Linkages between Experiencing COVID-19 and Levels of Political Support in Russia

PONARS Eurasia published a policy memo “Linkages between Experiencing COVID-19 and Levels of Political Support in Russia”, written by Margarita Zavadkaya and Boris Sokolov (Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg).

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left noticeable traces in everyday life of Russian society. Eighty percent of Russians had to alter their lifestyles due to the virus, with half reporting that their incomes shrank, and this share keeps growing. Has the pandemic also affected how Russian citizens feel about their government? To explore how the pandemic has affected political support in Russia, we analyzed data from a representative online panel survey, “Values in Crisis,” carried out by the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research at the Higher School of Economics (LCSR, HSE).

We looked at four indicators of support: confidence in (1) the Russian government, (2) the health sector, and (3) the country’s institutions as a whole, as well as respondents’ opinions on (4) how well the government is handling the coronavirus crisis. We found that actual encounters with COVID-19 and the public healthcare system are negatively, although weakly, associated with all four indicators. We also found that the fear of getting sick moderately positively correlates with assessments of the government’s response to the crisis. Reported negative economic impacts do not seem to affect political trust and support. Strikingly, the most distrusting group of respondents are the so-called “COVID-19-dissidents,” who consistently scored low on all measures due to their refusal to take COVID-19 seriously.

This fascinating research can be read online.

Exhibition of the Academic Research Achievements

On 19-21th of November, EU SPb organised the annual conference VDNKh (Exhibition of the Academic Research Achievements), and Margarita Zavadskaya participated in the VDNKh’s roundtable discussion “Good and Bad Governance in Russia: Actors and Institutions”, moderated by Vladimir Gel’man on 20th of November.

Numerous assessments of various organizations show that the quality of public administration is much worse than can be predicted based on the level of socio-economic development of our country. At the same time, this sad picture has significant variations at the level of various sectors of the economy, municipalities, as well as individual government projects and programs. What explains these variations, and why have a number of attempts to improve the quality of public administration in Russia yield modest results at best? The search for answers to these and other questions will be the subject of a special issue of the Europe-Asia magazine, which is being prepared for publication in 2021. During the round table, the authors of the articles of this special issue – EUSP employees and alumni – will present their works, which are planned for publication and which touch upon various aspects of the problem of good and bad governance in modern Russia in a theoretical and comparative context. During the round table, the general framework of the analysis, as well as specific approaches of research will be discussed.

Six myths about elections and protests in autocracies

Margarita Zavadskaya wrote an article for Riddle titled “Six myths about elections and protests in autocracies”. In the piece, which continues the discussion organised by All+Russia Civil Forum in October, Margarita discusses the mechanisms that lead to mobilisation after elections and ponders whether the upcoming 2021 election to the Russian Duma faces an increased risk of post-election protests. She achieves that by dismantling the popular myths about the elections in autocracies and the protests that might follow. The conclusion that Zavadskaya reaches is an open one:

The 2021 Duma elections will not be held in particularly comfortable conditions for United Russia. The situation is complicated by the economic consequences of the pandemic and the overall decline in support for the institutions of power. According to representative online surveys, in the summer of 2020 the respondents were extremely sensitive to economic fluctuations and expressed a high degree of concern (while being slightly less concerned about the pandemic). In the eyes of voters, the Duma is the most disliked body of federal power, which is why it will be difficult for United Russia to maintain its current number of mandates. However, no serious opponents will be allowed to participate in the elections anyway. And the probability of protests will largely depend on the strategies employed by the opposition and the degree of its organisation.

The full version of the text can be found on Riddle in both English and Russian.

In the Eye of the Beholder:  Misperceptions of Electoral Integrity in Central-Eastern Europe

Yesterday our project held its first seminar “In the Eye of the Beholder:  Misperceptions of Electoral Integrity in Central-Eastern Europe”. Margarita Zavadskaya presented the early results of the empirical analysis, Elena Gorbacheva chaired the seminar, and Emilia Palonen, leader of the Helsinki Hub on Emotions, Populism & Polarisation, acted as a discussant.

