Russia: Sham presidential election amid total state capture of civic space

Russia: Sham presidential election amid total state capture of civic space - Civic Space

Protest in Petersburg in response to Russia's war in Ukraine. Photo: Konstantin Lenkov/ Shutterstock

The 2024 presidential election in Russia is marked by a severe crackdown on the political opposition, extreme censorship measures, a lack of fairness and transparency of the electoral process, and repression of dissent and protests. ARTICLE 19 urges the international community to respond strongly to the gross violations of the right to freedom of expression, the right to protest, and the right to vote in Russia, as well as to the extension of the presidential election to the Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine. 

President Vladimir Putin, against whom the International Criminal Court issued an international arrest warrant for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia exactly a year ago, is seeking to be re-elected for the fifth time in the election scheduled for 15-17 March. This presidential election stands out in 2024, a ‘year of elections’, for the lack of any pretence of being democratic in nature. 

Over the last two years, ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly warned that the brutal Russian war of aggression has led to immense human suffering in Ukraine and plunged Russia deeper into draconian state capture of both online and offline civic spaces. 

Those who will come out to vote will face a short list on the ballot: all relevant opposition figures are either jailed, in exile, or denied registration as candidates. Dissent against President Putin, policies of his government, or the war against Ukraine – the simple mention of which can cost one their liberty – is brutally repressed through a combination of legal sanctions, growing forms of retaliation, and extreme censorship measures. The right to protest in Russia is under the most severe attack since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Last but not least, the Russian presidential election is also organised on the sovereign territory of another country – the occupied territories of Ukraine – which is a flagrant violation of international law that further quashes the legitimacy of this ‘election’. 

No country for opposition

Political opposition to President Putin and his government in 2024 is extremely dangerous. Nearly any noteworthy alternative political figure is either in prison, in exile, dead, or legally barred from participating in the election. ARTICLE 19 joins other organisations in raising concern about a multitude of restrictions on the exercise of electoral rights. In particular, opposition parties are severely restricted in their ability to register candidates for public office, access media outlets, and conduct political campaigns. 

Alexei Navalny, a key member of the political opposition and the leader of the non-governmental organisation Anti-Corruption Foundation, was likely murdered in a Russian penal colony last month after surviving a poisoning attempt three years before, with strong evidence indicating the involvement of the Russian Federal Security Service. Given the lack of any prospect of an independent investigation into Navalny’s death, ARTICLE 19 considers it unlikely that the authorities will reveal the true cause and circumstances of this atrocious act, responsibility for which lies with the Russian government.

ARTICLE 19 is also gravely concerned that other key opposition politicians have been imprisoned since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ilya Yashin was sentenced to 8 and half years’ imprisonment in December 2022 for disseminating ‘fake news’ about the Russian armed forces after he spoke out against a massacre of civilians in Bucha, a town in Ukraine. In April 2023, dual British-Russian citizen and key opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza received a 25-year prison sentence and a 7-year ban on journalistic activities upon release on combined charges of ‘fake news’, a treason accusation, and participation in the activities of an ‘undesirable’ organisation. 

ARTICLE 19 finds it telling that these prosecutions are a retaliation against the exercise of one’s right to freedom of expression on issues of acute public interest, which is particularly protected from any interference under international human rights law. 

Many opposition voices, fearing the very tangible prospects of persecution, have been forced into exile. As such, they cannot participate in the election campaigns, and their communication with the domestic audience in Russia is severely restricted due to a crackdown on media and other information channels. 

Finally, ARTICLE 19 highlights that some candidates who have recently emerged, albeit controversial figures, have been legally banned from participating in the election. Most notably, the Central Election Commission refused to register Boris Nadezhdin as a candidate on the pretence of his nomination collecting an insufficient number of valid signatures. 

ARTICLE 19 believes that the crackdown on the opposition not only violates the essential rights of dissenting politicians but also infringes upon the rights of voters. The purge of political plurality leaves Russian citizens without genuine choice in the upcoming election, which in itself erases any last pitiful semblance of a fair electoral process in Russia. The absence of genuine political competition uncannily resembles the orchestrated ‘elections’ in the Soviet Union. In this context, we urge the international community to condemn the presidential election as illegitimate. 

