The Kremlin takes steps to ensure that the most protesting activists of the summer and fall of 2019 will not participate in this year’s and future elections. This was the impression that reigned on Tuesday night among the Moscow parliamentary commentators after the State Duma (lower house of parliament) voted in favor of expanding the number of crimes that preclude them from running for elections during a certain and long term of time after the extinction of the sentence.
The point to that effect appeared by surprise hidden in a set of technical provisions that affect electoral legislation and that were presented for second reading. The unexpected novelty contemplates the application of the so-called “criminal filter” to fifty articles in the penal code, including those considered “political”, specially designed by the regime to control the street and the activities of the opposition. Under the approved text, those who have committed minor crimes will be deprived of their right to be elected for a period of five years after the total expiration of the sentence. Author of the amendment is Dmitri Viatkin, a deputy from United Russia (Putin’s followers’ party), who on multiple occasions signed political initiatives prepared in the presidential administration, according to the informed parliamentary correspondent of the Moskovski Komsomolets newspaper.
It so happens that several of the leaders of the street protests of the summer and autumn of 2019 (just to denounce irregularities in the regional and municipal elections of last September) were tried for the criminal in the so-called “Moscow processes”. For example, the student of the Higher School of Economics, Yegor Zhúkov, was sentenced to three years of probation in 2019, after being found guilty of exhortation to extremism. Zhúkov has a YouTube channel with 180,000 subscribers, has organized a network of volunteers to help citizens in this time of pandemic and has already said that he aspired to be President of Russia. The amendment approved by the Duma now disables him from being elected until 2028. Another affected is Konstantín Kótov, sentenced to 4 years (later reduced to 1.5 years) for repeated infringement of the rules on activities in public spaces.
The “criminal filter” is a justified barrier but also an instrument to keep unwanted opposition at bay and to curb their entry into state institutions. Condemnatory trials, based in many cases on inconsistent, dubious or inconsistent allegations, thus serve to keep wayward opponents off the institutionalized political spectrum for a long time. The so-called “criminal filter” already existed for serious crimes and it was applied to the politician Alexéi Navalni (for economic crimes) in 2014. The limitation of rights served the Russian authorities to reject Navalni as a candidate in the presidential elections. from 2018.
There is an important difference between competing for being admitted as a candidate and being blocked with dubious arguments, on the one hand, and being declared a criminal and kept at a distance from the elections, on the other, as the Golos association co-president, Grigori Melkonianz, explained well, quoted by the Védomosti newspaper.
Against the backdrop of the quarantine, the Duma could approve other points intended to reinforce electoral control, first of all on the day of voting on September 13, which affects regional and municipal parliaments. Elections to the Russian State Duma are planned for 2021.
The Duma could also legislate to allow the procedure for collecting signatures in support of the candidates to be done in part via an official digital page. The alleged irregularities in the collection of signatures (manual) in support of the annoying candidates has been one of the arguments used by the Russian administration to reject opposition figures. An indisputable objective procedure for collecting signatures would deprive the electoral commission of the possibility of challenging them. A mixture of digital and manual procedure would keep all options open.
The expansion of the “criminal filter” shows the desire of the presidential administration to control even more if possible the political life against the backdrop of the loss of popularity of the president and the economic difficulties that the pandemic entails. The Kremlin is preparing for the popular consultation on the constitutional amendments that should allow Putin to renew his mandate when the current one expires in 2024. The possibility of introducing “vote by mail” is debated to ensure a quorum to the Magna Carta. It exists for the moment in Russia and it could be a good formula to maintain social distance even if the pandemic continues to claim victims in many regions. The spread of the virus crown in the vast Russian territory is very uneven and Putin has left the power to manage the quarantine in the hands of the provincial governors.