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Report17 September 2021, 09:34
Collage: Ksenia Telmanova

Table of contents


Key findings 

1. Conditions for the free formation of the will of voters 

2. Opposition to "Smart Voting" 

3. Countering agitation   

4. Abuse of administrative resources in campaigning and coercion of voters to vote



The elections in Russia scheduled for the ‘single voting day’ in 2021 are taking place against a background of growing pressure on the media, including individual journalists, and attempts to prevent the dissemination of information. A new ‘Smart Voting’ app launched by a part of the opposition has been severely restricted. In addition, select groups of voters are being massively coerced and a number of individuals are being pressured to vote on electronic government voting sites or by using a government ‘Mobile Voter’ app. However, the importance of the freer space that is to be found on social networks has been growing for years and has become an alternative channel for providing information. How these two opposing trends may affect the current election is the focus of this report.

This is the sixth report of the Golos movement within the framework of its long-term monitoring of the election campaign for the ‘single voting day’ on September 19, 2021 in Russia. It is about election campaigning and voter mobilization.

In the main body of this report, specific examples of violations of electoral rights and incidents are summarized.

Key findings

  1. Despite the political repression faced by many journalists this year, the situation with equality of coverage of parties in the media unexpectedly looks better than in the previous elections to the Russian State Duma in 2016. Back then, Golos recorded a twofold (or more) gap between "United Russia" and the KPRF and other parliamentary parties by the number of references in all federal and regional media throughout the campaign. Now, "United Russia" is only 21% ahead of the KPRF in terms of the number of mentions, while "A Just Russia - For Truth" is also among the three leading parties according to this indicator. At the same time, the KPRF is mentioned in the federal media even more frequently than "United Russia".
  2. However, the situation in the information field cannot be regarded as satisfactory, since a significant imbalance in the coverage of the parties' activities is observed in the largest and most influential media outlets. For example, on federal TV channels, the disparity between the parties is incredibly disproportionate, with "United Russia" being equal to all of the other parties combined in terms of the number of mentions on the air, while its closest competitor, the KPRF, is ahead of them almost 4.5 times. The situation with the amount of airtime allocated to the parties was similar. An analysis of tone also shows a biased attitude by the TV channels towards the parties and, first of all, towards the KPRF. In essence, the federal TV channels, while remaining the mainstream media for large groups of voters, deliberately distort the information picture of the elections, preventing citizens from freely forming and expressing their will. It is they who remain the stronghold of the unconstitutional system of state censorship. An enormous imbalance is observed in the coverage of the parties' activities in the regional media. "United Russia" has already gained an almost two-fold lead over the KPRF. The KRPF is mentioned in the regional media even less frequently than "A Just Russia - For Truth". The other parties lag even further behind. As a result, according to the Visibility Index of publications about the parties, "United Russia" has a threefold lead over the KPRF and the other parties. 
  3. The involvement of state bodies and local authorities campaigning for the ‘party of power’ further increases the inequality of information being delivered. An analysis of publications on the websites of such bodies showed that, according to the Visibility Index, publications mentioning "United Russia" are almost seven times higher than those mentioning the KPRF, not to mention other election participants. While mentions of all the parties on the websites of state authorities are largely associated with the publications of electoral commissions, the case of "United Russia" is quite different - there is copious material with a story about the party's activities, its ‘projects’ and participation in the life of the relevant localities. In fact, the Russian system of public authority has discarded the duties imposed on it by the Russian constitution to protect human rights and freedoms and to treat political parties equally, and has taken the side of one of the participants in the electoral race.
  4. Complementing this system of state control over the formation of the will of the voters is the coercion to vote, attempts to prevent campaigning by opposition candidates and parties, and illegal campaigning by officials (not only on the websites of relevant organizations, but also offline or on social networks).
  5. On the other hand, in recent years, another freer information environment that is based on social networks and the remaining independent media, has been created in the communication field of Russia. Despite the fact that by the number of references "United Russia" has a significant advantage in the social networks as well - it is of a slightly different nature. Such posts are often initiated by supporters of other parties or the politicians themselves, who define their interests as contrary to those of the ‘party of power’, so they contain a large share of negativity. In terms of the total engagement indicator of the posts (i.e. the sum of different reactions), there is no large difference at all between "United Russia" and the KPRF, which go hand in hand with each other and have a large numbers margin over all of the others. 
  6. An analysis of the dissemination of information about "Smart Voting" makes the freedom of social networks even more evident when compared  to the government-controlled media. If we compare the frequency of use of the phrase "Smart Voting" in social networks and the potential audience and engagement of such posts with the use of political party names, it becomes apparent that over the past two weeks (August 30-September 12), "Smart Voting" has become the third most popular (right behind the KPRF), second most popular (ahead of the KPRF) and first in engagement (almost double ahead of "United Russia"). 
  7. Social networks, while remaining the most free information space, are nevertheless also subject to attempts to be influenced by the state. The accounts of large pro-state media outlets with large numbers of subscribers and large pre-moderated communities are used for this purpose. In fact, these two types of social media authors, similar in structure to media outlets, conduct Internet censorship. However, the promotion by censorship agents on social networks by itself has only a limited effect. This is amply demonstrated by the ratio of reactions to any particular post (and even more so, to the potential audience) in which the KPRF has significantly fared better than the "party of power". 
  8. Thus, two different information environments that have a direct impact on the formation of voters have been formed in Russia's information field at the moment. The first one is the formed system of state censorship and propaganda, which is based on the largest TV channels and other state-affiliated media (especially at the regional level), websites of authorities and local authorities, as well as the information resources of budgetary institutions. This system has existed for a long time (to a greater or lesser extent since the mid-2000s). But now a second, more independent environment exists and is gaining traction. It includes the remaining independent media and social networks. This medium allows for delivering more diverse information to the voters.
  9. These features in the information support of the elections make them different from the previous ones by leading in the direction of a more equal presence of parties in the information field. This is by no means a merit of the state, which is entrusted by the Russian Constitution with the duty to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens; the changed conditions themselves have influenced the gradual reduction of the effectiveness of the state propaganda machine. This seems to be the reason why authorities are introducing more and more repressive practices in managing the information space.

