MOSCOW — Various claims of voting irregularities have emerged as Russia held local and regional elections that were seen as a serious test for the Kremlin.
The vote for the Moscow City Duma, or city council, was being watched closely following a summer of protests sparked by the decision by election officials in the capital to bar some independent candidates from running. The protests have put the spotlight on the waning popularity of President Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia party.
The independent election-monitoring organization Golos reported 1,708 voting violations across Russia, including 564 cases in Moscow. Numerous reports of electoral fraud were posted on social media, although RFE/RL could not independently verify their veracity.
In one possible example in the Moscow region, a candidate from the Yabloko party shot video that appeared to show a stack of prepared ballots at a polling station in Sergiyev Posad. The video also claimed that two other such stacks of ballots had already been cast.
After polls closed, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev presented the day as a victory for United Russia, telling supporters at the party’s headquarters that “it is possible to say that the United Russia party has preserved its leadership qualities and remains the leading political force in our country.”
Putin, whose popularity is nearing all-time lows, was asked by a journalist after voting in Moscow whether he would have liked to have seen more diversity among candidates.
“In some countries there are 30, 50, or 100 [candidates],” he said after voting. “The quality of their work does not change from this. It’s not quantity but quality that is important.
But Lyubov Sobol, a former City Duma candidate who was detained just days ahead of the vote for her role in recent opposition demonstrations, said the Moscow vote was “the funeral of even the illusion of a democratic election.”
“We have the right to submit our political representatives for city council and municipal assembly elections, but we’re banned from doing it,” Sobol said outside a Moscow polling station.
As polls prepared to close, opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov said in a Telegram message that several opposition activists had been detained as they attempted to enter the grounds of Moscow Day celebrations, according to Interfax. Among them was Novaya Gazeta journalist Ilya Azar, who had been charged just days ahead of the election for violating regulations on organizing public gatherings in connection with his participation in an unsanctioned rally in Moscow on August 31.
Some of the detained were wearing T-shirts listing the names of people who have been charged under the regulations.
Aside from the capital, elections were being held at some level in all 83 regions and cities of Russia. A vote was also held in Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
But in July, election officials barred many of them on the grounds that some of the signatures they had submitted individually to get on the ballot were invalid.
The rejected potential candidates, many allied with anti-corruption crusader and Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny, accused local officials of using any means to keep them off the ballot, including harassment.
Given the obstacles, Navalny ahead of the vote called on supporters to engage in “smart voting” — essentially a call to back any candidate who has the best chance of beating a United Russia candidate.
The tactic has drawn some criticism from Navalny’s liberal allies, and it wasn’t immediately clear how it would play out in the vote for the City Duma.
“We will consider it a success if the number of United Russia [seats in Moscow] is somehow reduced,” Navalny said after casting his vote. “Last time United Russia got 40 mandates out of 45. If they receive even one less than this it will be good, but we hope that we can put more significant pressure on them.”
Officially, no United Russia candidates were on the ballot, including 10 incumbents seeking reelection to the City Duma. Many nominally ran as independents, and more than 30 were shown to have received financial backing from organizations with ties to the ruling party.
“I think it’s important to vote for any candidate that’s not from United Russia,” said Oleg Ivanov, a Muscovite who said he was employed in security and received public contracts and who said he found out about the campaign through Navalny’s Twitter feed. “We need to break their monopoly.”
Ivanov didn’t, however, consider voting for the Communist Party candidate whom Navalny has backed as part of the smart voting effort.
Another voter, Daria Ivashenkova, a 23-year-old university student, said she opposed the current government in Moscow, though she hadn’t participated in any of the protests that roiled the city this summer.
“It’s important to either boycott the election or spoil the ballot,” she said — meaning the common practice for voters opposed to listed candidates to write in another name or otherwise render a ballot invalid.
She said she went online and found the candidate Navalny had recommended under the smart voting effort.
By midday, there were no indications of major disruptions, though there were scattered reports of election-related problems in some places. In Tuva, a small region in southern Siberia, a bus carrying journalists and observers of the region’s legislative election was shot at, reportedly by masked men riding horses. No injuries were reported.
In the country’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg, there were reports that independent election monitors had been harassed. One affiliated with anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny said she had had a green liquid splashed on her after being accosted by men outside her home who warned her not to interfere with the vote count.
The city’s acting governor, Aleksandr Beglov, was seeking to win his first full term in office, after being appointed to his post last year by President Putin. Beglov’s tenure so far has been plagued by gaffes and questions of competence in running the liberal-minded city.
On the eve of the vote, Moscow police detained Vladimir Yegorov, an activist with the election-monitoring organization Golos. Yegorov was detained and charged with hooliganism, according to a September 8 Facebook post by Grigory Melkonyants, one of the organization’s founders.
One of Russia’s most-prominent election-monitoring organizations, Golos has been repeatedly pressured by authorities in the past. In 2013, it was labeled a “foreign agent” under a law aimed at restricting nongovernmental organizations ability to receive foreign funding.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry condemned the effort to hold elections in Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in March 2014.
“The outcome of this illegal voting is null and void. It won’t have any legal aftermath and won’t be recognized by Ukraine and the international community,” the ministry said in a statement.
Ahead of the vote, Putin replaced several regional governors in a bid to avoid a repeat of last year’s gubernatorial elections, when several Kremlin-backed candidates lost.
In Moscow, many members of the ruling United Russia party opted to run as independents in an apparent bid to mask their affiliation with the ruling party.
Much of the public has turned against United Russia after it passed a law raising retirement ages and raised the VAT rate. The party, which dominates parliament, also backed a program to tax long-distance trucking, and cracked down on local protests in many cities against numerous controversial proposals for coping with municipal household waste.
Another sign of United Russia’s troubles: none of the officially registered candidates for the Moscow City Duma were running under United Russia’s banner, reportedly the first time that had happened in the Russian capital.
Things aren’t much better for Putin himself. Public trust in the Russian leader in May fell to its lowest level in 13 years, according to a Russian state pollster.
The decision to bar many liberals from running sparked a wave of protests in the Russian capital, with some 50,000 turning out at the August 10 opposition event.
That was among the largest demonstrations in Moscow since the massive 2011-12 protests against Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term as president.
During the July 27 demonstration, some 1,300 people were arrested, prompting the United States, European Union, and human rights groups to denounce what they called the “disproportionate” and “indiscriminate” use of force against the demonstrators.