Russia’s answer to Beverly Hills

May 10, 2016

Sergey Orlov

The election in Barvikha was going to be the unlikely battleground between opposition activists and the regime. But the battle was cancelled.


The Barvikha local elections have been cancelled. If the activists hadn’t forced the Central Election Commission (CEC) to pay attention to the criminality being perpetrated during the electoral run-up and beyond, the result would have been a regulation triumph for United Russia. But the Kremlin seems to have accepted this minor non-victory without too much ado – with the reputation of the upcoming Duma campaign at stake, an electoral fraud scandal would be undesirable. So the elections are no more, but the question remains: who has emerged victorious from this whole affair? Navalny and his people? The Kremlin? Or CEC chief Ella Pamfilova?

Navalny and his people. Before Ella Pamfilova had even taken up her new role as head of the CEC, Navalny’s team had already concocted a severe stress test for her: the activists decided to participate in the procedurally straightforward elections in Barvikha (Russia’s answer to Beverly Hills, the playground of billionaires and government officials). The candidates declared that if they encountered any administrative interference, that could only mean that Pamfilova must be “worse than Churov” (the previous – and odious – CEC chief, whose name had become a symbol of fraudulent elections).

The most egregious violations in Barvikha took place during the early-voting period.

The most egregious violations in Barvikha took place during the early-voting period. From April 16 onwards, people that no locals had ever seen before were queuing up to cast their ballots; some had such poor Russian they couldn’t even write their own early vote declaration. These early-voting Gastarbeiter brandished new Russian passports, the ink of their Barvikha residence permit stamps barely dry; furthermore, many of them had been registered as residing in the home of a United Russia candidate – and they were driven to the polling station in a minibus belonging to the latter.

Ella Pamfilova invited representatives of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and other Barvikha candidates to the CEC on April 18. The discussions she held with Navalny’s supporters proved particularly emotive. Activist Georgy Alburov: “The Barvikha elections have been plagued by criminality. There’s only one way to put an end to all this, and that’s to remove the beneficiaries of this mass voter transportation [literal transportation by car etc. to voting stations, but with implications of bribery], Gusev and other United Russia candidates, from the picture.” Ella Pamfilova: “What, you want me to order them all to be arrested? Do you even realise what you’re saying?!”

Ella Pamfilova
Ella Pamfilova

The FBK representatives posted a secret recording of their meeting with Pamfilova online and concluded that, even in the best-case scenario, Pamfilova would do nothing more than forward their complaints to the prosecutor’s office, where they would be formally processed. “The most pointless two-and-a-quarter hours of our entire campaign,” Alburov lamented on Facebook. “Might as well have gone on Direct Line with Putin.” The very next day (April 19), four FBK candidates withdrew from the elections, making specific mention of Pamfilova in the statement that followed: “Ella Alexandrovna, you knew what you were going in for, you knew you’d be compared to Churov. Thus far, unfortunately, you don’t compare favourably to him. Resign!” “The nerves of these ignorant little boys – whose grasp of the law is very tenuous – just didn’t hold out. Well, that’s their problem,” Pamfilova riposted indignantly.

And then, on April 20, at the insistence of the CEC, the Barvikha elections were cancelled

And then, on April 20, at the insistence of the CEC, the Barvikha elections were cancelled. Cue an awkward pause, followed by the conclusion that, come to think of it, Pamfilova was still better than Churov at this stage, but it would still be necessary to monitor the situation over time. Meanwhile, even Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was impressed: “It was clear even before her appointment that she’d oversee the work of the CEC in an effective fashion, and that’s exactly what we’re witnessing.”

As might be expected, the FBK’s efforts in Barvikha generated a mixed response. Opposition politician Vladimir Milov, for example, was all in favour: “That’s a real scalp for the FBK guys against the Barvikha crooks. And a fruitful stress-test for Pamfilova to boot.” But numerous commentators drew attention to the manner of the FBK’s confrontation with the Central Election Commission. “Navalny’s team came across like a bunch of aggressive fringers,” said political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko, while Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov also underscored the brusqueness of the candidates: “I believe that, as a gentleman, Alexey Anatolievich Navalny really has to take some flowers to the CEC and apologise for the tone in which he’s conducted a political dispute with an individual who’s only just been appointed to her post.”

Kommersant-Vlast magazine had more on the story: “According to our sources, Ella Pamfilova informed the presidential administration of her intention to cancel the elections [in Barvikha] and received permission to act at her own discretion.”

