Movement in Defense of Voters' Rights 'Golos'. By Photobank Moscow-Live

From election observers to ‘foreign agents’: how voters' rights defenders of the ‘Golos’ Movement are persecuted

Since September 2021, 20 regional coordinators and experts of the ‘Golos’ Movement were added to the registry of foreign media outlets performing the functions of ‘a foreign agent’.

The geography of this activity is impressive and covers most of the Russian territory. Here is a complete list indicating the activists and their respective activities:

  1. Veronika Katkova - human rights activist and head of Golos in the Oryol Oblast;
  2. Inna Karezina - head of Golos in Moscow;
  3. Lyudmila Kuzmina - human rights activist and a coordinator of Golos in the Samara Oblast;
  4. Polina Kostyleva - former head of Alexey Navalny's St. Petersburg Headquarters and Golos coordinator in St. Petersburg;
  5. Aleksandr Lyutov - head of Golos in Mordovia;
  6. Vladimir Zhilkin - chairman of the 'People. Pipes. Safety' movement; Coordinator of ‘Golos’ in the Tambov Oblast. Former coordinator of Open Russia. 2021 State Duma candidate from the Yabloko party (not elected);
  7. Vladimir Zhilinsky - Golos coordinator in the Pskov Oblast;
  8. Mikhail Tikhonov - Golos coordinator in Tatarstan;
  9. Sergey Piskunov - head of Kemerovo Golos branch;
  10. Vitaliy Kovin - head of Golos branch in Perm, member of the Movement's council;
  11. Ekaterina Kiltau - head of Golos branch in Altai;
  12. Arkady Lyubarev - a biochemist, legal scholar, and political scientist. He is a member of the federal council of Golos, as well as the author of some articles written for Meduza;
  13. Yuri Gurman - a member of Golos’ council;
  14. Aleksandr Grezev - Golos head in the Sverdlovsk Oblast;
  15. Artyom Vazhenkov - former coordinator of Open Russia and coordinator of Golos, previously detained in Belarus in August of 2020;
  16. Sofia Ivanova - chairwoman of Golos Ryazan regional, member of its council;
  17. Ilya Pigalkin - coordinator of ‘Golos’ in the Ivanovo Oblast;
  18. Aleksey Petrov - historian, political scientist, blogger, and local ethnographer. He is an editor of the local publication Glagol. Irkutskoye obozreniye, as well as Golos coordinator in the Irkutsk Oblast;
  19. Vladimir Egorov - Golos coordinator in Moscow;
  20. Andrey Gusev - Golos chariman in the Primorsky Krai.

The fact of being registered as a ‘foreign agent’ places a heavy burden on an individual. Many humiliating measures are imposed, such as labeling any message posted online, establishing a legal entity, and quarterly reporting on income and expenses, including household expenses.

A recent survey conducted among the people registered as ‘foreign agents’ and performed by Artyom Vazhenkov showed that such a status deprives these people of their normal lifestyle, as they face financial difficulties, psychological problems, and burnout.

This, in turn, is because people are experiencing severe stress and deterioration of their financial situation.

Also, during the survey, many participants noted that they had lost earnings, had to quit their jobs, gave up on projects, and were stigmatized when dealing with governmental entities. Many of them are either in emigration or plan to do so in the nearest future.

These people need serious psychological and financial support.

In addition, the very notion of a 'foreign agent’ is used to obstruct election observers since this status deprives them of the ability to monitor voting at polling stations.

The only possible action in such a situation is to challenge this status legally, and this is what all those who are members of the 'Golos' Movement have done. Now the judicial hearings are in full swing, but so far without the slightest success.


Why ‘Golos’ activists are being designated ‘foreign agents’


Only filing an application to the court allows one to understand what has served as the legal reason for their inclusion into the registry. And here’s how it works. Let's see what kind of foreign financing is imputed to ‘foreign agents’.

Foreign financing in many cases is attributed to very small amounts of money (sometimes only a few hundred rubles) transferred to the activists' cards from people they don't even know. This money cannot be reimbursed. It's essentially a provocation: a citizen of Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, usually a migrant worker, transfers a small amount to one's bank card. And yet, according to the Ministry of Justice, this transfer is big enough to put a person on the registry.

One of the most striking examples of this is the story of Ekaterina Kiltau. On August 24, 2021, Ekaterina received a transfer of only 200 rubles (approx. 1,56 Euro - REM) from Otabek Khudoyberdiev, a citizen of Tajikistan. It was not possible to return this money. As it was later discovered from open sources, Otabek has studied at the Altai state technical university in Barnaul and is now repairing apartments.