At the seminar, Margarita Zavadskaya discussed the differences between expert and mass perceptions of electoral integrity in Central-Eastern Europe. In some post-communist states, people tend to overestimate the quality of elections while in other citizens are more critical to conducted elections even if they are assessed as democratic by experts. To a certain extent, it happens due to the experience of the authoritarian rule in communist times and the current evolution of emancipation values. In her presentation, Margarita argued that people with preferences for authoritarian leadership and a strong national identity are more likely to overestimate the quality of elections in their country. In contrast, people holding post-materialist values with a higher level of education can be regarded as critical citizens. This contribution brought up by the research varies depending on the context. Margarita compared how these factors differ in cases of Russia, Poland, and Hungary. As such, the role of post-materialist values is more important in the case of Hungary and Russia compared to Poland and in Hungary, the role of nationalism is the strongest. The case of Belarus where people unexpectedly massively went to protests after the unfair presidential elections can be explained by the increased level of education among the population and knowledge about politics, Zavadskaya considers.

Because the seminar was organised through Zoom, residents of different cities and countries could attend it. We would like to thank all the participants for their excellent questions and especially the discussant Emilia Palonen for her insightful comments.

The changing attitudes of Russians towards environmental issues

Margarita Zavadskaya and Elena Gorbacheva wrote a piece on the changing attitudes of Russians towards environmental issues for RBC Trends section “Eco-nomica”. In their article, the researchers analysed the results of the World Values Survey and European Values Study over the past 20 years and outlined how Russians’ perceptions of certain environmental questions have been shifting. The researches addressed issues such as the importance of environmental protection over economic growth, the trust in environmental organisations, and the attitudes towards climate change. One of the interesting findings was that during 1994-2014, environmental protection was seen as an issue with more priority compared to economic growth.

The full version of the article is available in Russian.

The ‘Smart Vote’ Effect Outside Moscow and St. Petersburg: An Analysis of Russian Subnational Elections of September 2020

Alexei Navalny’s ‘smart vote’ initiative appeared effective in the course of Moscow and St. Petersburg elections last year. Russian subnational elections of September 2020 showed that, against common expectations, the ‘smart vote’ support boosted candidates’ electoral results outside the biggest cities as well. At the same time, the ‘smart vote’ pro-opposition effects are mitigated by the regime’s ability to rely on multi-day voting which exacerbates the spread of electoral malpractice. Mikhail Turchenko, associate professor of Political Science at the European University at St. Petersburg provides empirical evidence confirming these findings.

The ‘Smart Vote’ Campaign: A Background Story

Two years ago, on 28 November 2018, Alexei Navalny, the main Russian opposition politician, announced in his blog a new tool to oppose the regime’s electoral hegemony – the ‘smart vote’. At first glance, the ‘smart vote’ resembles Voting Advice Applications (VAAs), which have become popular in Western democracies since the 2000s. The ‘smart vote’ is designed as an electronic application as well as a webpage and a Telegram bot intended to give the voter advice, how to vote during the course of a given electoral campaign. However, if conventional VAAs compare the positions of the voter with the positions of parties/candidates on a range of policy issues to suggest the former the ‘optimal’ choice, the ‘smart vote’ operates in a more straightforward way. In the candidate-centered campaigns, it recommends the voter only the strongest non-United Russia candidate (or candidates) irrespective of his or her issue positions or party affiliation. Under the proportional representation system, the ‘smart vote’ advises voting for any party but United Russia. The rationale behind the ‘smart vote’, therefore, is to undermine the regime’s monopoly in the electoral realm by encouraging strategic behavior on the voters’ level.

The ‘smart vote’ was employed for the first time in September 2019, when Navalny’s team chose two main targets for the ‘smart vote’. There were electoral campaigns in two biggest cities of Russia: regional legislative elections in Moscow and municipal elections in St. Petersburg. As a result, candidates supported by the ‘smart vote’ won 20 out of the Moscow City Duma’s 45 seats, which was the best opposition’s victory since the beginning of the 2000s. During the St. Petersburg 2019 local elections, the ‘smart vote’ support gave candidates 7 percent of additional votes on average, as Mikhail Turchenko and Grigorii V. Golosov showed. Despite the fact that the ‘smart vote’ had, undoubtedly, an impact on the outcomes of Moscow and St. Petersburg electoral campaigns last year, the question remained, whether this tool is effective outside the capital cities. Russian subnational elections of September 2020 shed light on this question.