1. Conditions for the free formation of the will of voters

As the Russian Constitutional Court rightly pointed out, elections can be considered free only when the right to information and freedom of expression are actually guaranteed. Therefore, the legislator is obliged to ensure the rights of citizens to receive and disseminate information about elections, while observing the balance of values: the right to free elections and freedom of speech and information, and by not allowing inequality and disproportionate restrictions.

The international electoral standards recognized by the Russian Federation state the same thing: to provide for the necessary conditions not only for the expression of the free will of the citizens, but for its formation in respect to the freedom of expression, assembly and association. Moreover, an obligation to provide guarantees for the observance of these freedoms lies with the state.

1.1 Pressure on the media

A special place in the freedom of expression belongs to the media, which has been under tremendous pressure from the state in recent years when the state has sought to - in violation of its constitutional obligations to citizens - to actually impose censorship. It is no coincidence that the Index Freedom Press of the international organization Reporters without Borders ranks Russia 150th out of 180 countries in 2021. 

We believe that these positions will weaken even further in the future as pressure on the media intensifies. This would probably be ‘justified’ through the mass inclusion of both editorial offices and individuals in the Registers of Foreign Media Agents and labeling some of them as undesirable organizations, which would effectively ban the distribution of their material on Russian territory. 

Since 28 December 2020, when the first individuals dubbed as foreign agents appeared in Russia, the relevant register of the Russian Ministry of Justice has increased from 12 items to 47 - a fourfold increase (apart from editorial offices, it also includes 25 individuals). During the election campaign period alone, 27 persons were labeled as foreign agents, including 20 journalists in their individual capacities, as well as such significant media outlets as Meduza* and TV Dozhd*. At the same time, one of the grounds for the inclusion of Dozhd* in a register was, for example, the distribution of materials of other media outlets/foreign agents.

However, being labeled as a foreign agent was not the strongest measure of influence on the media and journalists that was applied by the State during this election campaign. For example, on 15 July 2021, the publication Project* was recognized as an undesirable organization, which automatically banned the distribution of any materials of this publication in Russia, as well as any cooperation with it by the Russian people. The publication was forced to cease its work. 

In addition, in early August, Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Communications) blocked popular websites associated with the politician Mikhail Khodorkovsky - the websites of MBH Media and Open Media (which did not have a media license). They also ceased to operate.

1.2 Election coverage in the media

All of this cannot but affect the work of the media during the upcoming elections in the quality and objectivity of the information that the voters receive from them.

According to internationally adopted standards, the media should fulfil the social function of providing support for elections in Russia through information that is designed to promote the informed expression of the will of the citizens and the transparency of the elections. The exercise of freedom of the media imposes special duties and responsibilities on the media. Representatives of these organizations should take ethical and balanced positions and cover election campaigns in a fair, balanced and impartial manner, including ensuring an equality of access to the media for candidates. 

This, in particular, is stated in Russian legislation: according to Part 2 of Art. 45 of Federal Law No. 67-FZ "On Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights and the Right to Participate in the Referendum of the Citizens of the Russian Federation", "the content of information materials placed in mass media ... must be objective, reliable, [and] must not violate the equality of candidates [and] electoral associations". Part 5 of the same article states that "in information TV programs ... announcements of pre-election events ... shall be given solely as a separate newscast, without commentary .... They must not give preference to any candidate [or] electoral association ... no discrimination (derogation of rights) shall be allowed, including the time of coverage of their pre-election activities".

However, the reality is quite different.

Using the Scan Interfax system, the Golos movement analyzed coverage of political parties in the media. The monitoring included 19,570 federal and regional media outlets: television, radio, newspapers, magazines, news agency feeds, media websites, media blogs. In some of the cases mentioned below, data was also collected on the mention of party names on the websites of state and municipal institutions and government and local self-government bodies, as well as on the websites of organizations. Media aggregators, industry portals, company blogs and personal blogs were excluded from the monitoring. Foreign media were also excluded from the monitoring, so a number of significant Russian-oriented, but foreign-registered publications, such as Meduza, etc., were not included. The monitoring period was from July 22 to September 10, 2021. Copies of publications were also excluded.

The data presented in Fig. 1 show that the total number of references during the analyzed period clearly distinguishes several groups of parties (only the parties taking part in the federal elections were analyzed). The first one consists of three leaders: "United Russia", KPRF and "A Just Russia - For Truth", each receiving more than 10 thousand mentions. "United Russia" ranks first among all political parties in terms of mentions and outstrips its closest pursuers from the KPRF by almost 21%. 

