Russia's Elections

Leaked Document Details How The Kremlin Manages Russia’s Elections

March 14, 2024
4 mins read

Late last week, managers at the Astrakhan Natural-Gas-Processing Plant handed workers leaflets with instructions on how to vote in Russia’s March 15-17 presidential election, the Telegram channel Ostorozhno, Novosti reported.

According to the instructions, the plant’s 5,000 workers will be sent text messages containing a link they are to open when they are at a polling station. The link will geolocate their phone and report to company management that they voted. Workers who don’t receive the SMS are told instead to scan a QR code presented by a “person” at the polling station.

On March 7, the independent election-monitoring group Golos, which is banned in Russia, reported that the ruling United Russia party has created a project called GEO-SMS that aimed to “control the turnout of state-sector voters” such as medical workers, teachers, and employees at state enterprises.

The use of geolocation software to boost turnout is an innovation in this year’s election, in which longtime President Vladimir Putin is set to secure a fifth term as president. It figures prominently in a leaked document that was posted on Telegram last month by opposition politician Olga Sidelnikova, a former administrative head of Moscow’s Lomonosov district who now lives abroad.

The document appears to be a presentation of the Kremlin’s election strategy for Udmurtia, a central region with a population of nearly 1.5 million. Sidelnikova declined to say how she obtained it, but added she had the original in her possession and had no doubt about its authenticity.

The 38-page set of presentation slides reveals “what ‘elections’ are in Russia,” Sidelnikova wrote, adding that information coming from across the country, such as the Astrakhan report, indicates that “the story will undoubtedly be the same in the other regions.”

Sergei Antonov, a political consultant from Udmurtia who now lives abroad, said he was certain Sidelnikova’s leak is “a real document and that analogues have been issued in all the regions of Russia.”

“On Friday [March 15], before 2 p.m., all state-sector workers have to send to the server a message with their geolocation turned on,” said Sergei Antonov, a political consultant from Udmurtia who now lives abroad. “This is new technology. With each election, the system is perfected.”

Getting Voters ‘On Their Feet’

Elections under Putin have never been fairly conducted, monitoring groups and Kremlin critics say, with the state controlling resources from the police and the courts to election commissions, state media, and local governments. But the current campaign, which is being conducted amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a yearslong crackdown on dissent that has completely marginalized the opposition, is widely seen as the least competitive national vote in his nearly 25 years as president or prime minister.

Media reports and remarks by officials indicate the Kremlin intends to secure 80-85 percent of the vote for Putin, with a turnout of at least 70 percent. Analysts say Putin and his administration want to use the election to boost his legitimacy through the appearance of mass popular support for his rule, as well as for the war against Ukraine and for Russia’s growing confrontation with the West.

Securing a high turnout was always a “weak spot” for the government, Sidelnikova said.

“Despite the innovations of recent years, such as the elimination of independent monitoring, the expansion of online voting, the control of election commissions at all levels, they still need people to show up at the polls,” she told RFE/RL. “And controlling the turnout is not easy. It is, crudely speaking, their weak spot.”

“They need people to actually get on their feet and go to the polls,” she continued. “Once they get the turnout, they can produce whatever result they want, considering that there is no independent monitoring and the election commissions are completely controlled.”

From internal evidence, it appears the document Sidelnikova obtained was presented to officials in Udmurtia not later than June 2023, at which point the planning for the presidential campaign was already apparently well under way. The document devotes considerable attention to the problem of raising the turnout from Udmurtia’s typical figure of about 55 percent to the goal of 80 percent.

In addition to the geolocation software, the document calls for the “mobilization” of voters through United Russia party offices and the efforts of municipal administrations and local lawmakers. It instructs municipal administrations to “control the turnout through their representatives” on the polling station commissions.

Antonov said United Russia intended to “increase the base-level turnout by means of administrative resources — mobilizing workers, holding various competitions and patriotic events.”

However, he added, the party is often handicapped in its ability to carry out such plans by a general lack of enthusiasm at its lower levels.

“When it comes to carrying out such ideas, it turns out that in local party cells there are people who really don’t do anything or people who have been pressured to be there,” he said.

‘Project Purge’

The leaked document also details the Kremlin’s efforts to “control public opinion,” including expanded social-media efforts. The Putin campaign will, the document says, constantly monitor social-media chats and discussion groups with the goal of controlling negative information and discrediting opposition initiatives.

The document includes points such as “the filming and compiling of useful content,” “counterwork against any actions of protest that arise,” “the creation and distribution of countercontent,” and “the preparation and distribution of memes, fakes, long reads, investigative films, and so on.” It also includes Project Purge, which aims to identify and “quickly eliminate” all “opposition agitational-propaganda material” from the Internet.

The government has also been creating “territorial public self-government organizations” (TOS), made of government-friendly activists, from which it has recruited “independent” election monitors.

They are “pseudo-public pseudo-monitors,” Antonov said of the 4,500 monitors the government plans to deploy in the region.

“Their task is not to allow any ‘provocations’ or ‘fakes,'” he said. “That means they will always say that there were no violations. If they have to give an interview, that is what they will say. That is the way they are instructed. During the election of the head of Udmurtia [in September 2022], they didn’t uncover a single violation.”*

According to the document, Putin’s campaign effort in Udmurtia is headed personally by regional head Aleksandr Brechalov, who has also headed the regional branch of United Russia since July 2020. His chief of staff, Aleksandr Zhuravlyov, is one of his deputies in the campaign, in charge of “organization.” The other two deputies are Udmurtia deputy head Roman Yefimov, in charge of finances, and Udmurtia regional Election Commission head Svetlana Palchik, in charge of coordinating the work of polling stations and “party mobilization.”

The campaign structure outlined in the leaked document, Antonov said, “de facto duplicates the structure of the government of Udmurtia.”

“Elections in Putin’s Russia have been brought to their logical perfection,” he added, “and will be held according to the pattern of the U.S.S.R. — without choices, with a single candidate.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article contained an incorrect reference to the date of the election. It was September 2022, not September 2017.
Robert Coalson contributed to this report

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