Overview of September 2020 Elections in Russia

In September 2020, there were no remarkable elections in terms of media campaigns or political stakes, as it was the case in 2019, keeping in mind Moscow and St. Petersburg. At the same time, some important contests had still taken place: there were by-elections to the State Duma in four single-member districts, gubernatorial elections in 18 regions, legislative elections in 11 regions, and city council elections in 22 regional capitals. In addition, there were plenty of local contests including city council elections in 12 cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants.

Navalny’s team proposed ‘smart vote’ candidates for all contests mentioned above[1], but city council election in Sterlitamak (more than 275,000 inhabitants), which is the second-largest city in the Republic of Bashkortostan. In sum, there were selected 1155 candidates to be included in the ‘smart vote’ list for 1171 seats to be distributed in the Duma by-elections, regional legislative elections, and city council elections both in regional capitals and cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants (with the exception of Sterlitamak).

It is noteworthy that, as in 2019, Navalny’s camp chose to focus on two elections for the ‘smart vote’ campaign – city council elections in Novosibirsk and Tomsk. In the run-up to the elections, Navalny himself visited both cities. It was exactly Tomsk where he was poisoned on 2 August by the toxic chemicals structurally similar to those prohibited by the OPCW.

Was the ‘Smart Vote’ Campaign Effective in 2020?

Moving back to the question of whether the ‘smart vote’ campaign had an impact on the September 2020 elections, which took place in different parts of Russia, it is useful to look at Figure 1 showing the average electoral results of the ‘smart vote’ candidates compared to non-‘smart vote’ ones[2] both in general and broken down by different party affiliations. It is clear that the average electoral results of candidates backed by the ‘smart vote’ campaign are in all instances better than those of non-‘smart vote’ ones.

Figure 1. The structure of the ‘smart vote’ support and average results of candidates backed by the ‘smart vote’ (SV) and those without one (non-SV)

Figure 1, however, cannot indicate, whether some candidates obtained higher electoral results due to the ‘smart vote’ support or they performed better simply because of their personal characteristics or previous electoral experience what, in turn, were taken into account by Navalny’s team when deciding upon including given candidates into the ‘smart vote’ list.

A proper way to understand whether the ‘smart vote’ support boosted candidates’ electoral results, would be to consider only those candidates who took part in both the 2020 elections and previous ones and did it with the same affiliation (or the lack thereof). Figure 2 displays the electoral results of such candidates, 213 in sum. The mean electoral result of these candidates in the 2020 elections – 26.63 percent – was higher than in the previous elections, 21.44 percent. And this difference is statistically significant (Wilcoxon signed-rank test, right-tailed, p < 0.001). This evidence allows concluding that the ‘smart vote’ campaign boosted candidates’ electoral results during September 2020 subnational elections in Russia.

Figure 2. Electoral results of the same candidates in 2020 elections compared to the previous ones[3] (only those candidates were selected who kept the same party affiliation)

Despite this, and the drop of victory rate from 90 percent in previous elections to 83 percent, United Russia candidates succeeded to win a majority in all regional assemblies and in most city councils. The only city councils, where United Russia failed to get a formal majority were the ones of Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Tambov. If in Tambov poor United Russia’s results are rather due to idiosyncratic factors – a broad coalition has occurred around an ex-mayor of the city and the Rodina party, then both in Novosibirsk and Tomsk United Russia’s relative failures can be attributed to the ‘smart vote’. The number of ‘smart vote’ candidates got elected in these cities was bigger than elsewhere but Tambov.

The relative success of United Russia candidates in the light of the pressure imposed by the ‘smart vote’ campaign can be explained not only by the skewed playing field but also by a novel multi-day voting scheme when the main election day, September 13, was preceded by two days of early voting. Figure 3 shows that the vote share of United Russia affiliated candidates was positively associated with the share of early voting, while the correlation between the vote share of candidates backed by the ‘smart vote’ campaign and early voting was negative. In Russia, early voting limits the effectiveness of electoral observation, facilitates the task of mobilizing state-dependent voters to go to the polls, and, after all, simplifies the use of electoral malpractice. Numerous irregularities during the early voting phase of the Russian subnational elections of September 2020 were reported by the ‘Golos’ movement.

