil liberties which are still enshrined in law and regulations at the local level.
Let me now address the question of Vladimir Putin’s dominance in air time coming from his status and activities as president, not as candidate or debater, which he did not use at all. The OSCE observers ignore that Putin has this dominance 365 days on 365 because he is one of the most widely traveled, most consequential heads of state in the world against whom most any human being in opposition would have a very difficult time. This is precisely why he had the support of 80 percent of the population in polls held repeatedly in the year leading to the elections.
His popularity after 18 years in power is explained not only by being hyper active but by being hyper-productive for the vast majority of the population. In that time in office national GDP multiplied several times and take home pay of the broad population rose 10 times. Under Putin the poverty rate was cut in half. And in the past four years his government restored the nation’s self-confidence over its place as a global leader thanks to the bloodless takeover of the Crimea in March 2014 through perfectly executed psychological warfare in which 20,000 Russian troops from the Sevastopol naval base overcame an equal number of Ukrainian forces on the peninsula with hardly a shot fired and no fatalities. Then came the successful air war against the Islamic State in Syria from 2015 to 2017 that also had negligible cost in Russian military personnel. And finally in the midst of the election, on March 1 President Putin unveiled Russia’s new, state of the art strategic weapons systems which he claimed restored the country’s nuclear parity with the United States. All of these achievements would leave any opposition candidates, however clever, tongue-tied.
Finally, no criticism of restrictions on freedom of assembly or speech can be made in the abstract. They were introduced by the Kremlin in the context of the political war on the country being conducted by the West with especial intensity since the 2014 reunification with/annexation of Crimea. It is indecent to fault the Russians for imperfect democratic institutions when the result of outside pressure has always been to rally the broad public around its leader and to make life very difficult for any opposition.
For anyone with a few gray hairs and recollection of Soviet days going back to the 1960s, the present situation in Russia and the criticism of authoritarianism brings to mind the issues that surrounded the introduction of the détente policy: hard pressure on the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev was known to result in crackdowns on dissent and the rise in the numbers of political prisoners.
Today’s Russia is a far more humane society than the old Soviet Union, but it is a disservice to opponents of United Russia and Vladimir Putin to impose personal and sectoral sanctions as the U.S.-led West has done since 2012, when it introduced the Magnitsky List or accelerated from 2014 to present under the pretext of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. What is surprising is that the country has virtually no political prisoners (Ksenia Sobchak could list only 16 dubious cases when she and other candidates met with Putin in the Kremlin on March 19). During the campaign the candidates were able to express the most outrageous attacks on the government and its policies using false accusations, on live national television without any hint of retribution.
Why was the Russian political landscape devoid of serious challengers? The achievements of the incumbent are only part of the story. Another big factor has been the “vertical of control” that Vladimir Putin implemented at the start of his rule 18 years ago to reestablish state power in the face of disintegration and chaos, in the face of local satrapies run by thieves bearing the title of oligarchs. Without broad reinstatement of self-rule at the regional level through direct election of mayors and governors, there is scant possibility of experienced candidates enjoying popular backing rising to challenge a president. There will be more of the same top-down “parties” and rootless power seekers who ran against Putin in 2018. This question of preparing for democratic succession is the single biggest challenge facing Vladimir Putin in his fourth and last mandate.
My conclusion is that in the discussion about the Russian elections of March 18 everybody is using everybody else to score propaganda points. Nonetheless, even in this reality the monitoring missions served the worthy purpose of keeping the local Russian officials on their toes and encouraging transparency, in the Crimea and surely everywhere else. That is a very good thing in itself.
And I end this report with one more encouraging sign that I heard at our press conference in Simferopol that capped our election monitoring mission. We on the dais were interrupted for a short announcement by the head of the Simferopol government who gave tabulation of voter turnout as of 6 o’clock. He ended his recitation with this statement to the audience: “these elections are by and for us, Russians, not for anyone else.” Now that is a tremendous leap forward in Russian self-awareness and national pride. They have stopped looking abroad for validation. They have grown up.
For a brief overview of my findings as election observer in Crimea, see my March 19 interview with RT on Red Square. For the video recording of our press conference on March 18 in a city administration building of Simferopol which was broadcast live on Crimean television, see here.