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Putin Expels USAID; Organization Contributed to Russian NGO that Mapped Electoral Balloting Irregularities

BY Natalia Antonova | Friday, October 5 2012

Screenshot from the Golos election mapping site

Though often derided by critics for underhanded tactics, the Russian government is being upfront this time around. When it came to booting out USAID from the country starting from October 1 of this year, the reasons stated were explicit — i.e., meddling in domestic affairs.

As Russia’s Foreign Ministry put it with regard to USAID’s activities in Russia: “What we are talking about is an attempt to influence political processes — including various elections and social institutions — via the distribution of grants.”

Of particular interest to the authorities was USAID’s funding of election watchdog Golos — that would be the same monitoring organization that helped identify voting irregularities during the State Duma elections in December 2011. And it was after that particular election that, of course, Russia saw its biggest protests since the early 1990’s.

Golos became widely known for an online interactive project called Karta Narusheny — literally, A Map of Election Fraud. The map provided both up-to-date information on any new reported violations as well as statistics.

Golos’s data collection methodology is as follows: Volunteers in the field monitor polling booths in about half of Russia’s vast; and any concerned citizen can upload information about violations to the Golos site, where there are explicit instructions on how to lodge a formal complaint with the authorities. Volunteers provide Golos with updates regarding or not there has been an official response to the complaints.

In the run-up to the regional elections that will take place on October 14, the map is already recording new reports of violations — as of press time, the latest report concerns election posters in the Krasnodar region, where, allegedly, election posters for a United Russia candidate are not being marked correctly, obscuring the fact that the candidate is a member of the ruling party.

It was reports of mass voter fraud on December 4, 2011, that galvanized Russia’s divided protest movement — and swelled its ranks.

Although the country’s ruling United Russia party boasts many gifted, democratically minded members, it is no secret that for local party bosses and election officials, getting the “right” results in an election cycle is essential. The “right” results are a demonstration of political loyalty, which is an essential component of how election politics operate on the lower rungs of the political food chain in Russia. Sometimes it is not even a matter of whether or not the “right” candidate wins — but a matter of by what margin. Results that are too close for comfort, for example, may make one’s party bosses uncomfortable.

For a figure like Vladimir Putin, who, despite seeing his overall popularity rankings decline recently, remains Russia’s most popular politician, winning the recent presidential election was essentially a walk in the park. But for other government representatives, genuine competition in an election cycle may, occasionally, present itself. And competition is still anathema to people who grew up in the Soviet era — when no one had to worry about things like public dissidents or scandals around ballot stuffing.

The casual, low-key voter fraud in Russia is, in that sense, an expression of a kind of nostalgia for the good old days, when there was just one party, and no one worried overmuch about politics — seeing as everything was decided for them. It’s just that nowadays, the Internet gets in the way of all of that, with tech-savvy organizations like Golos attempting to drag election officials kicking and screaming into the modern age.

At the beginning of 2012, Russia surpassed Germany's number of total Internet users — making it the country with the highest number of Internet users in Europe. This may spell trouble down the road for Russia’s state television networks – which have faced criticism for being staunchly pro-Kremlin (though it must be noted that as the protest movement gained momentum recently, key opposition figures suddenly received more air-time — because not even state TV could ignore them, particularly in the regions far from the capital).

But active on the Internet does not necessarily mean politically active. As Alexei Navalny, probably Russia’s most recognizable opposition figure nowadays, put it on his blog: “Look, there are over 70 million people who are online in Russia. But that doesn’t mean that they exist in the same information environment as [the opposition]. The overwhelming majority of these people occasionally use the [Russian social networks] Odnoklassniki [and] Vkontakte, they check the weather, and so on.”

Navalny’s solution to what he sees as the problem of ignorance and complacency among Russian Internet users was to launch a project he calls The Good Propaganda Machine – aimed at getting the oppositions message out to people who otherwise would not hear about it. This includes spreading the news about, say, corruption scandals and controversial court rulings.

Navalny currently faces 10 years’ imprisonment on charges of embezzlement. The criminal case is widely perceived as political in nature.

The fact that Navalny felt he had to include the word “propaganda” in his project shows that public politics in Russia still have a way to go — because, no matter how you cut it, “propaganda” implies brainwashing. If the state brainwashes the population through state TV, the opposition reasons that it can do the same through the Internet. It certainly makes Russia’s political future seem interesting — though one can’t help but wonder when politics in Russia will become more nuanced.

The upcoming October 14 election cycle does not promise much in the way of nuance. The battle lines have been drawn in the sand — and Golos, for one, is expecting more election fraud. The organization will continue its work despite the departure of USAID.

I spoke at length with Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos, about USAID’s departure, elections in Russia, and whether or not there is room for optimism in the future.

“We are not going to cease operations, but we will have to change the way we operate our projects,” Melkonyants told me, pointing out that funding from USAID was mostly used towards organizational purposes, such as helping election monitors with carpools, renting offices for training seminars, and so on. Golos is active in more than half of Russia’s regions — and Russia is an enormous country, where logistical challenges are plentiful and finding solutions to them can be expensive.

Like most non-governmental projects that are not aligned with the Kremlin, Golos has been dependent on funding from abroad — particularly because Russian businesspeople are loath to cross the authorities and very rarely donate to organizations that displease the ruling officials. “The culture of giving to non-governmental organizations is just now starting to develop,” he said. “Only starting in 2012 can people get a tax exemption on their donations – and while we’ve always had a support system for state care facilities for minors, for sick children, people give political organizations a wide berth.”

Melkonyants was dismissive of the Russian government’s criticism of USAID’s perceived meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. “This kind of international support is done all over the world — Russia does it too,” he said. “When a society is well-developed, it doesn’t only think about itself, it is concerned with spreading the values it deems important … According to the Russian constitution, human rights are our country’s greatest value — therefore, I believe this kind of aid is consistent with our national idea.”

Much as I do, Melkonyants believes that Russia will continue to develop in a positive direction. “Of course, we don’t want any sudden changes,” he said. “We want gradual change — as opposed to sudden, revolution-like changes — because that would not benefit anyone.”

Natalia Antonova is the acting editor in chief of the Moscow News.

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