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StatementOur AssessmentRussian Federation19 March 2024, 09:18
Collage: Ksenia Telmanova

Table of contents

Intro

1. Particularities of the election campaign

2. Results of the observation on the voting days of March 15–17, 2024

Intro

The 2024 presidential election in the Russian Federation was held on March 15-17, 2024. The Golos movement has analyzed and covered all stages of the election.

Based on the results of long-term observation, three analytical reports have been issued: they have been on the legal particularities of the current elections, the nomination and registration of candidates, as well as on campaigning and administrative mobilization. Golos was publishing express reviews and the Voting Chronicle during the voting days of March 15-17. Detailed information underpinning this statement is provided in the materials listed above.

Golos was receiving information from observers, election commissions members, media representatives, voters, headquarters of candidates, political parties and party organizations through various channels, including the 8 800 500-54-62 hotline, the Map of Violations, and the Internet.

The joint call center hotline received 369 calls during the election. As of March 19, 2024 (08:30 Moscow time), the Map of Violations received 1,057 reports, including 892 reports during the voting days.

In its assessment of the election, Golos has been guided by the applicable Constitution of the Russian Federation and the international electoral standards recognized by Russia, which establish that free elections are the ultimate expression of the will of the people, that they shall be held amid a competitive campaign, ensuring equal opportunities for candidates and free participation of voters, while the voting and counting procedures shall allow to reliably determine the real will of voters. Freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly are also recognized as the mandatory conditions for the free formation of voters’ will.

The Golos movement has been recording deteriorating voters’ rights almost year by year. Unfortunately, presidential elections have been demonstrating a kind of anti-standards for conducting elections over the past 24 years. However, we have never seen a presidential election that falls so short of constitutional standards as the latest one. 

The elections took place in a situation where the fundamental articles of the Constitution of the Russian Federation guaranteeing political rights and freedoms did not actually work, and the Constitution itself had been amended to circumvent the restriction on holding the presidential office for not more than two terms. The basic constitutional safeguard against the usurpation of power was dismantled. 

The leitmotif of the election was “imitation”: 

  • Imitation of legality (in case of obvious unconstitutionality);
  • Imitation of choice;
  • Imitation of campaigning;
  • Imitation of the opposition and the struggle for power;
  • Imitation of openness and transparency;
  • Imitation of observation (including “civic observation”);
  • Imitation of the independence of election commissions; 
  • Imitation of the sovereignty of the people.

Only violence against the people as the bearer of sovereignty was not an imitation. Voters faced the fact that the use of force or under the threat of using force, including administrative and criminal liability, Clause 4 of Article 3 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation was actually violated. The clause states: “No one may usurp power in the Russian Federation. Seizure of power or usurpation of authority shall be punishable under Federal law.”

The election took place in an environment where the state apparatus, which was supposed to be politically neutral and act in the public interest, was in fact involved in propaganda, coercion and oversight of voters. In fact, military censorship has arisen in the country; it has been instrumentalized through fear and force. 

Politics has ceased to be a subject of discussion, not even between family members or neighbors.

The apotheosis was the last voting day, when in some regions law enforcers monitored the expression of voters’ will, punished them for “wrong” inscriptions on ballots or for the “wrong” time of arrival at polling stations, and they even demanded that the secrecy of the vote be revealed. Nothing like this has ever happened in any election in Russia.

The Constitution of the Russian Federation stipulates that sovereignty (the protection of which is so much talked about) belongs to the people as to the source of power; however, in reality, during the campaign and the preparatory stage, the election organizers did everything to make the distance between the people and their ability to exercise this power insurmountable. 

Election organizers were afraid to organize the voting and vote counting procedures openly and honestly even in this environment. Every effort was made to limit the public's ability to observe on election days. Attempts were made to replace real independent observation with the “civic chamber observation”; specially selected “international electoral experts” replaced the recognized international observation by the OSCE/ODIHR; video surveillance was actually suspended, completely denying voters’ access to video broadcasts from polling stations. The absence of independent observers and impeded openness and transparency of electoral procedures actually disabled real civic monitoring of the election and prevented evaluation of the scale of evidenced falsifications. 

