MOSCOW — From the fringes of power, Ella Pamfilova has spent decades fighting against the odds. As Russia’s first female candidate for president, she ran on a largely symbolic ticket against Vladimir Putin in 2000, earning just 1 percent of the vote. As Russia’s human rights ombudsman, she sought compromise between harried advocates and hidebound officials.
But as the newly appointed head of Russia’s Central Elections Commission, she faces an even more improbable task: ensuring that Russia’s notorious parliamentary elections this fall are free and fair.
The stakes are high. Russia’s most recent parliamentary elections, in 2011, descended into farce as social media videos of ballot stuffing and accusations of mass voter fraud spawned the country’s largest pro-democracy and anti-Putin rallies in recent memory.
The difference now, Pamfilova said in an interview, is that Putin has given a mandate for clean elections. And she says she is the proof.
“If there were not a political desire for normal, fair and open elections, then they would never choose a person like me, someone hard to work with who won’t play the subordinate,” she said over tea in a boardroom at Russia’s Central Elections Commission, adding that she thinks Putin respects her for her forthrightness. “I never brought Putin pleasant questions. I always came with problems. And he knows my difficult character.”
Not everyone will accept that logic. Skeptics have dubbed her appointment a “rebranding,” an attempt to maintain the Kremlin’s electoral stranglehold while whitewashing the memory of her predecessor, Vladimir Churov. He was dubbed “the wizard,” for his white beard and uncanny ability to predict election results.
“The goal is not to hold fair elections as such, but to avoid protests of their results,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and senior lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
Pamfilova shrugged off the criticism.
Bustling with energy, she mapped out a strategy of preventative measures and emergency interventions to curtail voter fraud ahead of the September elections, relying on force of will where the powers of her office were lacking.
“Let them fear Pamfilova,” she said with relish, describing her handling of a recent wage dispute for elections workers in Rybinsk. In her telling, the main villains are local and regional officials seeking to massage the vote, not the Kremlin.
Former colleagues described her as an earnest and outspoken defender for victims of abuse, but also as a calculated political dealmaker and fervent advocate for gradual reform from within. She has shunned appeals to the West to exert influence on Russia, on elections and human rights issues.
Tanya Lokshina, head of Human Rights Watch Russia and a longtime colleague, said that she trusts Pamfilova’s intentions but doubts her potential impact.
“Perhaps, like in the old days, she can achieve small victories, make a difference where she’s able to make a difference,” Lokshina said, referring to Pamfilova’s chairmanship of the Kremlin Human Rights Council beginning in 2002. “She is doomed in terms of ensuring free and fair elections in Russia, at least this time around. But it won’t be for lack of goodwill.”
A possible litmus test, the 2011 elections, reveals an official straddling the middle ground. Pamfilova was on an academic fellowship at the Wilson Center in Washington during the contested vote and could not say whether the voter fraud that took place was “massive” or widespread. But she did say that social protests provoked by the violations were “justified,” something few Russian officials readily concede.
The protest movement in Russia has waned since 2012 because of a crackdown on dissent, internal discord among opponents of Putin, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea, which split the opposition movement and brought a surge of higher approval ratings for the Kremlin.
In the current environment, Pamfilova said, the government is not under any pressure to appease liberals or opposition members.
“What’s the point for the authorities of catering to them?” she said when asked about the potential political motivations of her appointment. “There are so few of them, they are disappearing.”
She attacked what she called the country’s “radical opposition” for failing to make inroads with the larger Russian electorate and for demonizing those, such as herself, who sometimes align with the government. At the same time, she promised to open access to the elections.
“In my opinion, the richer the political spectrum of a country is, the better,” she said. “That is why I think that my objective is to provide an access to elections for all parties.”
Meanwhile, the steady attacks on opposition figures have continued, including the brazen assassination of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov just steps from the Kremlin walls last year. On the day in April that Pamfilova met with a reporter, Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny and Ludmilla Ulitskaya, a novelist famous for her opposition views, were doused with an “acrid chemical” on Moscow’s streets in separate attacks by nationalist activists.
The pressure has thrown the opposition into disarray. Last month, a Russian state news channel aired footage of the opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov engaging in an affair, sparking an exodus from the opposition coalition slated to compete in the elections.
Ahead of the September elections, Navalny has said that his party members plan to “test” Pamfilova. The first showdown came near Moscow, in the suburb of Barvikha, where activists decried non-residents being bused in to vote in municipal elections last month. Pamfilova halted the vote.
“Ella Pamfilova had enough political will in order to cancel these unfair elections,” Navalny said, offering measured praise in an interview on the Echo of Moscow radio station. “We will see whether or not she has enough will to hold fair elections.”
Pamfilova served as a government minister and member of parliament during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s, before taking various roles as a government liaison for human rights advocates under Putin. She characterized her relationship with Putin as “fairly complicated,” but he has nominated her repeatedly for government roles in the human rights sphere, before asking her to become elections commissioner in March.
She has repeatedly resigned her posts in protest, first as social minister under Yeltsin, and then as the chairwoman of the Kremlin’s commission on human rights in 2010, amid harassment from nationalist activists.
“If I see that my work begins to contradict my personal principles and I understand it is not effective, I don’t remain in my position,” she said.