While Western leaders search for an appropriate response to suspicions over Russia’s activities abroad, at home the Kremlin faces a presidential election. With President Vladimir Putin expected to secure a fourth term, a human rights monitor told WikiTribune the Russian government has been preparing for the poll by ratcheting up pressure on opposition activists.
On March 18, Putin will face seven opposition candidates and is widely expected to win, securing his fourth term since becoming president in 2000, with a four-year stint as Prime Minister between his second and third presidential terms.
‘They are taking people away … Many opposition activists are being arrested’ – Grigory Durnovo
In the immediate build-up to the election, Russia’s role on the world stage has been under scrutiny, with France, Germany, and the United States joining the UK in condemning the Kremlin for the role they suspect it played in a nerve agent attack on a former double agent in a small English city. Meanwhile, the White House confirmed it is placing sanctions on 19 government-linked Russians for their role in suspected attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election and cyber attacks on infrastructure.
Grigory Durnovo, an editor at Russian human rights monitoring group OVDinfo, said the global reverberations have had little impact domestically, with the Kremlin preparing for the election with characteristic confidence.
OVDinfo receives reports on human rights abuses across Russia, and has a full-time staff of about 20, though it calls on volunteers during times of high political activity.
WikiTribune: What have you been monitoring in the build-up to the election?
Durnovo: From every region we are monitoring reports of different types of repression, particularly against people distributing leaflets calling for the boycotting of the elections. There have also been attacks against the apartments of some candidates and other activists – we are providing them with legal assistance in the courts, mainly in Moscow, but also providing legal advice via phone or email [to different regions].
Are you expecting any violence or protests on election day?
Durnovo: We’re not very sure because we see now and have been seeing more abuse in the last few days than most days – the authorities are doing more to take people away from the streets and from monitoring the elections as well.
I still think there will be some violence at the places [polling stations] but maybe there will be fewer demonstrations on the streets. I guess there will also be some violence during the night when votes are being counted.
You mentioned seeing “more abuse” – what type of pressure are activists and your members under?
Durnovo: The authorities are detaining people who are spreading leaflets, who are sitting in pickets against the elections, and charging them with violation of pre-election propaganda [laws]. However there is no violation in just telling people not to vote.
The other thing, maybe not directly linked to the elections, but it is quite obvious they are taking people away. In different cities they are arresting people, formally for their participation in some rallies in February and March, but it seems that such a big attack, with [widespread] arrests, is linked to the elections. Many opposition activists are being arrested for dozens of days.
Do you know how many people have been arrested?
Durnovo: That’s hard to say. Unfortunately we don’t have statistics now, hour by hour, but dozens and dozens of course, maybe up to 100.
I’m aware that some journalists were not allowed by the Central Election Committee to attend the election as journalists – those who were linked to [opposition leader Alexei] Navalny.
What issues are affecting the election – what influences how people are voting?
Durnovo: I can only say what I have observed – this is not the field of our work – but some people prefer not to vote because they say it won’t change anything and everything is counted already. Some people are willing to go to the election and spoil the ballot. Some people will vote for an opposition candidate, because they don’t want to lose their vote. I cannot speak for people who are ready to give their vote to Putin because I haven’t heard [a good] argument [to do so], but of course I see there are people who do that.
Well Putin appears to do well in polling – do you think he is popular among voters?
Durnovo: It seems that he is still popular … I heard some say the problems people are facing they blame on regional authorities who don’t obey him. The real popularity maybe doesn’t correlate with the official numbers some polling agencies are giving, but the fact he is popular is true I think.
The authorities also are using ways to raise support in administrative ways, they are using buses to take people to rallies to support Putin. There are a lot of stories about people being told by their work they must vote and being told they will lose their work otherwise, things like that.
What about the opposition candidates – are any real challengers to Putin?
Durnovo: Ha! Well once again we’re not monitoring that and cannot speak about any agreements within the presidential administration, but it seems that the authorities would not allow a person to take part in the elections if this person is not loyal enough.
[Civic Initiative candidate, Ksenia] Sobchak is saying a lot of things that are against Putin and against his authority and policies, for instance in Crimea. But still there is the possibility that it had been agreed before, because some things she is allowing herself to say are not allowed for other people. For instance, some of the things she has said about Crimea can be punished by law, and we know of such cases, but she was not punished so this causes some doubt.
Also the fact that Navalny was not allowed [to run], and that his case has been sentenced last year in order not to allow him to take part.
What is Navalny doing?
Durnovo: He is telling people to boycott the elections, and sending people to monitor violations.
Everyone here is talking about the attack on Sergei Skripal – can you give a perspective on that?
Durnovo: We’re not monitoring that, but of course we see that it’s an issue that’s caused a strong statement by foreign leaders. It seems that it affects the situation in Russia maybe – the repressions against some opponents here within Russia will be more [dangerous]. But even without the Skripal case I think after the elections, the repression will be more tough.
Are people talking about the case and its repercussions within Russia, will it affect the election at all?
Durnovo: Yes of course they are talking about this. But I don’t think so. There are some protests against the elections, but I don’t think this will make it bigger. There are some people against the regime and maybe Skripal will make them firmer, but I don’t think there will be people who will see Skripal and change their mind.
This interview has been edited for clarity, a full transcript will be uploaded soon.