All this made it impossible to form and express the free will of voters and to establish reliable results of the expression of will. This election failed to fulfill its key function — to present the real sentiment of citizens — and did not allow them to decide the future of their country independently and freely.

1. Particularities of the elections

The following particularities characterized the elections.

1.1. Manipulation of legislation on the eve of the election

The stability of electoral legislation is one of the most important conditions for holding free and democratic elections. This is necessary so that the forces in power cannot manipulate the rules for holding elections to their own benefit. 

The 2024 presidential election in the Russian Federation followed the legislation significantly different from the one guiding the 2018 presidential election. In 2018–2023, the Federal Law “On the Election of the President of the Russian Federation” was amended 11 times resulting in changes of 52 articles (out of 87) and 3 Annexes (out of 4). In addition, a number of provisions of the Federal Law “On Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights and the Right of Citizens of the Russian Federation to Participate in a Referendum” were amended; these provisions are related to the election of the President of the Russian Federation, but they are not duplicated in the Federal Law “On the Election of the President of the Russian Federation” (the status of members of election commissions, financing restrictions, etc.).

These changes were aimed, first, to restrict the electoral rights of citizens, to limit the opportunities for public oversight, and to expand manipulation. In addition, the regulatory framework discriminated those Russian citizens who were recognized as “foreign agents”: they were significantly deprived of their electoral rights, including the right to campaign and to support candidates otherwise.

Two most non-transparent forms of voting were introduced under the pretext of “voter convenience”: Remote Electronic Voting (REV) and Multi-Day Voting (MDV). Both of these voting modalities (REV especially) are hard to be monitored by the public, but they facilitate the administrative coercion of voters and open up ample falsification opportunities.


1.2. Manipulation through restricting passive suffrage

The key change in the legislation on the election of the President of Russia, which radically affected the entire political system, was the 2020 Constitutional Amendment granting the exclusive right to be re-elected for the 3rd and 4th consecutive terms (for the 5th and 6th tenures in total) to the incumbent head of state. It was this amendment, which did not meet democratic standards for the change of power and created conditions for the actual usurpation and retention of power. 

There were other regulatory amendments, too. They have broadened the scope of the voters deprived of passive suffrage. In addition, the excessive requirements of the law for the procedure for nominating candidates, together with its interpretation that contradicts constitutional principles, lead to significant restrictions on the passive suffrage of Russian citizens and artificially lower competition in presidential elections.

The process of collecting signatures for candidates (both in law and in practice) was significantly complicated. It took place in an environment of administrative, financial and information inequality, and there were multiple grave violations. The requirement for self-nominated candidates to collect more (by three times) signatures than for party candidates was inexplicable, as was the refusal to collect nominating signatures for presidential candidates through the State Services Portal (this regulatory norm was tested in other elections back in 2020). 

The refusal to register Boris Nadezhdin demonstrated that departmental guidelines and regulations developed by the Central Election Commission (CEC) of the Russian Federation and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) actually replaced the electoral legislation, and unsubstantiated expert opinions replaced the voters’ will. The attrition of candidates at the registration stage was the highest compared to the 2012 and 2018 elections. 

As a result, the incumbent head of state, who took office for the first time 24 years ago, had the smallest rivalry in Russian history, and the competing candidates were the least known and unpopular. A significant share of Russian society was not represented by its candidate in the presidential election.

1.3. Lack of conditions for conducting free public political discussion

Expression of the free will of voters requires respect of the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens. At the same time, throughout the country, there are, de facto, strict restrictions on freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom to form political associations, comparable to those imposed under martial law; repression is in effect in the country; opponents of the authorities are in prisons, where they die.

The actual introduction of military censorship, including its regulatory consolidation, is a particular feature of the current elections. The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation has stated that the will of citizens can be expressed freely only when the right to objective information and freedom of expression are really guaranteed (e.g., see Resolution 11-P of the Constitutional Court dated April 13, 2017); however, in recent years, there have been constant attacks on the ability of citizens to freely receive and disseminate information, express their opinions, peacefully assemble and create public associations to defend their interests. 

