Hiding In Plain Sight: United Russia’s Bid To Distance Itself From Moscow Polls Falls Flat

File Photo of Vladimir Putin at Podium with United Russia Logo, Gesturing

(Article text ©2019 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Robert Coalson – Aug. 23, 2019 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/moscow-elections-united-russia-distancing-itself/30126048.html)

Officially, United Russia — the political party that has dominated national, regional, and local politics since it was created by the Kremlin in 2003 — is not participating in the September 8 elections to choose a new Moscow City Duma. Its logo does not appear on any campaign advertising and will not figure on the ballot papers.

None of the candidates — not even the 10 United Russia incumbents seeking reelection — is running under the auspices of the party.

But it isn’t hard to see the hand of the party — an extension of the office of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin — dominating the heavily managed election process if one heeds the age-old dictum of investigative reporting: Follow the money.

Moscow Election Commission records show that 31 candidates nominally running as independents but with long-running ties to United Russia have received some 800 million rubles ($12 million) from six noncommercial foundations that are also connected to United Russia and/or its pro-Kremlin sister organization, the All-Russia Popular Front (ONF).

Three of the organizations — the Popular Projects Foundation, the National Foundation for the Support of Regional Cooperation and Development (NFDR), and the Foundation to Support Future Generations — are registered at the same street address, Banny pereulok 3, as United Russia. Between them, they contributed 400 million rubles ($6 million) to faux independent candidates from United Russia.

The Foundation for The Rights of Borrowers, which donated 97 million rubles ($1.5 million), is registered at the same address as the ONF. The Center for Monitoring Industrial Development is a project of the ONF. The National Educational Resources Foundation is a project of the All-Russian Pedagogical Congress, which is a project of United Russia. The last two organizations donated more than 30 million rubles ($500,000) to United Russia-linked candidates, according to candidate declarations filed with the Moscow Election Commission.

The blog Depdep has created a post with links to all the documents.

‘The System Is Shaking’

United Russia apparently made the tactical decision to mask its participation in the elections because the party entered the election season with historically low approval ratings. Much of the public has turned against the party after it passed a law raising retirement ages, raised the VAT rate, adopted a program to tax long-distance trucking, and cracked down on local protests in many cities against numerous controversial proposals for coping with solid waste.

“I am convinced that the system is shaking,” Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer with opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s Anticorruption Foundation who was disqualified from participating in the elections after officials invalidated many of the signatures she submitted, told RFE/RL in an interview in June. “The popularity ratings of United Russia, of [President] Vladimir Putin, and of the government are falling. People don’t want to support the party of power, and they don’t trust it.”

“The authorities haven’t been this weak for many years because they really have lost the support of a majority of Russians,” Sobol concluded.

The decision to keep a low profile, however, created new problems for United Russia’s preferred candidates — problems such as financing, which the party has resolved using its firm grip over the notorious “administrative resources” of Putin’s authoritarian ruling structure.

For one thing, under Russian law, candidates put forward by parties that are represented in the State Duma do not have to collect and submit signatures supporting their candidacy. Independent candidates, on the other hand, face the often onerous task of gathering signatures from 3 percent of the voters in the district they hope to represent.

The signature requirement was introduced to give the authorities levers to control which candidates appear on the ballot.

The requirement to collect signatures and the process of having the signatures approved by the government-controlled election commission makes the Moscow City Duma an “impenetrable fortress,” in the words of political analyst Andrei Pertsev.

Authorities indeed used the signature requirement to disqualify nearly all of the genuinely independent candidates who tried to participate in the elections, prompting large demonstrations in the capital and turning normally dull regional elections into a major political crisis.

In this campaign, however, United Russia’s faux independent candidates faced the task of somehow producing the required signatures from an angry electorate.

Speaking to Meduza in June, Andrei Metelsky, the head of United Russia’s Moscow branch who is seeking reelection to the City Duma as an “independent,” tried to turn the signature problem into a virtue.

“United Russia wants to show that it’s not afraid of challenges, and it’s not afraid to reach out to Muscovites to collect signatures,” Metelsky said.

The same month, activists with Navalny’s team spotted an online advertisement offering 1,000 rubles for signatures. Following the advertisement led the activists to an office where signatures were allegedly being falsified in industrial quantities to support United Russia’s “independent” candidates.

Navalny’s activists found and filmed a similar operation in support of the United Russia candidate for governor of St. Petersburg, Aleksandr Beglov.

Tools Of Control

Moscow authorities are reportedly using other tools to control the political crisis around the election. Rejected would-be candidates have been repeatedly arrested for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations, often being rearrested just moments after being released on a previous charge.

Navalny himself has alleged that he was poisoned while he was being held. He spent 19 hours in the hospital being treated for what officially was called “an allergic reaction.”

After rejecting an opposition request to hold a demonstration against the rejection of the independent candidates on Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue on August 24, the city authorities organized a concert there, supposedly in honor of the 350th anniversary of the Russian flag. The Flag Day holiday, however, was on August 22, and the tricolor flag was first flown in 1667 or 1668, meaning the 350th anniversary has already passed.

Nonetheless, the city administration is reportedly pressuring budget-sector organizations such as schools and hospitals to compel staff to attend the event.

On August 22, the Moscow metro system filed a lawsuit against Navalny and several of the rejected would-be candidates seeking compensation for losses allegedly incurred during the recent demonstrations, when police restricted access to public transport. Earlier the city companies that run the bus lines and that oversee the roads also filed similar suits.