The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Kremlin’s vote riggers are getting creative — and desperate

An oil worker casts his ballot during early voting at the shift residential complex for oil production of the Rosneft oil company in Uvat district, Tyumen region, Russia, on Sept. 16. (Sergei Rusanov/AP)

MOSCOW — Voters in St. Petersburg’s central district during Russia’s parliamentary election this weekend may be forgiven for doubting their eyesight. Staring at them from the official list of candidates, among others, will be three people with the same name and nearly identical appearance. All three are balding men with gray beards, and all are named Boris Vishnevsky.

Only one of them is real, though — and that would be the deputy leader of Yabloko, Russia’s last genuine opposition party that retains ballot access. He is also a longtime member of the St. Petersburg city legislature. An outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin’s domestic and foreign policy and one of the few Russian politicians to openly criticize the annexation of Crimea, Vishnevsky has long been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. He was once officially reprimanded for comparing the supposed stability of Putin’s regime to that of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (who was abruptly overthrown and executed in December 1989).

Having someone with such views in the national parliament is clearly unacceptable in a system that survives on artificial political monopoly. So the Kremlin’s spin doctors “created” two additional Vishnevskys to dilute his vote by finding two people, legally changing their names, photoshopping their images and placing them on the ballot.

To be on the safe side, the authorities are also organizing a “carousel” voting scheme (in which individuals cast multiple votes at different polling stations) using students from St. Petersburg University. Meanwhile, social media campaigns purporting to originate from the Yabloko candidate are promising to “give the Jews of St. Petersburg tax-exempt status.” (Vishnevsky is Jewish.) “It seems that they have absolutely nothing on me if this is what they have to sink to,” Vishnevsky noted dryly.

Follow Vladimir Kara-Murza's opinionsFollow

Vishnevsky is in a privileged category, though — at least he actually made it onto the ballot, one of only a handful of prominent Putin opponents to do so. In the most important sense, the outcome of this election was determined long in advance when many opposition politicians — including imprisoned anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, former member of parliament Dmitri Gudkov, regional lawmaker Lev Shlosberg, and Moscow municipal deputies Ilya Yashin and Yulia Galyamina, among many others — were barred from the ballot through a variety of quasilegal tricks.

Most candidates in this election belong to an array of supposedly different parties that, in fact, end up voting for Putin’s most important initiatives — as they did, unanimously, last year for constitutional amendments waiving his term limits. The few exceptions among the candidates — such as (the real) Vishnevsky in St. Petersburg or democracy activist and political prisoner Andrei Pivovarov, who is running his campaign from a detention cell in Krasnodar — only underscore the lack of any real alternative for most Russian voters.

“Choice without real competition, as we have seen here, is not real choice. ... Where the legal framework restricts many fundamental freedoms and the outcome is not in doubt, elections almost lose their purpose.” This was the verdict of the observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) after Russia’s last presidential election in 2018. That vote saw Putin extend his rule in the absence of any real opponents. (One, Boris Nemtsov, had been murdered; another, Navalny, had been unlawfully disqualified from the ballot.)

No doubt, this time OSCE observers would have concluded something similar, except there won’t be any, as the restrictions placed by Russian authorities forced the organization to cancel its mission. The only objective international assessment will be provided by a small contingent of monitors sent by the Council of Europe — a mere six people for a country of 140 million. Meanwhile, Russia’s leading independent vote-monitoring group, Golos, has been designated by the government as a “foreign agent,” hampering its core activities.

This week Navalny’s supporters released their list of recommendations for each of the country’s 225 electoral districts, urging people to tactically vote for the strongest opponent of Putin’s United Russia party. In most cases, this means voting for Communists — a prospect morally unacceptable for many democratically minded Russians — or for candidates belonging to other Kremlin-approved parties.

The tactic, which aims to show the extent of opposition to pro-Putin candidates, worked very effectively during Moscow’s 2019 city council elections. This time, however, its impact may be limited by failsafe measures employed by the authorities, including a newly instituted electronic voting system that many experts suspect is open to tampering, as well as a three-day voting period that gives officials two nights — without outside observers — that they could use to substitute the ballots as they wish.

“Every time [under Putin], elections have looked a little less like elections. Now this process is complete,” exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky told Echo of Moscow radio this week. “The next time our people will vote for real will be after they earn that right on the barricades.”

On Sunday night, state TV will no doubt announce that United Russia retains its supermajority in parliament. But this will say nothing about the stability or endurance of Putin’s system. As Boris Vishnevsky once noted, Ceausescu had 99 percent support in official numbers just a week before his overthrow.