The restriction of freedom of expression has aggravated significantly since February 24, 2022. According to human rights organizations, just six hours after the outbreak of hostilities, Roskomnadzor issued an official statement warning mass media that when covering the conflict, they were obliged to cite only official information from Russian state bodies, under the threat of blocking. 

The President of Russia signed several laws at once on July 14, 2022; the laws would significantly affect the freedom of information and expression. Amendments to the laws “On Mass Media,” “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Security” and “On Measures of Influence on Persons Involved in the Violation of Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms, the Rights and Freedoms of Citizens of the Russian Federation” came into force, giving the Prosecutor General's Office almost unlimited powers to block websites. To date, almost all media outlets capable of broadcasting a point of view other than the official one have been blocked in Russia, as well as the largest social media that have not been controlled by the authorities, except for YouTube and instant messengers. 

On the same day, amendments to the Criminal Code were adopted; according to the amendments, citizens are now punished for “public calls to carry out activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation or to obstruct the exercise of powers by the authorities and their officials to ensure the security of the Russian Federation.” In addition, Article 275.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation provides for punishment for cooperating with a foreign state, international or foreign organization on a confidential basis. However, the biggest blow to freedom of speech has been inflicted by the adoption of articles of the Criminal Code for “spreading fakes” and “discrediting the Armed Forces.” 

The introduction of these regulatory innovations resulted in impossibility to criticize the main political decision of the incumbent president who was a presidential candidate: the decision to start a “Special Military Operation” (SMO) against Ukraine and to include new territories into Russia. Any criticism of this decision has been equated almost with high treason and led to administrative and criminal prosecution resulting in colossal prison sentences. 

In addition, the restriction of freedom of expression has been seriously affected by the legislation on “foreign agents.” It should be added that the restriction to hold mass rallies, which has been in effect since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic despite Rospotrebnadzor lifted the rest of the restrictions, has been seriously impeding the rights and freedoms of citizens. 

We have been witnessing reprisals for dissent; public criticism of the authorities, and even more so of the policies of the incumbent president, has been interpreted in society and perceived by the law enforcement system as actually illegal. At the same time, the demonstration of loyalty is strongly encouraged. An atmosphere of fear has been whipped up. Opposition activity has been equated with high treason. 

In this environment, mass media and the candidates have been unable to fulfill their social role of creating conditions for public discussion. Instead, they have allied with the authorities in an attempt to “hide” the election from voters. Compared to 2018, the volume of television broadcasts devoted to the election decreased by 1.6 times; many mass media, including regional ones, practically did not talk about the campaign and the candidates at all, and if they did, they did not observe the principle of granting equal rights to candidates. For example, news broadcasts on federal TV channels mentioned Vladimir Putin seven times more often than the other three presidential candidates combined. 

At the same time, mass media, state and local authorities, and their officials tried to substitute the agitation campaign with information about the work of the incumbent president, using public resources and state budget funds for covert and open agitation for the incumbent president.

1.4. Coercion to vote

The Constitution of the Russian Federation states: “Referendum and free elections are the highest direct expression of the power of the people.” Unfortunately, the coercion of voters has been increasing rapidly in recent years, reaching its peak and becoming undisguised in 2024. This time, the scale of coercion was unprecedented even against the backdrop to which Russia had accustomed. 

In the environment of no real competition between presidential candidates, no sufficient information about the course of the election provided to voters, and amid inflated indicators of the desired turnout set by the authorities, the main stake of the formal and informal election organizers was placed on the administrative coercion of overseen voters, in whose loyalty the coercion organizers were apparently confident. They were also helped in exercising these illegal pressures by the voting modalities introduced after the previous presidential election: Multi-Day Voting (MDV) and Remote Electronic Voting (REV). This can be seen very clearly when analyzing the official data on voter turnout. By the end of the first voting day, the REV turnout was over 70%, and in the country as a whole, it was more than a third. At the same time, only 14% of respondents in opinion polls reported that Friday would be a convenient day for voting. At that, the REV does not allow to verify that the voter has voted in an enabling environment guaranteeing the freedom and secrecy of the expression of will. Legislators have actually legalized the convenience of administrative coercion and bossy oversight of voters using the “voter convenience” pretext. 