Figure 1. Number of references to political parties in the media (2021.07.22 – 2021.09.10)

The second group of parties consists of LDPR and "Yabloko" - both received approximately 8.5 - 9 thousand mentions; they are significantly behind the top three, but also noticeably different from the parties ranked below.

The third group consisted of parties that received more than 3 thousand but less than 5 thousand mentions: "Rodina", "New People" and the "Party of Growth". 

The fourth group included the remaining six parties taking part in the elections, which were almost invisible in the general information field: "Communists of Russia", REP "The Greens", the “Party of Pensioners”, "Civic Platform", “Russian Party of Freedom and Justice” and "The Green Alternative".

In general, the situation with the equality of parties looks much better than it was during the previous elections to the Russian State Duma in 2016. Back then, Golos recorded a twofold (or more) gap between "United Russia" and the “KPRF” and other parliamentary parties throughout the campaign (the data was then collected and analyzed using another system - Medialogiya).

At the same time, in the current campaign, the KPRF's mention in the federal media was even higher than that of "United Russia", while the latter's breakaway was ensured by the enormous difference in its regional media coverage (see Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Number of publications in the federal and regional media mentioning parties (2021.07.22 – 2021.09.10)

At the regional level, the disparity between parties is more pronounced. Here "United Russia" already has an almost double lead ahead of the KPRF.   The KPRF is mentioned in the regional media even less frequently than "A Just Russia - For Truth". The other parties lag even further behind. 

The following parties are much more frequently mentioned in the regional media as compared with the federal ones: "United Russia" (2.5 times), "A Just Russia - For Truth" (2.7 times), "Yabloko" (2 times), "Party of Growth" (2.6 times), "New People" (5.3 times), "Communists of Russia" (2.9 times), "Party of Pensioners" (4.2 times) and "Civic Platform" (2.4 times). "New People" ranked sixth in terms of the number of mentions in the regional media, just behind the parliamentary parties and "Yabloko". At the same time, the MBH Media website blocked by Roskomnadzor wrote that many of these publications had been paid for, although they had no advertising label and, consequently, had not been paid for from the party's electoral account.

Thus, despite increasing pressure by the state on the media and even individual journalists and the noticeable imbalance in the coverage of parties by regional media, the situation with the equality of parties in terms of the number of references in the media was generally much better than during previous elections in 2016. 

At the same time, the situation in the information field cannot be considered satisfactory. This is largely due to a significant gap in the mentioning of "United Russia" and other parties on the websites of state bodies, local self-government bodies, state and municipal institutions (see Fig. 3). 

Figure 3. Number of publications on the websites of state and LSG bodies with references to political parties (2021.07.22 – 2021.09.10)

While the mentions of all parties on the websites of state authorities are largely related to the publications of election commissions, in the case of "United Russia" the situation is quite different - there are many posts with a story about the party's activities, its ‘projects’ and participation in the life of the respective localities. In fact, the Russian public authority system has discarded the duties imposed on it by the Russian Constitution to protect human rights and freedoms and to treat political parties equally, and has taken the side of one of the participants in the pre-election race.

Specific examples from different regions reveal how this was done. For example, the Instagram account of the administration of the Pavlovsky District of Altai Krai even resorted to threats after a self-nominated candidate in one of the districts in the local elections held during that period had beaten a representative of “United Russia” by double the number of votes. The administration addressed a question to the residents of this district: "Maybe the villages of Novye Zori and Stukovo are doing really well, and the villages don't need support from the district? It is no secret that all the representatives we support lead the line of authority and funding for the development of our villages. Almost all villages in the district can serve as an example, except Novye Zorya, where the village authorities distanced themselves from the district, trying to do something on their own, missing out on opportunities to obtain significant financial resources". (see Annex, Card No. 1).

A number of administration websites also encouraged residents to make suggestions to the "United Russia" People's Program (see Appendix, Card number 2), and Kolomna kindergartens reposted the material of candidate Nikita Chaplin in their accounts (see Appendix, Card number 3).

In Ryazan, by a special order of the Department of Education and Youth Policy, the heads of school groups in social networks were required to assign a certain technical account "Sergey Pravochkin" as a moderator, after which posts began to appear in the groups both about presidential decrees and the activities of Elena Shmeleva, head of the Sirius Center for Gifted Children and simultaneously a candidate for the State Duma from the "United Russia" party (see Appendix, Card No. 4).

The importance of such publications is well illustrated by the Visibility Index calculated by the Scan Interfax system. The Visibility Index shows the prominence of references to select parties for select periods of time, taking into account the influence of the sources and the number of references to the parties in the texts of the publications. Fig. 4 clearly shows the significant increase in visibility given to "United Russia" in these publications that are paid for by taxpayers. 

Figure 4. "Visibility Index" of political parties (2021.07.22 – 2021.09.10)

In addition, Fig. 4 draws attention to the more than three-fold gap in the media visibility of "United Russia" from KPRF and the other parties. This is despite the close performance of the two parties in terms of the total number of publications. This means that the largest media outlets, usually state-owned or state-affiliated, give obvious preference to one party. The rest of the media outlets cover the parties in a more equal manner, but their influence is insufficient to equalize this imbalance.

The distortion of the information field caused by the administrative control over the media cannot but ultimately affect the will of the voters.