Scorched earth tactics against civil society and media

For ARTICLE 19, Russian civic space in 2024 is best described as scorched earth: the political and civic aspects of free expression are severely restricted by the application of several notorious prohibitions. Those include disseminating ‘fake news’ about and the ‘discrediting’ of the Russian armed forces, as well as ‘calls for sanctions against the Russian Federation, its citizens or legal entities,’ which incur administrative and criminal sanctions. These provisions have been applied against key members of the Russian opposition, including Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza. They have also become a powerful tool for repressing citizens’ dissent over Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and suppressing the wider debate on political and economic issues, expressed online or even in private conversations. 

ARTICLE 19’s analysis shows that so-called ‘anti-extremism’ legislation is populated with an array of broad, ill-defined and regularly modified prohibitions of non-violent expression and other exercise of one’s fundamental freedoms. The legislation has been instrumental in the crackdown on political opponents, human rights defenders, media outlets, civil society groups, and individual dissenters. Among other restrictions, it allows extrajudicial blocking of websites and censorship of books and other types of political speech. 

Access to information of public interest, essential in an electoral cycle, is severely restricted in Russia. The practice of wholesale blocking of websites and other online resources has become commonplace. Thousands of internet sites and resources and a number of social media platforms (eg Facebook and Instagram) have been blocked or banned. Key international media, as well as domestic media perceived as critical of the authorities, have been suspended from dissemination, online or in other forms, in Russian territory. Direct censorship measures are accompanied by systematic violations against journalists, including harassment, threats, prosecution, and imprisonment. As a result, voters are denied the vital pillar of a democratic electoral process – access to pluralistic and reliable sources of information about policies, candidates, and the larger political and socio-economic situation in the country. 

ARTICLE 19 underlines that the free flow of information is vital at this time, including respect for a free and independent media and an open internet. The information vacuum left by censorship in Russia is filled by state propaganda and manipulation of information. A wide range of spurious reports, fabricated social media posts, and deepfakes are used to justify the war against Ukraine and rally support for the current government. Most appallingly, certain statements and information operations contain elements of propaganda for war and discriminatory hatred amounting to incitement to violence, discrimination, or hostility, which are prohibited by international human rights law. 

Designations of ‘undesirable organisations’ and ‘foreign agents’ imposed on various types of civil society groups, including ARTICLE 19, and the media, have had devastating effects both for freedom of association and freedom of expression. The gradual expansion of restrictions and sanctions associated with these stigmatising designations has made legitimate activities of many civil society groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and media outlets impossible in Russia. Simply sharing content produced by an ‘undesirable organisation’ on social media can lead to prosecution. High-profile cases against ‘undesirables’ and ‘foreign agents’ have a spill-over chilling effect on civic activism and participation in public affairs, stifling alternative voices. 

ARTICLE 19 remarks that the electoral process is blatantly non-transparent, with meagre opportunities for citizens and civil society to monitor the vote and challenge violations. The evasion of public scrutiny and the compulsive obsession with secrecy adds to concerns about the total absence of fairness in the upcoming election. The Human Rights Committee referred to the burdensome administrative procedures that hamper the access required by independent observers and journalists. Contrary to Russia’s international commitments, OSCE observers have not been provided with access to the 2024 presidential election. The OSCE commented that the Russian government decision not to invite the observers ‘add[s] to the growing concerns surrounding the shrinking democratic space and erosion of fundamental rights in the Russian Federation’. Local grassroots initiatives have suffered from intimidation and the imposition of sanctions as retaliation against their work. Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of a prominent election watchdog, has been in detention since last year. 

Blackout on the right to protest

ARTICLE 19 firmly believes that the right to protest must be protected in the lead-up to and in the aftermath of elections. It is a necessary corollary of the civic right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, indispensable for the holding of free and fair elections. Yet, in Russia, the right to protest has been eroded over the decades of Vladimir Putin’s government. 