On election days, there were also signals from voters that provided irrefutable evidence that state-budgetary entities, state organizations, state-owned companies and bureaucratic structures in Moscow received information about who of their employees had voted through the REV. Organizations are asked for insufficient activity of their employees, and their management are sent lists of voted employees. The REV is an effective voter coercion tool.

The Map of Violations, the hotline and the media received reports of coercion to vote from different parts of the country: from over 60 regions. 

Extreme passivity of the Central Election Commission (CEC) of the Russian Federation shall be noted; the CEC is entrusted by law with the duty to protect the electoral rights of citizens in this matter. There had been at least ritual statements about the inadmissibility of voter coercion during the previous election; the CEC and its members were silent this time. Moreover, members of election commissions were involved in monitoring the expression of the will of voters, since some oversight technologies would not operate without their engagement. Voters were required to vote in the presence of overseeing persons or to provide documentary evidence of their voting (photos, screenshots, calls, SMS, geolocation). 

Everything was leveraged not to let the voter evade oversight. As a result, administrative mobilization happened not only at state-owned holding enterprises or in the public sector, but also in private firms not directly related to the state.

2. Results of the observation on the voting days of March 15–17, 2024

This section summarizes the findings of the independent monitoring of Golos on the voting days of March 15-17, 2024. 

2.1. Limited opportunities to observe elections

Universally recognized international standards of free and democratic elections imply that observers shall be provided with the widest possible opportunities to observe voting in order to ensure transparency. The Constitutional Court of Russia pointed out, in particular, that the right of citizens to participate in the governance of the state was not limited to ensuring free participation in voting alone. The interests of citizens and the state are not identical, and they may clash. At the same time, citizens are associated participants in popular sovereignty, and therefore, it is necessary to recognize their oversight right (Resolution 8-P of the Constitutional Court dated April 22, 2013). Thus, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation highlights the undeniable right of citizens to monitor compliance with the voting procedures. Such representation is intended to guarantee the legitimacy of voting decisions in the eyes of their supporters and opponents alike.

However, opportunities for civic oversight of elections have significantly shrunk since 2018. Firstly, the status of the PEC/TEC members with an advisory vote has been abolished; this status was an effective way to challenge violations of the law. Such members now remain only on board of the CEC and election commissions of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation. The retention of members with an advisory vote only in the CEC and regional election commissions, without retaining oversight powers at lower election commissions, cannot tangibly defend the rights of the electoral process stakeholders. Secondly, media outlets have been seriously interfered to limit their capacity to cover the election. Now, freelance journalists working under a civil law contract may not be present at vote counting and at summing up the voting results: only those journalists who operate under employment contracts may be present there.

On the eve of the voting days, a serious blow was dealt to the very institution of observation and, even more broadly, to the principle of openness and transparency in the activities of election commissions. In many regions, candidates and the parties that had nominated them actually refused to delegate active citizens to polling stations as observers. In some regions, where observers had succeeded in getting their delegation referrals, election commissions received observer withdrawal notices from the delegators after the voting started. The candidates and the parties did not make sufficient efforts to ensure independent oversight of voting and vote counting, and sabotaged the efforts of civic activists who offered their assistance in exercising such oversight. No international observers were invited from the OSCE/ODIHR for the first time in Russian history. At the same time, the in-house guidelines of civic chambers (which became publicly available) indicated that the purpose of their observers was not so much to observe as to mock this, to promote the Russian election, and to assist in interdicting opposition actions. In fact, civic chamber observers had to be informants. In many cases, these observers were directly ordered to leave polling stations before vote counting started, not to request copies of acts or protocols from the election commissions. 