Figure 3. Early vote helps United Russia candidates: UR vote share by early voting (left pane) and SV candidates’ vote share by early voting


It seems that the ‘smart vote’ campaign boosts electoral results of candidates even outside the two biggest Russian cities. It is definitely bad news for the Kremlin and an encouraging one for the opposition. The ‘smart vote’ can potentially damage United Russia’s score during the Duma elections next year. No doubts, however, that the regime will respond. At least, the provision of three-day voting during all electoral campaigns has already been brought into Russian legislation.

[1] In the case of gubernatorial elections, the ’smart vote’ advised voting for any other candidate than either incumbent or the Kremlin’s nominee which were explicitly named. The reason was that gubernatorial elections were held according to a two-round system when a candidate in order to get elected must collect more than 50 percent of the valid votes cast.

[2] Figures 1-3 are based on aggregated data on legislative elections in 11 regions and city council elections in 22 regional capitals and 11 cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants (except for Sterlitamak).

[3] The author analyzed the previous elections, which took place in 2015, and all by-elections between 2016-2019.

Election system at the start of Russian State Duma elections: expectations, threats, and opportunities

Today All-Russia Civil Forum roundtable “Election system at the start of Russian State Duma elections: expectations, threats, and opportunities (“Избирательная система на старте выборов в Государственную Думу России: ожидания, угрозы, возможности”). The experts from various fields discussed the recent national elections conducted on 11-13 September 2020 that were highly criticised and discussed the upcoming vote in 2021, namely how State Duma elections should go so that the citizens would accept their results, and what can the society itself do to make the situation better.

Margarita Zavadskaya was one of the experts, and in her talk, she covered the likelihood of post-election protests in 2021. Margarita thinks, that the Belarusian scenario is not impossible, but very unlikely in the Russian conditions: in Russia, more people are the system’s beneficiaries due to their employment in the state sector, and Russia’s economy is more diversified than the Belarusian. However there is a chance for mass peaceful post-electoral mobilisation in Russia, and a lot here depends on the election observers and their coordinated work and unsatisfied politicians from satellite parties who need to join in the opposition mobilisation efforts. The United Russia party wins the elections now because they intentionally suppress the turnout, and to withstand it there is a need to mobilise the passive but unsatisfied voters. Opinion polls and panels reveal that the dissatisfaction with the regime is only growing, and the State Duma is the most disliked institution.

The current situation with the election system in Russia seems rather gloomy – all experts agreed on that. But as Margarita Zavadskaya said, there is no need to give up. Exposing electoral violations and making information about them as widely known as possible is a crucial factor in the fight for fair elections.

Full version of the discussion is available on Youtube:

Authoritarian Governance and Reform in Russia

On the 9th of October PONARS Eurasia held an online event “Authoritarian Governance and Reform in Russia”. Vladimir Gel’man, professor at the European University at Saint Petersburg and the University of Helsinki gave a talk at the event based on his and Margarita Zavadskaya’s policy memo “Explaining Bad Governance in Russia: Institutions and Incentives”. The memo is available online and you can find the recording of the event below:

Election observation of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus, part 2

This is the second part of the paper “Election observation of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus: main actors, electoral manipulations, and lessons for the future” by Dr. Alla Leukavets, a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk. The first part can be read in our blog.

Menu of electoral manipulations

According to numerous reports, the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus were unprecedented in the amount of electoral falsifications and repressions applied by authorities towards representatives of the political opposition.

Analysis of the 2020 presidential elections demonstrates which strategies (or in Andreas Schedler’s words “a menu of electoral manipulations” (2002)) the Belarusian regime applied to break the “chain of democratic choice” to secure their desired electoral results.

The first set of strategies focused on breaking the “the range of choice” link in Schedler’s chain of democratic choice. The main strategies used by the regime dealt with the fragmentation of the opposition by restricting their access to the electoral arena. The means through which the regime excluded the competitors from the electoral game were manifold.

First, the Belarusian authorities developed cumbersome procedures to register political parties which provide broad discretionary powers to the registration authorities to reject the applications based on formalistic grounds. This burdensome registration process allowed the government to fully control the political environment and preclude or promote the appearance of new political actors if needed, limiting the right to freedom of association.