What other reasons can be used to designate one a ‘foreign agent’? Among these, there are often civil transactions, such as payment for a taxi, returning a debt by a foreigner, a purchase of an airplane ticket for a foreigner, royalties from media outlets that were not considered foreign agents at the time of pay-offs, or payments for the services of a private teacher.

Here are some examples reflected in court proceedings:

  • Vladimir Zhilkin (Tambov): While working as a taxi driver, Vladimir received a remittance of  171 rubles (approx. 1,34 Euro - REM) from a Moroccan client, who paid for the ride.
  • Lyudmila Kuzmina, a 70-year-old pensioner from Samara: For a month and a half, Lyudmila rented her apartment to a French citizen.
  • Inna Karezina (Moscow): Inna is a professor and a private teacher of Greek and Latin. She received payments to her card from her foreign students.
  • Ilya Pigalkin (Ivanovo): According to the materials of the Ministry of Justice, Ilya was registered as a ‘foreign agent’ because of 2000 rubles (approx. 15,62 Euro - REM) transferred to him by Mohammed Hanif Babur Shah, the former husband of Pigalkin's neighbor, who had earlier borrowed money from Ilya. It is worth noting that in the past, Mohammed Hanif Babur Shah had been a citizen of Afghanistan. Later he received Russian citizenship.
  • Artyom Vazhenkov (Tver): Artyom received a transfer to his card from a Nigerian citizen Abure Florenzia for buying tickets and selling an airline's 'bonus' miles.

As we see, it is not necessary to engage in any 'political activity’. It is enough to just post something on social networks. No direct connection between the posts on the Internet and the receipt of a payment from a ‘foreigner’ is essential. This is the official position of the Ministry of Justice, reflected in the arguments presented in court.

Some money transfers were made to activists' cards more than a year ago. This is significant, as it calls into question the legitimacy of the very fact of a person's inclusion into the registry, as the absence of ‘foreign funding’ during a year is a prerequisite for exclusion from the registry.

In addition, the Ministry of Justice refers to the fact that these ‘foreign agents’ have received money and participated in the development of materials in favor of the media considered ‘foreign’. However, sometimes the receipt of money occurred BEFORE these media and/or organizations were officially recognized as ‘foreign agents’. This happened to Arkady Lyubarev, an expert of ‘Golos’, who had received 20,000 rubles (approx. 139 Euro - REM) from media outlet Meduza, not considered 'foreign' media at the time.


‘One-size-fits-all’ court decisions


Most cases challenging the status of a ‘foreign agent’ are heard at the location of the defendant, i.e. in the Zamoskvoretsky court of Moscow. And are traditionally led by judge Nelli Rubtsova. She is known for her decision to include a large number of NGOs and media outlets into the ‘foreign agents’ registry. Among such entities are Republik, Memorial, Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, and Meduza.

Rubtsova considered the bulk of the Golos activists' cases within just a couple of days, having denied all filed appeals. Her decisions were full of errors and followed the same template. There were names of people unrelated to the specific case in the court decisions. Moreover, we recorded cases in which Golos’ activists got charged due to receiving money transfers that did not actually occur

For instance, an incriminating money transfer from a foreign citizen to the card of the Movement's expert, Vitaliy Kovin, could not be found. Perhaps, additional evidence will still be presented in the course of the trial (although this seems pretty doubtful).

That is, the Ministry of Justice, as well as Rosfinmonitoring have simply made up this transfer in order to purposely apply the status of a ‘foreign agent’. The court, in turn, is not willing to subject the information to any serious scrutiny.


Targeted attacks on observers


From the overall analysis of the cases, we understand that this attack on the ‘Golos’ Movement is planned and purposeful. Reports and administrative fines for non-compliance with the law on ‘foreign agents’ have already begun to be applied. So far, there have been two such cases. Inna Karezina was reported for her comments on Twitter and Artyom Vazhenkov - for his photo on Instagram in Tbilisi.

The case was not heard at the place of residence. The territorial jurisdiction was chosen arbitrarily, which is a gross violation of procedural norms.

But what is worth noting is not the size of the administrative fine, which is 10,000 rubles for the first round and 50,000 rubles for the second round (approx. 68 and 342 Euro respectively - REM). Two such fines are a prerequisite for a person to be considered a ‘severe violator’ of the law. As a result, a criminal case may be initiated against such an individual. It is not difficult to become a violator, as the 'responsibilities' of being a foreign agent are very broad. For example, if you do not label your social media posts,  indicating that you are a 'foreign agent', you face a fine. Also, you could get a fine if the Ministry of Justice dislikes your quarterly financial report.


Prospects for amending the legislation on ‘foreign agents'


Fortunately, some factions of the State Duma understand the need to simplify the legislation.

