Kremlin-friendly candidates glide to victory across Russia while opposition is sidelined

By WILL ENGLUND | The Washington Post | Published: September 8, 2019

MOSCOW — The local elections that sparked a summer of protest in Moscow and St. Petersburg were finally held Sunday, and from one end of Russia to the other candidates friendly to the Kremlin for the most part romped to victory — because they faced almost no real opposition.

Local election commissions had made sure to strike activists off the ballot on one pretext or another, and local media ignored those who did manage to stay in the race.

But in a move that's sure to attract skeptical attention, a think tank launched in 2012 by a former Kremlin insider announced Sunday evening that it had decided not to release the results of exit polls in the race for Moscow's city council. The organization, called the Civil Society Development Foundation, said too many voters had refused to cooperate.

Given Muscovites' support for the opposition and distrust of the authorities — as revealed in several recent polls — a widespread refusal to take part in exit polling is plausible.

But in a city that has seen weekly demonstrations and a brutal police crackdown in late July, suspicions run high, and any perception of flagrant fiddling could be enough to keep the protests going — as happened after a parliamentary election in 2011 that was widely derided as rigged.

"We received a high rejection rate at the exit from polling stations. In some districts, the failure rate exceeded 70 percent," the foundation wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

"In other districts it is at the level of 45-50 percent. All this suggests that the publication of such unweighted and conflicting data would be an unprofessional act."

Russians with long memories might recall that exit polling provoked huge demonstrations in Ukraine in 2004 because the announced results were so at odds with the polls. And those protests led to the Orange Revolution — which played a significant role in turning Russian President Vladimir Putin sharply against free elections and protests.

Russia's telecommunications agency, Roskomnadzor, announced Sunday that it had detected political advertising on Facebook, YouTube and Google, which it said is illegal on election day under Russian law. The agency said this wasn't the first time it had spotted such ads, and it suggested they could be viewed as meddling by foreign companies in Russia's sovereign affairs "and obstructing the holding of democratic elections."

"These kinds of actions by foreign companies are inadmissible," the agency said in a statement.

The agency said it would turn over its information to a parliamentary committee formed this summer to investigate foreign interference in Russian elections. Committee chairman Vasily Piskaryov spoke to reporters on Sunday.

"We have earlier sent requests to the Russian Central Elections Commission and Roskomnadzor to receive materials about the meddling in our internal affairs and after studying them we want to invite representatives of these companies to a meeting of the committee to give their explanations," Piskaryov said.

The day brought a slew of reports of electoral shenanigans, most of them unverifiable — ballot boxes spirited away, dead people voting. In Tyva, near the border with Mongolia, men on horseback took shots at a bus carrying election observers, but no one was reported hurt.

In Moscow, 13 people were detained when they walked along Tverskaya Street in the center of the city, with T-shirts bearing the likenesses of protesters arrested and sentenced for taking part in this summer's demonstrations. Among the 13 was Maria Alyokhina of the punk band Pussy Riot, who spent more than a year in prison in 2012 and 2013 for singing a song denouncing Putin in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

By midafternoon, the co-chair of the beleaguered election watchdog nonprofit Golos said, it was aware of "no flagrant violations."

The situation varied from region to region, Grigory Melkonyants told the Interfax news agency: "It is hot somewhere, it is calmer somewhere else."

"Busing and bribing voters are unfortunately a serious concern in Siberia and the Far East," he said. "As for Moscow, the voting so far is going on more or less well. There are some violations, but they are not widespread."

Igor Borisov, the co-chair of the monitoring working group of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, told Interfax that "there are no flagrant breaches or encroachments on electoral rights."

And on Sunday evening, after the polls closed, the head of the Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, told reporters "we have not recorded serious violations that would cast doubt on the will of voters. At least we don't know anything about such cases."

Elections were held in a few dozen cities and regions. In several regions, acting governors who had been appointed within the past year by Putin were running for election — and results typically showed them getting super majorities.

Early results showed the acting governor in Stavropol with 79.8 percent of the vote, in Lipetsk with 64.5 percent, in Bashkiria with 85.3 percent, and in Zabaikalsk - 90.2 percent. By late evening, most of the votes countrywide had yet to be counted. Opposition activists, who had been hoping for a moral victory, will make what they can of the results on Monday.

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