Second, the existing electoral legislation has a number of gaps and inconsistencies, including in the areas concerning the scope of restrictions on campaigning or grounds for removal of candidates. In numerous cases, during the 2020 presidential elections campaign, these provisions were interpreted and applied restrictively in relation to opposition candidates. As a result, the disqualifications of “unfavourable” candidates from the electoral game were often arbitrary acts by authorities and the result of fabricated politically motivated cases (for example, a case of embezzlement against Viktar Babaryka and a violation of order during campaign activities against Siarhei Tsikhanouski).

Third, the ruling regime weakened and split the opposition by creating divided structures of contestation. By allowing some of the opposition forces to compete in the elections or even advancing some of them into political offices, the incumbents provided mixed incentives to the opposition leaders by dividing them into the so-called “outsiders” and “insiders”. For example, Hanna Kanapatskaya and Siarhei Cherachen (often dubbed as “spoilers”) acquired more support from the ruling regime than the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

The second set of strategies focused on breaking the “formation of preferences” link.  In order to prevent voters from acquiring information about the opposition candidates, the regime obstructed the opposition from disseminating their campaign messages.

During the campaign period, the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was denied a space for her pre-election picket in the capital Minsk due to a dubious reason – this space was allocated for celebrating one of the state holidays which had never before been widely celebrated in Belarus.

Furthermore, recent amendments to the Law on Mass Media introduced additional regulations for online media. According to the changes, the Ministry of Information, which is the primary regulatory body for media in Belarus, was granted wide discretionary powers to restrict access to websites on the basis of its own monitoring or notification from other state agencies. In addition, the new amendments obliged online media operators to collect, store, and provide to law-enforcement organs personal data of those individuals who comment on online articles. As a result of these measures, public discussion about elections was severely restricted. Thus, the regime attempted to skew the playing field by capturing institutions which should promote political pluralism and severely limiting the opposition’s access to the public space. In response, the public discussion moved to more secure social media platforms, such as Telegram channels, which played a crucial role in mobilising people against the regime and galvanising the post-election protest movement in Belarus.

The third group of strategies concerned breaking the “expression of preferences” link, i.e. influencing voters to express their preferences in a certain way through voter intimidation and voter buying.

According to a wide-spread practice, the Belarusian regime puts pressure on specific groups of the population, including civil servants, military personal or students to cast their vote in advance of the E-day, i.e. during the early voting (5 days before the E-day) which provides a lot of opportunities for falsification of election results. The authorities apply a mix of threats and rewards to realise this strategy: in some cases, for example, the students were promised a day-off from attending classes, whereas in others they were threatened with losing their place at the dormitory. The latter approach especially targets students who come to study in bigger cities from the periphery and are particularly vulnerable to pressure as they depend on the volition of the administration to have a place to stay at the student accommodation.

The fourth group of strategies focused on breaking “the aggregation of preferences” link.  It manifested itself in electoral fraud, including ballot stuffing, increasing turnout rates among the loyal population (especially during early voting and home-bound voting), mistakes in voter registration, falsifications during counting and tabulation processes as well as depriving independent election observers of entering the premises of the polling stations and detaining them.  One of the key mechanisms which facilitates the electoral malpractices is the composition of precinct electoral commissions: the members of most of them belong to one institution, e.g. a school, hospital, or enterprise, and are usually chaired by the head of these institutions. Such commissions function efficiently and unanimously as the members are aware that the results of their “work” can have an impact on their future employment at the institutions which they represent.

Thus, The Belarusian regime has used a variety of strategies to manipulate the election results, consisting of both hard repression measures, including detentions and prosecution of opposition candidates and independent election observers as well as more subtle mechanisms, including ballot stuffing, falsifications during the counting and tabulation, manipulating the rules governing media and access of the contestants to the public space.

What Went Wrong for the Belarusian Regime This Time?

However, the rich menu of electoral manipulations consisting of massive falsifications, detentions, and arrests of observers and representatives of the political opposition was not accepted by the Belarusian citizens and they came out into the streets to protest against the fraudulent results of the elections. Several factors contributed to triggering this result.

