September 8 will be the single voting day in Russia. Regional elections will be held all across the country. This includes city duma elections in Moscow. «United Russia» historically has low ratings in the capital, and that’s exactly why local authorities are doing everything in their power to prevent any serious opposition candidates from participating.
Moscow has been split into 45 districts, each of which will elect its own city duma representative. In an attempt to confuse the voters, «United Russia» decided that all of its members will run as self-nominees and hide their affiliation with the governing party. Some pro-government candidates were even allowed to criticise the government during their election campaigns if they consider it necessary.
In an attempt to provide an alternative, independent candidates supported by Alexey Navalny’s Moscow HQ decided to take part in the elections in 26 of the 45 electoral districts. In order to apply for registration as a self-nominee, each of them had to collect around 5000 signatures in his support from the residents of his district. This proved to be quite a difficult task. A special Signature Collection Center was set up in the center of Moscow. Any resident of the aforementioned 26 districts could come there to leave his signature in support of his candidate. Dozens of volunteers helped the center operate seven days a week, collecting hundreds of signatures every day.
Apart from that, each candidate has its own team of volunteers who went door to door collecting signatures and set up signature collection stands near public places like subway stations or parks. This was far from easy, as in some districts the volunteers and their stands were attacked by pro-government activists who threw actual feces and other disgusting substances at them.
In some districts, there were also reports of fake signature collectors. People posing as real volunteers asked local residents to leave their signatures on fake blanks. This was supposedly done to let the election committee substitute the real blanks with the fake ones and then claim that all submitted signatures were fake. Unfortunately for the fake collectors, one of them didn’t recognise Ilya Yashin (candidate in district 45) and asked him to leave a signature in his own support. When interrogated by Yashin, the woman claimed that she had no idea the blanks were fake and said that she was instructed to collect signatures by Maria Koleda, a famous pro-Kremlin activist.
Nevertheless, most independent candidates managed to collect the required amount of signatures and submit all the required documents to the election committee before the July 6 deadline. On July 5, the day before the deadline, Alexey Navalny published an open letter to the head of the Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova signed by five independent candidates: Ivan Zhdanov, Vladimir, Milov, Lyubov Sobol, Konstantin Yankauskas and Ilya Yashin. In it, they asked Pamfilova to ensure that all independent candidates who put forth tremendous effort to collect the required amounts of signatures are allowed to participate in the elections and not denied for various fake reasons.
Unfortunately, the letter had no effect. As of July 15, Pamfilova has not provided any comments on the situation and is currently on a medical leave. While the signatures submitted by pro-government self-nominees were accepted without any questions (even though nobody saw these candidates or their representatives actually collecting them), the signatures submitted by independent candidates were studied meticulously by the experts. The law states that the candidate’s registration can be denied if over 10% of his signatures are rejected, and the experts were doing everything in their power to make it happen.
First, the data from the signature lists (names, passport numbers addresses and dates of birth of people who left their signatures) had to be typed into a computer and checked against the government database. If a person who typed in the data made a mistake in process (e.g. added an extra zero to the passport number or mistyped the name of a signee), the database would indicate a discrepancy, and the signature would be rejected. Hundreds of signatures collected by independent candidates were rejected because of such outrageous processing errors.
Next, the remaining signatures were studied by graphology experts behind closed doors. While a normal expertise of just one signature takes several hours and requires other samples of a person’s handwriting, these “experts” somehow managed to check thousands of signatures within a day or two and then mass-produce statements like “certain fields in different lines seem to be filled by the same person” and randomly reject a part of the signatures signatures. Among the signatures rejected in such a way were those from public figures or even members of the candidates’ teams who openly voiced their support of them. Video recordings and later visits of these people confirming that it was really them didn’t seem to impress the “experts”. Some of them even tried to come personally to the election commission because of that, but they weren’t allowed inside.
As a result, several independent candidates, including Ilya Yashin and Lyubov Sobol who were considered favorites in their respective districts, were told that the reject rate of the signatures they’ve collected was higher than the 10% threshold and because of that, they cannot be allowed to participate in the elections. In response, they asked their supporters to come to a rally on Puskinskaya square in Moscow on July 14 and demand registration of all independent candidates. After gathering on the square and listening to short speeches by the candidates, the crowd moved down Tverskaya street towards the mayor’s office, chanting “This is our city”, “We’re the power here”, “Register” and “Sobyanin must resign”. Protesters came up to the locked doors of the mayor’s office and knocked on them one by one in order to symbolise the unwillingness of Moscow authorities to communicate with them.
After that, the protest moved to the nearby building of the Moscow Election Commission. Its doors were guarded by several policemen who refused to let anyone inside. The crowd started chanting “Gorbunov, come on out”, referring to the head of the commission Valentin Gorbunov, and refused to leave until he meets with the candidates and hears them out. Ilya Yashin called one of Gorbunov’s assistants on the phone and learned that Gorbunov was currently “on his dacha, working in the garden”. Yashin demanded that Gorbunov comes to the protesters as they started getting ready to spend the night on the street waiting for him. A group of young people sat down on the ground in front of the entrance, and people started bringing them food, water and foam mats. By early evening, the total number of protesters gathered in front of the election commission was close to 1000.
Dozens of policemen gathered in the surrounding area, but for the first several hours they behaved peacefully and indicated that they haven’t received any orders to suppress the protest. However, when the protesters started setting up tents, the police moved in immediately and pushed the crowd back onto the surrounding streets within minutes. 39 people were detained, including candidates Lyubov Sobol, Ilya Yashin and Yulia Galyamina. Three protesters suffered serious injuries and were hospitalised.
During the protest, Yashin asked the crowd to continue gathering every day until all independent candidates are allowed to participate in the elections. He announced that the next two protests will be held on July 15 and 16 at Trubnaya square.
In response to the protest, Moscow Election Committee published a statement on its website, warning the candidates from using “blackmail and pressure” to force the committee “to illegally register them”. Gorbunov himself, upon returning from his dacha, announced that he will gladly meet with the candidates on July 15, several hours before the planned protest. However, no journalists were allowed inside, and the candidates were surprised to learn that Gorbunov is only willing to meet them one by one inside his office without any cameras. The candidates insisted on a public and thoroughly recorded discussion, but Gorbunov simply went back inside his office. The candidates decided to leave immediately, asking everyone to join them on Trubnaya square later that day.
Several hours later, Ilya Yashin announced that he was officially denied registration as a candidate because of the high reject rate of the signatures in his support. During his meeting with a representative of the election committee, Yashin tried to complain about countless mistakes made by those who were checking the signatures. The latter responded: “We have no reason not to trust the experts”, thus further confirming that whether or not a candidate gets registered solely depends on the instructions from the above.
The final day for the registration of candidates is July 16. We hope that the protests will have their effect and Moscow authorities will change their minds until then. If not, numerous lawsuits will be filed and the fight for fair elections will continue in courts.