Let us note another point that influences the visibility of parties in the information space, although it is not related to the activities of mass media. Fig. 5 clearly shows how big a gap "United Russia" has in the Visibility Index when it comes to the websites of organizations. As a rule, these are the websites of the political parties themselves and their regional branches. In fact, it can be said that "United Russia" has its own media empire of dozens - if not hundreds - of websites connected to the party, with a visibility index that surpasses many media outlets. The other parties do not possess such a resource to a comparable extent. 

Figure 5. Visibility Index of political parties (websites of organizations) (2021.07.22 – 2021.09.10)

1.3 Television coverage of elections

Television is one of the main sources of information for a significant part of Russians. During the election campaign period, the influence of television on the formation of attitudes towards elections and candidates often proves to be a decisive factor for the majority of voters.

Throughout the election campaign, the Golos movement carried out weekly monitoring of federal TV channels in order to regularly identify and prevent cases of violations of equal rights of parties in the coverage of their election campaigns in terms of the amount of airtime and tone of information presented.

Five federal TV channels that are part of the first multiplex and are most popular among viewers - Channel One Russia, Russia-1, NTV, 5TV, and Ren TV - were selected for media monitoring.

On each of the five TV channels, we analyzed the newscasts available in the TV channel’s video archives. We analyzed each newscast for the presence of stories about parties that had nominated their candidates for election to the Russian State Duma. 

Due to the fact that the election was scheduled late on the evening of Thursday, June 17, the first week is considered extended (Week 1+) to include monitoring data from June 19-27. 

In contrast to the media as a whole, the disparity between the parties on federal TV channels is of incredible disproportion: the number of references on the air to "United Russia" is equal to all of the other parties taken together, while its closest rival, the KPRF, beats it by almost 4.5 times (see Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Number of references to parties in election-related stories of TV newscasts during the 11 weeks of the election campaign (2021.06.19 – 2021.09.05)

"United Russia" is followed by a dense group of four parties - three parliamentary parties and the "New People" who joined them. The latter were in this group largely due to the efforts of Channel One Russia.

The situation with the amount of airtime allocated to parties is similar (see Fig. 7).

Figure 7. Total airtime allocated to parties in the election-related stories of the news TV channels during the 11 weeks of the election campaign (2021.06.19 – 2021.09.05)

Here, the leader and that same group of four parties that greatly lag behind, are also clearly visible. All other electoral contestants received almost no airtime; during those eleven weeks they received a negligible amount of airtime (from less than two minutes for the “Russian Party of Freedom and Justice” to almost 15 minutes for the "Party of Pensioners").

The analysis of the tone also shows the biased attitude of the TV channels towards parties, primarily - towards KPRF (see Fig. 8).

Figure 8. Rating of the tone of messages about the parties in the election stories of TV newscasts in the 11 weeks of the election campaign (2021.06.19 – 2021.09.05)

The KPRF turned out to be the only party that was in the negative tone rating zone for about half of the election campaign, i.e. the number of negative references to it exceeded the number of positive ones. This is particularly characteristic of the final stage of the elections. Of the other parties, only once, at the very beginning, did the LDPR dip into this zone. On the other hand, "United Russia" and "New People" were consistently at the top and were clearly being favored by the federal TV channels. 

In essence, the federal TV channels, while remaining the main media source of information for large groups of voters, deliberately distorted the information picture of the elections, preventing citizens from freely forming and expressing their will. It is they who have remained the stronghold of the anti-constitutional system of state censorship. 

1.4 Reflection of elections in social networks

The huge imbalance in coverage of election contestants in the direction of the ‘party of power’ is often justified by representatives of TV channels by the fact that other parties do not produce newsworthy items. In order to understand how much the reality of the TV channels diverges from the reality of the freer social media space and how much interest the people themselves have or do not have in the activities of different political parties, the Golos movement analyzed the posts of social media users and reactions to them. 

The Brand Analytics system was used to conduct the research. The monitoring was conducted by using party names (in some cases abbreviated or informal names were also included - KPRF, etc.). 

Reports on all parties underwent regular spot-checks to identify posts that were monitored in error. Since reports on the REP "The Greens", "New People", "Rodina" and "Yabloko" parties initially contained a large number of such erroneous posts, they were subjected to full verification for a long amount of time in order to sift out redundant publications. Until the conclusion of the monitoring, full control of the reports was maintained for posts mentioning REP "The Greens". 

Monitoring started two months before the single voting day, on 20 July, and continued until 12 September. Data was collected on social networks (VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitter), blogs, forums, map services, public channels and Telegram chats.

Fig. 9 shows that in terms of mentions in social networks "United Russia", just as in the media, is the clear leader. However, this leadership is of a somewhat different nature. To a large extent, it was secured in the last two to three weeks of the campaign, while for most of the rest of the campaign "United Russia" and the KPRF were close in numbers to each other. The most significant contribution to the widening of this gap was made by the participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the “United Russia” congress that included campaigning close to the election date as well as a promise on his part for financial assistance to large groups of voters such as pensioners and military personnel. Other parties were forced to react to this event and voters followed them into the discussion.

Figure 9. Number of posts with mentions of political parties in social networks (2021.07.20 – 2021.09.12)

This discussion of "United Russia" by other parties and their supporters is the second component of this striking gap. Parties and politicians positioning themselves as the real opposition are forced to push back against their main opponents from the ‘party of power’. That is why a significant proportion of posts mentioning "United Russia" are negative in nature. For example, there is a noticeably large share of posts that evaluate the new measures of financial support as an attempt to bribe voters and a sign of the uncertainty of the ‘party of power’ and the Kremlin in the expected outcome of the election. Unfortuntately, we do not have exact figures for tone, since computer algorithms are not yet accurate enough for completing this task, but the effect is noticeable even by a cursory look at the collection of posts. It is the ‘leader effect’ that is discussed by everyone: praised or scorned. 

