The Russian parliamentary elections on September 17-19 removed any lingering doubts that Russia had ceased to be a democracy and revealed the true authoritarian face of the Putin regime. The international community must now recognize this reality by withholding recognition of the voice.
Long before polling stations were opened across Russia on Friday, any chance for free or fair elections had long since vanished. In the months leading up to the election, most genuine opposition candidates were prevented from running, and some were imprisoned or forced into exile. The last remaining non-regime media were silenced and dissenting voices were cleared from the Russian Internet.
Attempts to suppress the vote sometimes bordered on the absurd. In St. Petersburg, the authorities managed to register a pair of “clone candidates” who bore the same name and who bore a striking resemblance to one of the few opposition activists who made it onto the ballot.
The crackdown also extended to global brands like Apple and Google. Local workers at the tech giants were reportedly threatened with prison threats to force the removal of apps intended to mobilize the anti-Kremlin vote.
The choice itself was no better. Thousands of individual violations were reported during the three-day vote as social media was flooded with incriminating polling station videos showing everything from ballot filling to physical intimidation of election observers. In many cases, the results of electronic voting appear suspiciously delayed contributed to victory for fighting regime candidates.
None of this was particularly surprising, of course. During Vladimir Putin’s twenty-one year reign, the Russian elections have consistently lost any claim to democratic legitimacy and have become a form of grotesque political theater that enables the regime to renew its power.
Why should this vote be treated differently than any other rigged Russian election?
Timing is an important factor. This was the last scheduled national vote before Putin’s current term as president ended in three years. He is widely expected to stay in power after 2024, confirming Russia’s descent into dictatorship. Now would be a good time to send a clear and unequivocal signal that such attempts will seriously damage Russia’s international standing and Putin’s own credibility as a political leader.
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The decision to include occupied Ukraine is another strong argument for not recognizing Russia’s elections. Since the military occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, elections have been held in Moscow in occupied Crimea. However, as part of this vote, concerted efforts were also made to mobilize the captured voters in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.
This trick was intended in part to win more votes for Putin’s United Russia party, but it also appears to have been seen by the Kremlin as a pretext to bring the occupied territories closer to Moscow and the policy of Accelerate pass imperialism.
In the past two and a half years, Moscow has distributed more than 600,000 Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens living in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. Some residents of the economically weak region have accepted Russian passports in order to find work within Russia. Others have been forced to take Russian citizenship in order to keep their jobs or to get access to government services.
The aim of the Kremlin is to turn eastern Ukraine into an unofficial passport protectorate. During a period of increased Russian saber rattling on the Ukrainian border earlier this year, numerous senior Kremlin officials made it clear that the newly created population of Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine is being viewed in Moscow as an open-ended excuse for military intervention.
The Ukrainian security service reported a sharp increase in the number of Russian passports issued in the occupied east of the country on the eve of last week’s elections. Local residents reportedly faced fines or layoffs if they did not vote in the Russian parliament.
Residents of occupied eastern Ukraine were able to vote online or in person in the neighboring Rostov region, with a fleet of more than 800 coaches and a dozen special rail services being organized to take them across the border into southern Russia. According to initial reports, some Ukrainians were given Russian passports just before voting.
The conduct of Russian electoral activities on Ukrainian territory invalidates the vote itself and at the same time makes it an instrument of the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy. For this reason, I asked the Ukrainian parliament last week to appeal to international organizations and parliamentary colleagues around the world asking them not to recognize the elections to the State Duma of the Russian Federation. This proposal was overwhelmingly supported by the Ukrainian MPs.
The talk of non-recognition is not unprecedented. On the contrary, it is in line with a European Parliament resolution last week calling on the EU to support democracy in Russia while branding the Putin regime as “a stagnant authoritarian kleptocracy under the leadership of a lifetime president” from a circle of oligarchs. “
“If this week’s parliamentary elections in Russia are recognized as fraudulent, the EU should not recognize the Russian Duma and demand the suspension of the country from international parliamentary assemblies, including those of the Council of Europe,” commented the author of the resolution and Lithuanian MEP Andrius Cubilius.
The international approach to recent developments in neighboring Belarus is also remarkable. When the Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka responded to domestic protests against a deeply flawed presidential election in August 2020 with a brutal crackdown, the EU and the US refused to recognize him as legitimate.
The recent parliamentary elections in Russia were just as undemocratic as the Belarusian elections last year. In addition, the Kremlin forced thousands of Ukrainians to participate in the farce while using the elections to bolster Moscow’s influence in the eastern Ukrainian Donbass region. This transforms the slow death of Russian democracy from a domestic to an international issue.
For far too long the international community has played with the farce that modern Russia is still a functioning democracy. This has only helped to strengthen Putin’s position on the international stage and to strengthen his claim to legitimacy within Russia itself. Now is the time to try a different approach.
Refusal to recognize the recent Duma elections will not change Russian behavior overnight. However, by rejecting this obviously bogus and deeply flawed vote, Western leaders can deny Putin the credibility he craves but does not deserve, while reaffirming their own commitment to the fundamental democratic principles that the Russian leader so routinely violates.
Oleksiy Goncharenko is a Ukrainian MP for the European Solidarity Party.
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The views expressed on UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its employees, or its supporters.
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