February 10th, 2012 • SP Senator Tiny Kox is in Russia once again to prepare for a Council of Europe observer mission, this time for the presidential elections scheduled for 4th March. He will report daily for the SP website.
The Moskwa, which normally flows along the walls of the Kremlin, is now frozen stiff. But you couldn’t hold a skating race on it. Everything is lying around higgledy-piggledy, a bit like Russia’s political landscape. After the parliamentary elections of 4th December, things have begun begun to move. It might be freezing cold in Russia, but the political temperature is soaring ever higher.
This is what I hear this morning when I meet with a number of ambassadors, including the Dutch ambassador and the ambassador of the European Union. Everyone is impressed by the mass demonstrations which took place in the wake of the fiddling which went on before and during the elections. Yet everyone also sees that there is no possibility of a united opposition capable in the coming presidential election of measuring up to Vladimir Putin, current prime minister and leader of the biggest political party, United Russia. They all assume on this basis that the next President of the country which covers the world’s biggest landmass is called Vladimir Putin. None of the four challengers – the communist Zjuganov, the nationalist Zjirinovski, the centre-left Mironov, or the liberal Prokhorov – have, according to those with whom I spoke, anything approaching Putin’s popularity.
The observer mission brought out a report last December on the elections in Russia.
This goes also for the possible fifth challenger, Grigori Yavlinkski, who has not been admitted as a candidate by the electoral council, but who today appealed to the High Court. The electoral council has ruled that a large number of the two million signatures required for his candidacy do not meet the stated demands. Yavlinkski disputes this. Today or tomorrow we will know whether he can stand. His support, however, is according to the polls lower than 1%. The big question at the moment is not who is the most popular, but whether Putin’s popularity is sufficient to see him win the elections at the first round. If he gains less than 50% of the vote, there’ll be a second round. And what I’m hearing from various sides is that many people will then vote first and foremost against the current Prime Minister, whoever the opposing candidate may be. For the time being this remains pure speculation.
Help comes from Heidi Tagliavini, the leading Swiss diplomat who heads the Organisation for Security and Cooperation’s long-term observation. I found during the parliamentary elections that I could work very well with her. Under her leadership the OSCE has twenty teams active in relation to every aspect of the elections: access to the media for the various candidates, government aid to the Putin campaign, organisation and staffing of local and regional polling stations, and whether everyone enjoys adequate freedom to pursue his campaign. Midway through February the OSCE will produce an interim report. This will be extremely useful to me, and in March the two organisations, OSCE and Council of Europe, will between us have a few hundred observers in place.
The official supervisory body is the Central Electoral Council. I will meet with it today as well, and in a significantly better atmosphere than when we met in November, when I had just begun work here. At that time the Chair of the Electoral Council, Vladimir Churov, went so far as to want me prosecuted for in his view breaking all kinds of rules. Now I am welcomed by him in a friendly fashion, receive perfectly normal answers to my questions and as a bonus am even given a tour of a model polling station, the first one in the world to be equipped with webcams, which will give everyone who wants to the chance to witness the entire election day at the polling booth. Premier Putin himself took the decision to have these installed following the barrage of criticism, including from the Council of Europe, surrounding the manipulations at the parliamentary elections. The powerful Electoral Council Chair now recognises that rather a lot went wrong on 4th December. He has studied my report on the parliamentary elections, in which I point amongst other things to the lack of an impartial referee. He knows to whom I was referring but doesn’t bother to persuade me to change my opinion.
Churov shows us transparent ballot boxes, which on his orders will be found in every polling station. The slots are so narrow that it will no longer be possible to slide piles of ballot papers into the box, as happened in many places on 4th December. He tells me also that a third of polling station chiefs will be changed, and that he has instructed all polling stations to stick closely to the prescribed protocol and to give additional training to those who are going to staff the stations, in order to prevent any errors.
We shall see. 84-year old Ludmilla Alexeeva from the Helsinki Group, one of the best-known of the domestic observers, tells me that she finds these exciting times. She also is impressed by the angry reaction of so many Russians to the ‘stolen elections’ and is curious to know what the consequences may be for the presidential elections. Not that she thinks that Putin won’t in the end be elected, but for her the question is how long he will be able to stay in office. A great deal has been shaken up in Russia and in her view this can’t fail to have consequences for the functioning of the political institutions of the Russian Federation.
In the afternoon I discuss with my delegation the issue of how much space the media are offering the candidates. It’s clear that this appears quite a bit fairer than in the past, although Putin has as yet avoided debates and will continue to play the role of Prime Minister, which gives him, as it would anywhere, a lot more television time. Not fair, says one side, but understandable, says the other.
Tonight I will be meeting a delegation which is visiting from the European Parliament. It is likely that a few observers will be here from the EP for the elections. The big difference between the EU and the Council of Europe is that the former here in Russia is meddling in foreign affairs, while Russia is one of the forty-seven member states of the Council of Europe, so we are on home turf. That’s why we want Russia, along with all of the other member states, to adhere to binding rules of conduct govern ing the holding of fair elections, including for the presidency.
Tomorrow I will meet with the candidates. I’m curious to see whether they will all turn up, and what they will have to tell me.