The main ‘lobbyists’ calling for a change in the law on ‘foreign agents’ are 'A Just Russia - for Truth' and 'New People' parties.

Of course, the ideal option would be a complete repeal of such a law, as proposed by the ‘Yabloko’ party. But most experts agree that such a repeal is impossible due to the current political situation.

However, the existence of a proposal for the complete abolition of the law may have a positive impact on the adoption of ‘concessions’ for foreign agents, as there is an understanding that:

  • the procedure for inclusion in the registry should be judicial;
  • there should be a mandatory connection between funding and publications on the Internet;
  • the mandatory establishment of a legal entity shall be abolished;
  • the ‘foreign agent’ labeling shall not be placed on messages of a personal and domestic nature;
  • there shall be a review of the existing list of ‘foreign agents’.

Even these changes can make life a lot easier for people already on the registry.

It is difficult to determine the timeframe for the possible adoption/rejection of the much-needed amendments. Yet the support of two political factions at once allows us to hope for a positive outcome.


The ‘Golos’ movement continues to fight back


The trials currently continue at the court of appeals (with the exception of Yuri Gurman's case, as the Presnensky district court of Moscow refused to consider his case, pointing at a different territorial jurisdiction. However, a complaint has been filed).

At the same time, members and experts of Golos do take an active part in the development of amendments to the legislation on ‘foreign agents’. For example, Arkady Lyubarev is now actively engaged in this work. Representatives of ‘ Golos’ recently took part in a round table on amending the legislation.

We will continue to use every opportunity we have to change the situation.

Anyone can make a small contribution by leaving their signature on the petition to repeal the law on ‘foreign agents’.

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PART 1: United Russia

According to sociologists, the same four parties represented in the parliament now: United Russia, the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Just Russia will probably be elected again in 2021. How are these four parties organized? What is their support base in regions?

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Over the past 14 years, the authorities have blocked 120,000 candidates from participating in elections of various levels, depriving millions of Russian citizens of the right to choose their representatives.

A demonstration in Moscow. Image - by Andrey, Pxhere.

Russia has finally outlawed Alexey Navalny's political and anti-corruption movement. Here's how the crackdown affects activists, journalists, and ordinary supporters.

Plenary meeting of the State Duma. Image - Wikimedia Commons

The President of Russia approved the law prohibiting those who are "involved" in the activities of an extremist organization from running in elections.

Electoral headquarters of Alexey Navalny. Photo - Wikimedia Commons

On June 9, the Moscow City Court, based on the charges by the Moscow Prosecutor's Office, recognized the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), the Foundation for the Protection of Citizens' Rights, and the headquarters of Alexei Navalny as extremist organizations. Now, many citizens are under a threat of pressure and persecution.

Vladimir Putin at the United Russia Congress (2011-11-27). Image - Wikimedia Commons

Between May 24 and 30, United Russia held its preliminary selection of candidates for 2021 State Duma elections. Nearly 12 million citizens participated in the party's primaries. Yet, a more careful examination shows an increasingly controlled and non-transparent process, aimed at having the public formally 'endorse' a carefully vetted list of pre-selected candidates.

Meeting of Central Election Commission Chair Ella Pamfilova with OSCE / ODIHR Director Matteo Mecacci. Photo - CEC

Between 2003 and 2018, OSCE/ODIHR published 139 recommendations on how to improve the conduct of elections in Russia. In the run-up to the State Duma elections in 2021, Russia has fully implemented just over 10% of them. Some have been tackled more promptly than others.

Man using computers. Photo by: Lisa Fotios from Pexels

Ahead of the State Duma election on September 19, 2021, Russia just tested its remote electronic voting system. While the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation (CEC) is preparing the report about the results of the test, election monitors say Russia's electronic voting system is a black box.

Alexei Navalny. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Russian authorities are expected to orchestrate a result in the upcoming State Duma elections that will give United Russia a clear majority of seats. This does not mean, however, that the manipulation of the electoral process by the authorities is complete. In a limited number of competitive districts, true opposition candidates including candidates who are associated with Aleksei Navalny have a real chance of winning if they are allowed to run. In recent weeks, steps have been taken to block these 'undesirable' candidates from participating.

Central Election Commission (CEC) of Russian Federation during April 21, 2021, meeting. Photo by: CEC.

On March 19, 2021, the new composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC) of the Russian Federation was revealed. Out of 15 members, eight new people joined the CEC. In particular, the new Commission has been 'reinforced' by bureaucrats from the Presidential Administration, the State Duma, and the Civic Chamber (a consultative civil society institution closely linked to the government).