However, attempts to distort the information picture are noticeable in social networks as well. This is achieved through the use of accounts of large pro-state media outlets that have a large share of subscribers, as well as large communities that are pre-moderated. In fact - these two types of social media authors, similar in their structure to the media, are the conductors of censorship on the Internet. 

For example, "United Russia" peaked in the tenth week of the campaign during the party congress at which Vladimir Putin announced new lump-sum payments. This topic was actively promoted on social networks: for example, the pre-moderated Odnoklassniki communities recorded 2,055 identical messages  with the text about President Putin’s promise of a 10,000-ruble payment to pensioners and material support for military personnel. 

This is clearly visible when comparing the number of party mentions with the potential total audience, i.e. the number of subscribers of the authors of these posts (see Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Potential total audience of posts on social networks mentioning political parties, million subscribers (2021.07.20 – 2021.09.12)

Here we can see that the gap of "United Russia" is getting even bigger. Moreover, in contrast to the previous graph, this was already characteristic during the entire period of monitoring. 

At the same time, the aggregate engagement figures for the posts (i.e. the sum of different reactions) do not show such a big difference between the two leaders - "United Russia" and the KPRF often run quite close to each other and with a large margin over all the others (see Fig. 11). The ratio of the number of reactions to the post (and even more so to its potential audience) is clearly better for the KPRF than for the ‘party of power’. This means that the promotion itself, together with the help of censored agents on social networks, had a limited effect. 

Figure 11. Total engagement on social media posts mentioning political parties (2021.07.20 – 2021.09.12)

It is worth noting separately the high indicators of the "New People" party in social networks. It ranks among the top three in all three parameters - mentions, audience and engagement - overtaking even the LDPR. At the same time, users'  messages appeared in social networks that a payment of 300 rubles was being offered for posting posts about the "New People". It is therefore possible that the large number of mentions of "New People" in social networks is of the same nature as the mentions in the regional media - it may just turn out to be a regular commercial placement (probably bypassing the electoral fund).

In general, we can say that the system of state censorship exists and has an impact on the information field both among traditional media (especially TV channels) and on social networks, preventing voters from forming their will freely in an open and meaningful public discussion. However, strangely enough, the situation with voter information in 2021 looks somewhat better than during the previous State Duma elections, even despite increased repression against the journalistic community: the media covered the activities of the parties more equally, although it would seem less actively; social networks also contributed to the dissemination of information, although they were also under attack from their side.

2. Opposition to "Smart Voting"

The situation around the "Smart Voting" project, a tactical voting strategy put forth by politician Alexey Navalny to a segment of opposition-minded voters, deserves a separate analysis. The concept consists of a recommendation to vote in single-mandate districts in a coordinated manner for a non-administration candidate, whom the initiators of "Smart Voting" have identified as an alternative leader - a candidate who has the best chance of winning among all of those formally in opposition. Coordination is via a mobile application. 

As studies  by Russian political scientists show, the "Smart Voting" effect in the 2020 regional elections reached 5% in administrative centers of the regions and 7-8% in Moscow and St. Petersburg (although it wasnot noticeable in rural areas). At the same time, the mention of "Smart Voting" in social networks and in search queries of Internet users at that time was low (and, of course, it received very little mention in the media).

Now, the visibility of "Smart Voting" is incomparably higher. If we compare the frequency of mentions of the phrase "smart voting" in social networks with mentions of parties participating in the elections, it takes fifth place, surpassing one of the parliamentary parties - "A Just Russia - For Truth" (see Fig. 12).

Figure 12. Number of posts with mentions of political parties and "Smart Voting" on social networks (2021.07.20 – 2021.09.12)

In terms of a potential audience, "Smart Voting" would be third overall, overtaking even the LDPR and the "New People" (see Fig. 13). 

Figure 13. Potential total audience of social media posts mentioning political parties and "Smart Voting", millions of subscribers (2021.07.20 – 2021.09.12)

In terms of engagement, "Smart Voting", if it were a political party, would also rank third on social networks and would even rival the KPRF for second place (see Figure 14).

Figure 14. Total engagement for social media posts mentioning political parties and "Smart Voting" (2021.07.20 – 2021.09.12)

All of this has led authorities to actively fight this strategy and all tools for its implementation. The "Smart Voting" symbolism has been considered political and extremist by the government and people are arrested for distributing it. In an astonishing development, Rospatent (Federal Service of Intellectual Property) received a complaint from Woolintertrade, a tiny sheep wool production and processing company in the Stavropol region of Russia claiming that the "Smart Voting" trademark was identical to their own. Not only did a Moscow court block the logo from being further used, it also ordered Google to stop displaying the term “Smart Voting” in its search results – just two weeks before elections. In another example of government pressure, both Apple and Google were forced to remove the “Smart Voting” app from their app stores after warnings of criminal liability. Telecommunications operators in Russia started blocking Google Docs on the evening of September 15. 

However, the effect of these actions so far seems to be the opposite of what was expected. If we look at the data on the visibility of the "Smart Vote" in social networks in dynamics, we can see a significant increase in interest in the last two weeks. Thus, in terms of mentions, "Smart Voting" almost caught up with the CPRF in the twelfth week of the elections (see Fig. 15).