The 2024 elections was held in the context of a virtually complete political ban for candidates and parties to interact with independent observer communities and pro-active opposition-minded citizens. It can be stated that the society did not have the opportunity to independently oversee the election. The advertised observation on behalf of civic chambers and video surveillance were a pronounced imitation. They did not really defend the voters’ rights, and they did not address violations. 

Therefore, public scrutiny of the current election was very fragmented. However, even this level of scrutiny provoked additional counteraction. Already on the days of voting, the candidates and the parties began to recall those few observers and voting members of election commissions from among civil activists who had managed to get to polling stations. In private conversations, representatives of the candidates and parties admitted that this had been done under pressure.

Undesirable members of election commissions and observers were removed from polling stations (often without the required court ruling); some of them were issued summonses to appear at military registration and enlistment offices on voting days; and some of them were detained and searched. Traditional interferences were also used to obstruct their work: illegal bans to take photos and videos or to move around the polling station, bans on helping voters draw up complaints, and denial of access to election commission documents. In total, 26 regions reported violations of the rights of observers, members of election commissions, and media representatives.

We are also compelled to state that Golos monitored this election in an environment where Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairperson of the Golos movement, was actually taken hostage: he was arrested in a trumped-up criminal case under Part 3 of Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Organization of the activities of a foreign or international non-governmental organization, in respect of which a decision has been made to recognize its activities as undesirable on the territory of the Russian Federation”). The motives were not even hidden: Vasily Piskarev, Chairman of the State Duma Commission on Investigating Instances of Foreign Interference into Russia's Internal Affairs, directly stated that the reason for the persecution was the reports and expert reviews by Golos, i.e., the opinions of Russian citizens on domestic Russian affairs. 

2.2. Non-compliance with the procedures of voting, storing election documentation, vote counting; signs of fraud

The absence of independent observers and unprecedented large-scale legislative and organizational impediments to ensuring openness and transparency of electoral procedures actually disabled real civic monitoring of the election and prevented evaluation of the scale of evidenced falsifications. 

During the voting days, reports of possible falsifications, violations of the rules for storing ballots at night and other procedural non-compliances were received by Golos and reported by mass media from 45 regions. Traditional ballot stuffing and voter carousel cases were recorded. 

Falsifications were also evidenced by the initial and very basic analysis of electoral statistics, which revealed turnout anomalies at polling stations on the first voting day. 

The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation has indicated in its Ruling 1575-O dated June 25, 2019 that the legislator shall take the necessary care to ensure that “the electoral procedures it introduces are fair and transparent, prevent falsification of electoral process results, and contribute to an objective and reliable reflection of the actual results of the electoral expression of the will of citizens.” The Constitutional Court has also indicated that only consistent fulfillment of the requirements established by law, in fact, leaves no room for inaccurate (erroneous) counting of votes and their wrong (incorrect) reflection in the voting results protocol.

2.3. Violence on election days; damage to ballots and the PEC equipment; violation of voters' rights

The voting days showed unprecedented degree of violence and emotional tension. 

March 17, the third voting day, was distinctive: there were voter reports that law enforcement officers on duty at polling stations began to oversee the expression of the voters’ will and their access to polling stations. After a series of acts of damaging ballots with dyes and arson, election commissions in some regions removed the curtains from voting booths, and law enforcement officers began to walk behind the backs of voters and (according to voters) looked at voters’ ballots over their shoulders. Such reports came from Moscow, the Moscow Oblast, Irkutsk, and Izhevsk. At PEC 2019 in Odintsovo (near Moscow), police officers checked the content of voters’ ballots before they were dropped into ballot boxes. A police officer snatched a completed ballot from a voter and checked whom she had voted for. At one of the polling stations in Pushkino (Moscow Oblast), a voter dropped a ballot into a box with inscriptions expressing his attitude to the candidates, after which a female police officer photographed the ballot in the box and called someone. Soon, a man in civilian clothes appeared at the polling station (the police officer stood up when the man came in); then he was taking notes in his notebook while talking to this police officer. At PEC 3063 in Moscow, police officers demanded that the PEC chairperson open a sealed ballot box and give them one of the ballots with inscriptions on it. 