The first one was the mishandling of the pandemic by the authorities.  Lukashenka and his entourage adopted a ridiculous approach to fighting coronavirus. Lukashenka called it a corona psychosis and recommended saunas, working out in the fields, and drinking vodka as the best remedy to fight the virus. The anxiety and anger of the population started to grow as many people were taken to hospitals and died there, sometimes because of a lack of necessary treatments and the old infrastructure. The message sent to the general public was that wearing a mask is unnecessary and even shameful. This narrative was emphasized not only by Lukashenka himself but also by other officials, for example, by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uladzimir Makei, who said that he feels embarrassed to wear a mask when shopping.

In addition to coronavirus, the economic situation in the country had been worsening for some time leading up to the elections which contributed to increasing social dissatisfaction with the Lukashenka regime and also considerably lowered the level of trust in the authorities.

Another factor is the role of social media, i.e. Youtube and Telegram channels which have led to the appearance of new faces on the political spectrum in Belarus. The authorities clearly underestimated the role of social media in politicising the Belarusian people. One of the figures that have emerged thanks to digital media was Siarhei Tsikhanouski  – a famous youtube blogger who had many followers at his channel titled, “Country for life”. Another famous social media persona is Styapan Putila who migrated to Poland and created a youtube channel Nexta (which stands for “somebody” in Belarusian). There are also several Nexta “channels” on Telegram where thousands of videos of what is happening in Belarus are being uploaded on a regular basis.  The videos from Nexta channels played an important role in galvanizing the protest movement in Belarus.

Finally, the role of technology, i.e the IT sector, was also crucial in these elections. Belarus is considered to be an IT hub in the post-Soviet space and there are many IT companies here which work as part of the Park of High Technologies. A group of IT specialists developed the online platforms (e.g., Golas, Zubr) for alternative counting of the votes.  These platforms provided the key evidence which contributed to delegitimising the official results of the presidential elections and clearly showed that Lukashenka did not win in the elections with 80 percent as the official results stated.

Thus, the combination of these factors, i.e., mishandling the coronavirus situation by authorities, the worsening economic situation in the country, and the role of digital media and the IT sector contributed to mobilising people against the ruling regime, raising Belarusian’s dissatisfaction with the results of the elections and bringing people in such massive numbers to the streets to demand changes.

In Lieu of Conclusion

Although many election observers in Belarus were threatened, detained, and imprisoned and the Central Election Commission made the outlandish report of Lukashenko’s landslide victory,  the work of observers made a crucial contribution to exposing the electoral fraudulence exercised by the regime. The grassroots initiative “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”, “Honest people”, “Prava Vybary”, the online platforms Zubr and Golas as well as independent citizen observers managed to create a network for communication, support, and data-sharing. The work of observers put pressure for fair counting at some polling stations and presented essential data on the turnout, alternative votes, violations of voters’ rights and election procedures. Documented testimonies, systematic collecting and publishing of evidence helped to show the appalling scale of falsifications made by the ruling regime to ordinary Belarusians and the world at large.  This evidence inspired Belarusians to take to the streets in massive numbers to demand an end of repressions, the resignation of Lukashenka as well as the conduct of new free and fair elections.

Election observation of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus: main actors, electoral manipulations, and lessons for the future.

We return with our regular posts about elections, electoral malpractice, and cyber-security, and this Summer and Autumn have been full of notable events we aim to uncover. Elections and protests in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, single voting day in Russia – we will discuss all these and other cases in the following weeks.

Today we invited Dr. Alla Leukavets, who is a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Minsk, to write about the conduct of the presidential elections in Belarus on the 9th of August 2020. Alla Leukavets holds a PhD in political science from Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences and has recently finished a post-doc programme in electoral studies at the University of Tartu. Alla specializes in the domestic and foreign policy of Belarus and other Eastern Partnership countries, Eurasian integration, and energy relations between Russia and the European Union. Leukavets’ enlightening and rich contribution will be split into two parts, and today we publish the first one that deals with election observation in Belarus.

Election observation is the process of assessing the conduct of elections in accordance with national legislation and international election standards by one or more independent actors. It plays an important role in ensuring electoral integrity. This blog post will discuss the types of election observation, main actors, and kinds of electoral malpractices based on a case study of the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus.

Photo: Vyasna

Types of election observation

Based on the actors who carry out monitoring, election observation can be divided into international and national. International actors include, for example, observers delegated by other countries as well as missions deployed by international organisations (for example, OSCE ODIHR, OSCE PA, the EU, Council of Europe PA, CIS, SCO).