Figure 15. Number of posts with mentions of political parties and "Smart Voting" on social networks (2021.07.20 – 2021.09.12)

In terms of potential aggregate audience, the "Smart Vote" overtook the KPRF and almost came close to "United Russia" (see Fig. 16).

Figure 16. Potential total audience of posts on social networks mentioning political parties, million subscribers (2021.07.20 – 2021.09.05)

And in terms of engagement in recent days, it has even overtaken "United Russia" by a huge margin - almost twofold (see Fig. 17). 

Figure 17. Total engagement rate for social media posts mentioning political parties and "Smart Voting" (2021.07.20 – 2021.09.12)

Moreover, there has been a significant increase in all three indicators over the past two weeks - during July and most of August, the word "smart vote" was usually in the same zone as "A Just Russia - For Truth" and parties such as "Yabloko", "Rodina", and "Party of Pensioners", that is, quite far from the leaders in terms of these indicators. Therefore, the growth on the eve of the start of voting is explosive, which was not the case a year ago.

It should be noted that part of the official claim of the Russian authorities during the fight against "Smart Voting" is that it contradicts Russian laws by being illegal campaigning. Indeed, according to the election law, campaigning for or against candidates or parties must be paid for from a special election account. 

By its Decision No. 10-P of 14.11.2005, the Constitutional Court of Russia clarified that the citizens of Russia have the right to engage in election campaigning as the opposite would essentially mean a denial of the right to actually influence the course of the election process and the election process itself would be reduced to the mere fact of voting. Thus, the Constitutional Court stressed the inseparable link between freedom of expression and the exercise of the right to free expression of will. However, further on, in the same ruling, the Constitutional Court says that such campaigning must be carried out without financial expenses or the involvement of third parties, otherwise it would violate the rules of campaign financing and, as a result, would destroy the guarantees of true pluralism.

Indeed, allowing voters to spend money of their own to campaign for or against a candidate or party would effectively destroy the funding rules and ultimately have a negative impact on both the equality of the rights of candidates and the content of the very public debate that is important for the formation of informed will. 

Thus, if one approaches the current law from a purely positivist interpretation, then “Smart Voting” is indeed a violation.

However, this situation itself arose as a result of the violation of other fundamental freedoms and rights equally important for free elections - the freedom of association and the right to be elected. Voters are not prohibited from donating money in support of candidates or parties - it simply has to be done in the manner prescribed by law, through a donation to the account of the relevant electoral association or candidate. However, Alexei Navalny's supporters are deprived of such an opportunity - despite all attempts to register a political party, they have consistently been refused, thus violating their freedom of association; and the unreasonable and disproportionate restrictions on passive suffrage have also deprived them of the opportunity to support their candidates. Thus, the violation of fundamental rights and freedoms of a significant part of voters have led to the fact that in order to exercise their constitutional right to participate in government they have been forced to commit violations of less significant norms of the electoral law.

In any case, this civil resource in the service of the opposition is not comparable in its volume with the administrative resource abused by the incumbent authorities to assist the "party of power" and its candidates.

3. Countering agitation

Opposition to "Smart Voting" is an exceptional, but not sole reason for creating interference in the election campaign. Attempts to prevent opposition candidates and parties from campaigning are a long-standing problem in Russian elections, which, unfortunately, have not been systematically addressed. Counteractions to candidates' campaigns are carried out both with and without explicit administrative resources (or, at the very least, without the possibility of identifying them).

For the second year in a row, a campaign has been negatively affected by restrictions on the freedom of assembly imposed under the pretext of a difficult epidemiological situation. Moreover, these restrictions are interpreted very broadly and are widely used as a way to disrupt the campaign meetings of candidates. Power structures are widely involved in this. Often, after the disruption of rallies, candidates or agitators are released from police stations without a protocol being drawn up, as the law enforcement officers themselves admit that their interference was illegal. In Moscow, for example, Samson Sholademi, the “Green Party" candidate for the State Duma (see Appendix, Card No. 5), and in St. Petersburg, Dmitry Osipov, the "Yabloko" candidate for the Duma (see Appendix, Card No. 6) were detained. Also detained at the meeting in Moscow were KPRF candidate Anastasia Udaltsova, activist Leonid Razvozzhayev and several bystanders (see Annex, Card No. 7). In Rostov-on-Don, a meeting with supporters at the office of a "Yabloko" candidate was disrupted when police officers came after receiving a report that fake vaccination certificates were allegedly being sold in the building (see Annex, Card No. 8). However, meetings with voters are often disrupted by unknown persons as well (see, for example, Annex, Card No. 9).

A long-standing problem in Russian elections is the refusal to post or distribute campaign materials, and the removal of campaign materials that have already been paid for. One of the most high-profile cases occurred in St. Petersburg. Representatives of the "Rodina" party stated that the city authorities did not allow ‘thousands of posters and banners’ to be placed (see Annex, Card No. 10). In Vladivostok, paid campaign material by KPRF candidates was removed at the request of the city administration and replaced with the banner of a charitable foundation, which was placed free of charge (see Annex, Card No. 11). "Yabloko" was also harassed on a rather large scale. Nine out of 14 banners (from bus stops) were reported stolen within two days of placement by representatives of the party in Barnaul. The banners bore the slogans "Freedom to all political prisoners" and "We are against the war with Ukraine" (see Appendix, Card No. 12). In Tomsk, people posing as employees of the administration visited retail outlets and demanded that campaign material of KPRF candidates be removed (see Appendix, Card No. 13). In Moscow, the headquarters of "Yabloko" candidate Nikolai Kavkazsky and, prior to that, one other campaign outlet was visited by the police because of an ‘Against Putin’ banner (see Annex, Card No. 14). In the Samara region, police seized a banner and structure from a KPRF candidate, returning it only after the event - with the picketing location having been previously agreed upon with the administration (see Annex, Card No. 15).