In Tatarstan and Moscow, police prevented voters from entering some polling stations at around 12:00 on March 17, ordering voters to come a few hours later. 

Golos states that inscriptions on ballots, as well as the choice of the time of voting convenient for the voter, cannot be an offense. Moreover, opening cases on such grounds means that one of the fundamental principles — the secrecy of the vote — is not observed in the Russian elections.

According to OVD-Info*, at the time of drawing up this Statement, 86 people were detained at polling stations in 21 cities on March 17 alone.

In more than 20 regions, there were cases of attempted arson in polling stations or attempts to damage ballot papers on a large scale by dyeing liquids, which voters tried to pour into ballot boxes containing completed ballots. According to mass media, this happened in 28 settlements. 34 people were detained; at least 17 of them were over 50 years old. 22 people were detained for attempts to destroy ballots with dyeing liquids; 10 people were detained for arson attempts. Two more people triggered a firecracker and a smoke bomb at polling stations. 

The media report that such actions were motivated by blackmail or incitement by fraudsters; Golos unconditionally condemns such practices of obstructing the determination of the results of citizens' will and violating their voting rights. No political or personal motives can justify such actions on the part of voters. 

However, we must draw attention to the fact that the level of reaction to the actions of these people on the part of the law enforcement system, against whom criminal cases have been initiated under Article 141 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Obstructing the exercise of electoral rights or the operations of election commissions”), is very different from how the law enforcement system responds to crimes under this article once committed by members of election commissions and officials of state administrations at all levels. Falsifiers and organizers of coercion of citizens, if they fall under criminal prosecution, almost never end up in a pre-trial detention center, and as a result, they do not even get a criminal record, getting off only with court fines. The system effectively covers up the crimes of its associates, but severely punishes ordinary voters who resort to desperate acts. 

The fright of the election commission system and law enforcement agencies, combined with preparations for a confrontation with protest voters who came to the polling stations on March 17 at noon, led to the fact that by Sunday, the election organizers began creating artificial difficulties with voters' access to polling stations by searching their personal belongings. 

It should also be noted that some of the polling stations came under fire during the hostilities. For example, some areas had to be repeatedly evacuated due to the danger of shelling in the Belgorod Oblast. 

2.4 Failures and disturbances in the operation of the Remote Electronic Voting (REV) systems

Golos has repeatedly pointed out that online voting systems at the current level of technology development do not allow for concurrent compliance with two fundamental voting principles: vote secrecy and verifiability of vote counting. In addition, in both Russian REV systems, observers, candidates and voters cannot verify that voting is done by real voters. Due to that, they shall not be used in principle.

However, these fundamental arguments are further aggravated every time by technical issues that the system developers fail to troubleshoot. Both REV systems were partially disabled from the morning of March 15 to the middle of the day: voters and observers complained on denial of service. Files exported from the REV hardware and software suite also indicated an anomalous distribution of the number of ballots issued at that time: ballots were issued in abnormal series, and then the issuance of ballots completely stopped. In the afternoon, there was a sharp increase in the number of ballots issued.

This resulted in the REV entering “the electronic queue mode” for some time, thus allowing the Electronic Voter List (EVL) and the Electronic Voting Terminals (EVTs) to continue operating at polling stations.

Observers encountered challenges when accessing the EVL. Not all Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) proposed paper ballots to voters, thus channeling them to vote through EVTs by default; and PECs did not propose to voters to sign a printed-out EVL to acknowledge their receipt of a ballot. However, it cannot be said that any challenge was totally orchestrated or irreparable. A significant share of technical violations was eliminated. 

A Moscow voter reported impersonation: when at the PEC, she found out that someone had already voted for her in the REV system. The founder of the Ateo Breaking Telegram channel reported a similar case. Voters also complained that equipment malfunctions prevented them from voting. 

Again, this is abnormal that election commissions (and the system of election commissions in general) do not oversee online voting systems. This critically violates the principle of independence in their activities.


* recognized as “foreign agents”

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