Russia’s law enforcement practices are aimed at preventing any political protests from gathering in the first place. The convoluted and arbitrary rules for prior notification for holding an assembly essentially amount to an authorisation system. They are coupled with the deplorable strategy of ‘preventive detention’ to hamper participation in protests, and more recently have been enhanced by surveillance technologies, including facial recognition. This has made it nearly impossible to exercise one’s fundamental right to peaceful assembly. Those protests that do manage to take place do not last long before they face violent responses from law enforcement and en masse arbitrary arrests of the participants. The Human Rights Committee cited these violations in its recent Concluding Observations on Russia and called on the government to put an end to them. 

ARTICLE 19 also notes that the Russian authorities have been manifestly selective in applying the laws that govern the holding of assemblies. Characteristically, they have allowed numerous demonstrations that expressed support for the current political leadership, their policies, and the invasion of Ukraine. 

These policies and practices contribute significantly to the prevailing climate of fear, which discourages display of any protest against the lack of fairness and legitimacy of the upcoming election and the violations of citizens’ voting rights. 

Russian election outside Russian borders

With blatant disregard for Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, Russia is preparing to collect votes in the Ukrainian occupied territories. This follows the pattern of holding ‘elections’ in Crimea since the start of the occupation of the peninsula in 2014 and, more recently, the organising of illegal ‘local elections’ in Crimea and parts of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions of Ukraine. In 2023, the sham voting received strong international condemnation. The UN has documented multiple cases of coercing local residents to cast their votes. 

ARTICLE 19 considers the extension of the Russian presidential election to the occupied parts of Ukraine to be a tactic to legitimise the military occupation. It is part of the larger effort to impose the Russian legal, political, and administrative system in these territories. As such, the ‘voting’ in Donetsk and Simferopol calls into question the legitimacy and integrity of the election as a whole. 

People living in the occupied territories are subjected to systematic violations and abuses of human rights, including Orwellian censorship measures and the most brutal repression of any pro-Ukrainian voices or other dissent, the expression of which is life-threatening. There are currently over 200 political prisoners from Crimea, both detained on the peninsula and deported to serve sentences in Russian prisons. More than half of them are indigenous Crimean Tatars. One of the most appalling examples of repression is the imprisonment of Nariman Dzhelyal, a journalist, activist and a deputy chair of the Mejlis – the informal self-government of Crimean Tatars. He was convicted to 17 years in prison on trumped-up charges and deported to Russia to serve his sentence. 

The previous record of sham ‘elections’ leaves little doubt that the occupying authorities will use a panoply of intimidation tactics and threats to coerce local residents to turn up and ‘vote’. 

ARTICLE 19 believes that this flagrant disdain for the most fundamental principles of international law should be met with a concrete response from the international community, including sanctions and diplomatic and political pressure. These actions must go hand in hand with further provision of support to Ukraine. 

What’s next?

The Russian presidential election must not be legitimised through acquiescence and lack of international reaction. The lack of free, pluralistic political competition, including criminal prosecution of numerous opposition figures and denials to register alternative candidates, conducting the elections in the occupied territories of Ukraine, and large-scale censorship and suppression of alternative voices, has erased any illusion of the integrity or legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election in Russia. 

ARTICLE 19 urges the international community to respond strongly to the gross violations of political and voting rights in Russia and offer concrete support to civil society, including those forced into exile. This could include offering emergency evacuation, shelter, simplified visa procedures, granting refugee status or providing financial assistance to independent journalists and human rights defenders. 

The conduct of the Russian presidential election in the occupied territories of Ukraine calls for concrete counter-measures, including expanded targeted sanctions and further forms of support to Ukraine. Ensuring that dissenting voices from the Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine are heard by the international community is a must.

Warning: The Russian authorities designated ARTICLE 19 as an ‘undesirable organisation’ on 8 February 2024. While the ‘undesirable’ designation can be seen as a marker of recognition of ARTICLE 19’s work to promote freedom of expression, we understand that it also carries significant risks for those who engage with our work. Under Russian legislation, an ill-defined and overbroad notion of ‘participation in the activities of an undesirable organisation’ incurs the risk of administrative and criminal prosecution. We also understand that sharing and storing this statement in Russia can be considered a prosecutable offence and may lead to the imposition of fines and other sanctions.