Another method of counteraction is the refusal to cooperate by both public and private organizations. In the Novosibirsk region, a representative of the Russian postal service refused to enter into a contract to distribute KPRF campaign materials and also to abide by the terms of another, previously concluded contract. However, she told the representative that they ‘certainly can distribute content related to "United Russia"’ (see Annex, Card No. 16). According to Andrey Pivovarov's headquarters, all accredited printing houses in Moscow refused to print banners for his campaign’s billboard cubes: some because they contained the words ‘political prisoner’ (see Annex, Card No. 17).

The most common violation is defacement, destruction or theft of materials. This is not always done anonymously. The systematic theft of campaign newspapers from mailboxes by representatives of the Zhilishchynik (a state budgetary institution) was reported by "Yabloko" candidate Kirill Goncharov. In a video published by the candidate, a girl says that she was ‘ordered’ ‘from the office’ (see Attachment, Card No. 18). A janitor of Zhilishchinik in Maryino scrubbed off the propaganda with a squeegee (see Attachment, Card No. 19). In Barnaul, an employee of a management company, who introduced herself as such on camera, also ‘scrubbed off’ the KPRF candidate's materials, but left the "United Russia" candidate's campaign on the boards in front of the entrance hall (see Annex, Card No. 20). In another case, TECs in the Moscow district of Konkovo were suspected of defacement: the candidate's campaign was covered with an advertisement for the services of a computer wizard without any contact details. A stack of such advertisements was later found at the TEC (see Annex, Card No. 21).

When it comes to the long-standing anonymous defacement of campaign materials, it is formally impossible to determine whether this is due to administrative resources, the activities of competitors or ordinary hooliganism. However, when it comes down to the number of cases, the most frequent reports were by the KPRF. In particular, the theft or defacement of banners on three cars was reported by KPRF candidate Anastasia Udaltsova (see Annex, Card No. 22).

The spoiling of materials was also reported by "United Russia". Three billboard cubes of Moscow Duma candidate Timofey Bazhenov were defaced (see Annex, Card No. 23). One message from the Altai Territory was also recorded. In addition, someone made a "Yedro" inscription on the billboard cube of the Moscow self-nominated candidate Anatoly Wasserman (see Annex, Card No. 24).

Problems with campaigning in ‘closed’ territories have also persisted. Thus, the mayor's office of the closed city of Seversk, near Tomsk, refused to issue passes to two candidates from the KPRF and the “Rostov Party” without any explanation. Seversk Mayor Nikolay Didenko is the father of Alexey Didenko, the incumbent “LDPR” deputy to the State Duma in this constituency (see Annex, Card No. 25).

Security guards at the GAZ automobile plant in Nizhniy Novgorod, owned by Oleg Deripaska, also resisted. The guards prohibited the distribution of material near checkpoints, but did not provide any type of order from the management that allegedly prohibited it (see Annex, Card No. 26).

Candidates and their staff face forceful pressure: attacks, threats, and damage to personal property. This has been particularly notable in Moscow this year. Moscow City Duma candidate Vladimir Ryzhkov (see Annex, Card No. 27) reported an incidence of pressure where newspapers and booklets were taken away from some of his campaign workers. A volunteer for Elvira Vikhareva, a candidate of the "Party of Growth", was attacked: the volunteer was hit, his clothes were torn and his campaign materials were damaged (see Annex, Card No. 28). Also in Moscow, Alena Popova, nominated by "Yabloko" (see Annex, Card No. 29), had someone try to set her car on fire, and self-nominated candidate Anatoly Wassermann had the wheels of his car slashed several times (see Annex, Card No. 30).

Threats to their relatives were stated by candidates of the independent coalition "Berdsk 2021" in the Novosibirsk Region. Daria Artamonova's parents received a funeral wreath addressed to them with the words ‘Together we mourn for Daria’, Artamonova's mother was later sent a voice message with the song ‘Killed a Negro’, and her sister's husband was sent music from a funeral march (see Annex, Card No. 31). The then-withdrawn coalition candidate Mikhail Ryazantsev also reported threats: his aunt was advised by telephone to take care of her nephew (see Appendix, Card No. 32).

4. Abuse of administrative resources in campaigning and coercion of voters to vote

Among the varieties of illegal campaigning and use of administrative resources - campaigning by representatives of the authorities in national government, state or municipal institutions, as well as use of the official resources of these institutions – all of these make up a significant part.

Referring to campaigning by authorities, these would include the appearance by St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov at a city conference of "United Russia", where he spoke in praise of “United Russia” and criticized the KPRF and “Yabloko” parties.  (see Annex, Card No. 33). "United Russia" campaign offices could be found in administration buildings - sometimes in the same exact locations as election commissions (see Annex, Cards No. 34, 35).

