A Russian court has fined the country’s leading election watchdog for publishing polling data less than five days before Sunday’s elections for the State Duma.
The court fined Golos a token 30,000 rubles ($980) but the group intends to appeal the decision, the latest episode in a campaign of dirty tricks and harassment by the Kremlin in the run-up to the weekend’s poll. The case is clearly politically motivated, say observers.
“Golos has become a most important and respected monitor,” said Oleg Kozyrev, a media analyst and blogger. “The authorities were afraid people would learn the truth about how elections are manipulated.”
The monitoring group was today attacked as an agent of foreign powers on NTV, a TV station owned by state-controlled Gazprom. Russian premier Vladimir Putin this week suggested that NGOs were ‘Judases” for accepting foreign funds.
“We have never encountered such a backlash before,” Golos told TV Rain, an internet television station.
The Obama administration criticized the judgment and “what appears to be a pattern of harassment directed against this organization,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
“Golos is a well-known and well-regarded Russian independent election monitoring organization that has operated in Russia for over a decade,” he said. “The data Golos publishes is from Russian observers and Russian citizens around the country.”
The regime is struggling to adapt to widespread revulsion at Putin’s anticipated return to the presidency and to an unprecedented level of open public hostility, most recently evident in the raucous booing of Putin at a martial arts fight in Moscow.
“An accumulation of incremental events has turned into an enormous wave of negative emotion,” said Mark Urnov, dean of political studies at the Higher School of Economics, and the Kremlin is struggling to adapt. “That is why they reacted so badly to Golos, and made a mistake.”
“They are trying to discredit our work in the eyes of the public. I think there will be more cases against us. This is only the first one,” Golos activist Grigory Melkonyants told The New York Times:
Pressure from authorities has mounted to the point that Golos’s 3,000 election monitors may not be able to observe voting on Sunday, Mr. Melkonyants said. Police on Friday searched a Golos field office in Siberia, and several election observers were warned not to take part, according to the group.
The court ruling cited Golos’s “Map of Violations” for breaking electoral law. The website has attracted over 4,500 reports of illegal campaign tactics, largely on the part of the ruling United Russia party, which is desperate to arrest its declining popularity:
The Kremlin is scrambling to shore up United Russia, which is almost certain to lose the two-thirds majority it has enjoyed since 2007, and to dissuade those inclined to cast a protest vote. During an appearance in St. Petersburg on Friday, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin appealed to the public to support a consolidated government, lest “the entire mechanism stops operating.”
If “ you and I sitting at TV screens see lawmakers pulling each other’s hairs, beating and spitting at each other, as it happened here once and happens in some of our neighboring countries, we will not have concerted, effective work,” Mr. Putin said. “If someone wants to see a show, they should go to the circus, or the movies, or the theater.”
The latest events demonstrate the regime’s attempts to maintain the facade of pluralism in Russia’s stage-managed democracy, say analysts.
“What we have here is a system of regeneration, that regenerates the four parties represented in the Duma and sets up hurdles for any others that are impossible to overcome,” said Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center.
The authorities are also losing control over media sources of political information and analysis, as growing access to the Internet subverts official propaganda.
“These will be the last elections which are controlled by television,” said Alexei Venediktov, director of Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy:
In further bad news for state TV, many censored television shows have been given a second life as viral internet hits, often enjoying better play on the web than they would have had on television.
In late October, for example, NTV appeared to censor a documentary about kidnappings by Russian troops in Chechnya. But the broadcast was watched by over 400,000 viewers on YouTube. An NTV spokesperson said the segment was not shown because it “needed work”.
A week later, the same thing happened when NTV also refused to air segments of Unreal Politics, a talk show discussing a mobile phone interview with the head of Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group. He had been caught dining in Moscow’s most expensive restaurant and was asked how he managed to pay for the meal on his meagre government salary. NTV said the programme had not been aired “because the channel had not ordered it”.
Golos is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.