Does this mean that the Kremlin has now decided to uphold the principle of free and fair democratic elections? No. In conflict situations, the following scenario is most likely to be implemented: whenever the holding of fair elections doesn’t seriously contravene the interests of the Kremlin, the regime will hold fire and allow Pamfilova another local victory. In effect it is betting on both red and black: whatever losses it incurs by deferring to the decisions of the CEC chair will be compensated for by the resulting increase of trust in the regime – as secured by the selfsame Pamfilova.

If and when Pamfilova’s political nous fails her, and she dares to clash with the Kremlin on an issue of truly fundamental importance, the Central Election Commission will get a new leader. It would seem that Pamfilova knows only too well what the rationale behind her potential future dismissal would be: “I’ve never clung on to any position. Having a post only makes sense if you believe you can achieve something truly important – something you’re not going to be ashamed of.”

The Barvikha affair has been a palpably expedient one for the regime

The Barvikha affair has been a palpably expedient one for the regime: having rid itself of inconvenient candidates, and, temporarily at least, of inconvenient elections as well, it hasn’t even had to deal with any accusatory fingers pointing in its direction. In addition, the regime has managed to use the enemy’s own strength against itself: following the cancellation of the Barvikha elections, Pamfilova’s fiercest critic, Alburov, has been subjected to fiercer criticism than anyone else for his personal attacks on the CEC chief.


But in order to get a sense of the true level of influence currently exerted by Ella Pamfilova on Russia’s electoral system, we need only consider the shameless lies she has been fed by the chiefs of subordinate election commissions. It would appear that, in the eyes of these people, the real authority is not at all the chair of the Central Election Commission, but a third party lurking behind the scenes.

At a meeting with Pamfilova on April 18, the election commission chiefs told porkies in strict hierarchical order, starting from the bottom: Andrei Ionin, the chairman of the election commission in Barvikha, denied that the “early voters” were being forced to sign the envelopes in which their ballot papers were to have been stored prior to election day (so much for a secret ballet …).

One of the candidates couldn’t contain himself: “Andrei Valentinovich, I personally heard you say it at least ten times – when someone came out of the voting booth you’d order them, ‘Sign it!’ – in an insistent tone. I wouldn’t advise you to lie here at the CEC! It’s all easy to check – you just need to take a look at the envelopes.”

Mr Ionin also claimed that the commission was unable to verify individual voters’ reasons for casting an early ballot (the law only dictates that the reason be ‘valid’”). The claim was instantly refuted by a Barvikha resident also at the meeting: “Before the previous elections, we were flying away on holiday with the whole family,” she explained, recalling the events of two years ago. “And the Barvikha election commission sent me off to fetch the original plane tickets even though I had electronic versions. And at your insistence, Andrey Valentinovich, I went off to the Transaero office and got the originals and presented them to you. So go and check the archives.”

Alexander Ignatov, chairman of the Odintsovo District Territorial Election Commission, likewise fought off accusations of mass voter transportation: “Transport’s a matter for the law enforcement authorities. But in fact we’re talking a single GAZelle [type of minibus] here.” No: what we’re really talking about is an entire fleet of cars: that single GAZelle, two other minibuses, as well as a Ford, a Mercedes and a Skoda.

Last up was Irek Vildanov, chairman of the Election Commission of Moscow Region. Vildanov was asked by one of the candidates how it could be that, in four days of early voting, 132 people had turned out to cast their ballots in Barvikha – as compared to a mere 4 in the town of Vidnoye over the same period. Mr Vildanov was prepared for that question: “Those elections are in a single-seat district. There’s only a few hundred voters. You can’t compare them with the elections [in Barvikha].” But perhaps a comparison would have been worthwhile: there are 2865 registered voters in Vidnoye, and 2866 in the second voting district of Barivkha (where the early voters are predominantly concentrated).

The democratically-minded community has found itself newly split on the Pamfilova issue. “It was not for nothing that Ella Pamfilova took up this position, and now she’s proving just that,” wrote politician Dmitry Gudkov. In contrast, Radio Liberty journalist Mikhail Sokolov lamented that “they’re now going to use this example to demonstrate to the tele-suggestible [sic] public that Pamfilova oversees only fair elections.”

Under Putin, fair elections in Russia – elections founded on the provision of a level playing-field for all candidates, unencumbered by administrative pressure, covered by an uncensored media, and guaranteed by an independent judiciary – are impossible, by definition. As for the idea of “relatively fair elections” now being actively promoted by the Kremlin, it is no accident that the regime seems so keen on the idea at this particular point in time. It’s all part of the Kremlin’s plan to restore its respectability in the eyes of the West, and to bring a part of the domestic opposition under its control. “Harmless” oppositionists will thus find themselves in the Duma, while the rest will be removed from the picture using the methods of a police state. Ella Pamfilova or no Ella Pamfilova.

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