Of particular concern is the involvement of educational institutions and, through them, children, in political agitation. Thus, mass violations are traditionally associated with 1 September when children return to school after summer vacation. Pupils at different schools in the Samara region received as gifts a folder with the address of the governor who also headed the list of "United Russia", rulers with symbols of his party and the name of the candidate (see Annex, Card No. 36), school schedule forms (see Annex, Card No. 37), etc. Sometimes parents were given campaign leaflets directly or through their children (see Annex, Card No. 38).

Campaigning for Konstantin Kovalev was heard at children's parties on 1 and 4 September in Tomsk - voiced by both the candidate and the hosts of the festivities (see Annex, Card No. 39). 

Campaign materials were also placed directly in schools, where precinct election commissions are also usually located (see Annex, Card No. 40).

However, the biggest problem in recent days has been the coercion of voters to vote. It should be reminded that, according to legislation and under the threat of criminal punishment, no one has the right to exert influence on a citizen in order to force him or her to participate or not to participate in  elections or to obstruct his or her free expression of will. (Paragraph 3, Article 3, 67-FZ "On Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights..."). 

On September 8, VCIOM (Russia Public Opinion Research Center), at the request of the Kremlin-affiliated Expert Institute for Social Research, published the results of a pre-election survey among workers at industrial enterprises (according to Rosstat (Federal State Statistics Service) the industrial sector employs some 19 million people). The respondents were asked whether they had encountered pressure from their management to take part in the Duma elections or to vote for a specific party. The answers were as follows:

  • 23% of employees responded that management encouraged them to vote, but they were not pressured to do so; 
  • 12% of employees were told by management about the importance of the elections, asked to participate in the voting, but did not specifically recommend anything; 
  • 9% of employees were directed by management to vote, but without employer sanctions; 
  • 4% of employees were threatened by management with consequences or sanctions in case of refusal to participate in the elections; 
  • 10% of employees were advised by employers to vote for a particular party, but not pressured;
  • 3% of employees were told by employers about parties and about their position regarding the parties;
  • 3% of employees were directed by employers to vote for a certain party, but without employer sanctions; 
  • 2% of employees were threatened by employers with consequences or sanctions if they refused to vote for a certain party.

As a result, 48% of industrial employees responded that they had encountered some kind of illegal influence by employers that goes beyond the scope of an employment relationship. When any ‘recommendations’ about participation in elections are received from their superiors, the employees are in a very vulnerable position, as they understand their risks if they do not follow these ‘recommendations’ or direct instructions. 

In terms of the industrial sector, we are talking about 9 million voters, which is as much as 17% of the turnout in the 2016 State Duma elections. 

However, such occurances take place not only at industrial enterprises - they are encountered by employees in almost any area - from employees at budgetary institutions to commercial businesses.

On the "Map of Violations" of the Golos movement as of 7 September, almost every tenth report contains information about coercion. This is what it looks like in practice. 

In cases of voter coercion, the most common is the requirement to be assigned to a particular polling station. For example, at Barnaul Law Institute, management demanded that voting take place on Friday, 17 September, a working day, so that they could control it (see Annex, Cards No. 41, 42). Viktor Zyryanov, a deputy of the Kurgan Regional Duma, stated that a month before the election, about a thousand people had already expressed the desire to be assigned to three specific polling stations (see Annex, Card No. 43).

Employees may be forced to attend a meeting with a candidate. There are cases where this is accompanied by elements of bribery: those who show up are promised financial compensation (see, for example, Annex, Card No. 44).

In the town of Shchelkovo near Moscow, there has been unbridled pressure to vote for a particular candidate. Employees at Shchelkovo Agrokhim were given instructions to vote on Friday 17 September for "United Russia" candidate Alexander Tolmachev in the State Duma and Vladimir Shapkin in the Moscow City Duma. Out-of-town workers need to disconnect from their stations and register themselves in the Shchelkovo district through the MFC or Gosuslugi. After voting, employees need to be sure to inform the head of the unit that they actually voted (see Annex, Card No. 45). 

The acting head of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia in the Samara region obligated 100% (!) of its employees to be registered at the polling stations at their place of work through the "mobile voter" app. 

Employees of the Moscow metro were obliged to bring one additional person to vote in the elections (see Annex, Card no. 46), and in Tomsk, teachers were forced to submit proposals to the "United Russia" People's Program (see Annex, Card No. 47).

Another case was recorded among the employees of Tomsk hospitals: "You need to submit lists of supporters of the ruling party; by tomorrow there should be at least 50 percent. You can vote for whom you think it is necessary; supporters can call; [ask] if he is a party supporter; it is enough to answer 'yes', without philosophical reasoning," it was said in one of the work chats. At the same time, each supporter was assigned a ‘mobilizer’ from among the staff (see Annex, Card No. 48).

There are reports of coercion to participate in electronic voting in Moscow. Thus, Alexey Popovich, vice-rector of Moscow University of Technology and Management, states in a memo that ‘all employees of the university are required’ to submit an application for remote electronic voting. It is required that screenshots of the applications be sent by mail on a daily basis for each unit (see Annex, Card No. 49). Elena Selkova, a municipal deputy in Moscow's Cheremushki district, stated that she was dismissed because she refused to register for e-voting (see Annex, Card no. 50).

Annex (in Russian)

* Recognized by the Russian authorities as foreign media performing the functions of a foreign agent.

** Recognized by Russian authorities as an undesirable organization. 

Report authors: 

Stanislav Andreychuk, Alexei Golubkov, regional long-term observers