Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during an interview with a Russian state-owned media organization in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, March 12, 2024.

Russians have ‘limited ability’ to monitor a presidential election that favors Putin. Some are still trying.

Russia is holding presidential elections on March 15, and results are nearly a given. Vladimir Putin has been in power in Russia since 1999 — as president or prime minister — and he’s looking to secure his fifth term in office. Yet, some Russians are still trying to monitor the elections to point out various irregularities and falsifications.

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Ahead of presidential elections in Russia, Vladimir Putin traveled last week to Stavropol, in southern Russia, where he appeared in a broadcast on Russian state TV.

During a surprise visit to a local Stavropol neighborhood, dozens of people were clamoring to get closer to the president.

And this is exactly the kind of image that the Kremlin hopes to present: the president actively campaigning and participating in the democratic process. 

Russia is holding presidential elections on March 15, and the results are nearly a given. Vladimir Putin has been in power in Russia since 1999 — as president or prime minister — and he’s looking to secure his fifth term in office. 

Last week, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, praised Russia’s democratic system.

“We will no longer tolerate criticism of our democracy,” he said. “Our democracy is the best, and we’re going to keep building it.”

A woman walks past a billboard promoting the upcoming presidential election with the words in Russian
A woman walks past a billboard promoting the upcoming presidential election with the words in Russian “Time to vote,” in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, March 7, 2024. As Vladimir Putin heads for another six-year term as Russia’s president, there’s little electoral drama in the race. What he does after he crosses the finish line, however, is what’s drawing attention and, for many observers, provoking anxiety. Dmitri Lovetsky/File/AP

Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist with the Berlin-based Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said these types of comments indicate how an autocracy tries to retrain power. 

“No political system rules just by force and fear,” Schulmann explained. “Some degree of legitimacy is necessary. That’s why there’s so much fuss in autocracies about this propaganda, about producing these impressions, this industry of impressions.”

Schulmann said the Kremlin uses the election to give the president a veneer of legitimacy. The result is predetermined, but the winning percentage — and enthusiastic turnout — is not.

“When an authoritarian leader runs for reelection for the fifth time in the last 20 years, it’s rather hard to whip up any excitement.”

Ekaterina Schulmann, political scientist, Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, Berlin, Germany

“When an authoritarian leader runs for reelection for the fifth time in the last 20 years, it’s rather hard to whip up any excitement,” she said. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his election campaign activists in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. Presidential elections are scheduled in Russia for March 17.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his election campaign activists in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. Presidential elections are scheduled in Russia for March 17. As Putin heads for another six-year term as Russia’s president, there’s little electoral drama in the race. What he does after he crosses the finish line, however, is what’s drawing attention and, for many observers, provoking anxiety.Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AP/File

Voter engagement is challenging when there’s no competition. 

The three men running against Putin are all handpicked and approved by the Kremlin. Putin’s real political opponents are in jail, in exile, or have been barred from running against him.

Last month, Putin’s most prominent political rival, Alexei Navalny, died in jail.

Police detain a man trying to lay flowers to honor Alexei Navalny at a monument in St. Petersburg, Russia, to victims of Soviet repression, on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. 
Police detain a man trying to lay flowers to honor Alexei Navalny at a monument in St. Petersburg, Russia, to victims of Soviet repression, on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. Photo/AP/File

Despite the war in Ukraine, voters feel that nothing new is in the offing, so they’re less likely to show up at the polls.

“As it usually happens with a person who stays too long in power, he loses support.”

Roman Udot, election analyst, Vilnius, Lithuania

“As it usually happens with a person who stays too long in power, he loses support,” said Roman Udot, an independent election analyst based in Vilnius, Lithuania. 

“They were not able to improve their electoral results by actual real support of the people; they began doing it by falsifications.”

Udot said that these falsifications began years ago — at least since 2008 — and they happen in various forms including ballot box stuffing, people voting multiple times and election officials juicing up the final results.

Udot said that over the years of Putin’s presidency, the Kremlin changed its attitude toward election monitors like him who documented election fraud.

“Election observation organizations — we were their allies because both of us wanted free and fair elections. But after that, after [Putin’s] real support began to drop, now we were enemies. So, that’s why they will do whatever possible to prevent us from actually knowing the will of the Russian people.”

Even with the fraught relationship with the government authorities, election monitors like Udot keep doing their job, despite many restrictions.

“They commit crimes here and there, and you are like Sherlock Holmes, like a detective. So personally it’s very interesting, it’s more interesting — like fishing and hunting — but I’m not hunting for poor animals, I’m hunting for actual criminals.”

In the past, Udot would monitor Russian elections in person at polling stations. But now, the Kremlin has banned independent election monitors, so Udot and his colleagues focus on data.  

They use methods such as statistical analysis, video broadcasts of polling stations and artificial intelligence to document irregularities and report blatant falsifications.   

Some independent election monitors are still in Russia – people like Oleg Reut.

“We’ll have very limited abilities to monitor this election.”

Oleg Reut, independent election monitor, Russia

“We’ll have very limited abilities to monitor this election. But well, we’ll come as voters, at least while we can come to our own polling station,” Reut said. 

Reut said that on top of ballot stuffing and other traditional methods of election fraud, the Kremlin has begun adopting some new techniques.

They’ve introduced online voting — which can’t be verified — and they also dramatically extended the presidential election to three days.

Reut understands that for now, under this government, these practices will continue.

“Under such conditions when results are predictable, there is a high level of repression; there is no support from independent observers; people don’t believe that elections could change the situation. I know that someday, it will be different.”

Reut said he wants to be ready for that day, with all the data and knowledge at hand, to prevent rigged elections in the future.

As for this election, Reut himself will not be voting.

“I have no candidate,” he said. 

Reut added that he’ll save his vote for a future election — one that he views as legitimate and worthy of his vote.

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