National actors allowed to carry out election observation of presidential elections, according to the Belarusian national legislation (art. 13 and 155 of the Election Code), include members of Parliament, representatives of local governmental organs, political parties, other public organisations, labour unions, proxies of the candidates as well as citizens (Table 1).

Based on the length of monitoring, election observation can be divided into short-term and long-term. Short-term focuses on the monitoring of early voting (five days before the main election day) as well as the E-day. Long-term observation includes the early phases of the electoral process, usually starting with the registration of candidates.

Table 1: Main election observation actors in Belarus and their participation in the 2020 presidential elections

International election observation

For the first time in the election history of Belarus, the presidential elections were not observed by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). It did not send its mission to Belarus because an invitation from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deploy a mission came more than two months after the start of the electoral campaign reportedly because of the risks of Coronavirus. Accepting an invitation and sending a mission so late would have prevented the OSCE ODIHR from carrying out comprehensive coverage of the electoral process. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly also refused to send their missions to observe the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus.

The only international observation mission to the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus was deployed by the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly (CIS IPA). Consistently with its usual approach to monitoring the elections in Belarus, the mission did not raise any criticisms and declared that the 2020 presidential election was conducted in accordance with international election standards.

National election observation

The Central Election Commission issued several resolutions (No 15 in May 2020 and No 115 in July 2020) before the elections regulating the functioning of the national election observers. The resolutions were based on the recommendation of the Ministry of Health on sanitary and anti-epidemic measures during the presidential election. According to these resolutions, only 3 observers could be allowed inside the polling station during the early voting and 5 observers – on E-day. In addition, it was envisaged that at polling stations with precinct election commission (PEC) members below 8 persons, the number of observers could not exceed half of the commission’s size. By adopting these resolutions, the authorities artificially created conditions under which independent observation of the voting and counting was severely limited or completely impossible.

By the time the resolutions were adopted about 43.000 observers representing pro-government political parties and public associations (see Table 1) had been accredited with precinct election commissions (the total amount of polling stations for the presidential elections in Belarus was 5.767). These observers did not register any facts questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential elections.

The right of observers to be present at polling stations was determined by the order of their accreditation with the election commissions, and the delegates from the civil society organisations or independent citizen observers in most of the cases were assigned numbers more than 5, which deprived them of the opportunity to be present inside the polling stations and monitor the process of voting and counting of votes. For instance, in the case of “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” – a joint initiative of two human rights NGOs “Belarusian Helsinki Committee” and Human Rights Center “Vyasna” – a total of 798 observers were accredited with the PECs out if which only 93 observers (11,5%) were admitted to the polling stations and only for a limited period of time. Only one observer was able to fully observe the entire voting process (early voting, voting on the main day, and home-bound voting).

Initiative “Chesniya Lyudi” (“Honest People”) was advanced by the election campaign team of Viktar Babarika and became a multifunctional platform for fighting against the regime.  It delegated about 6.000-7.000 observers to monitor presidential elections, developed an online training course for observers, and launched a mechanism for helping those who had suffered as the result of the repressions during and after the elections. During the first two days of early voting, Honest People had registered over 3000 violations in the work of PECs. However, none of them had been addressed by authorities. Honest People observers in most cases were not allowed to enter the polling stations and were often deprived of accreditation and detained.

Honest People acted in cooperation with the two online platforms for alternative counting of votes – “Golas” (“Voice”) and (the website has been blocked by the Belarusian authorities). The platforms asked voters to take photos of the ballots at the polling places and submit them to the platforms. According to the final report of Golas, there were falsifications made at least in every third polling station which proved that the official results, according to which, Aliaksandr Lukashenka had won with 80.1%, were clearly false (data has been analysed for 1.310 polling stations out of a total of 5.767 polling stations across Belarus).

Prava Vybaru – 2020 (“Right to Choose – 2020”) is a joint initiative of eight organisations, including seven opposition political parties and one social movement. The initiative sent about 600 observers to monitor the early voting out of which only 45 were allowed to be present inside the polling stations. During the first day alone, the observers registered 318 complaints concerning the malpractices of the electoral administrations – the major one being a large artificial increase in voter turn-out. . During the whole course of observation, the observers registered 1634 electoral falsifications and 28 observers from Prava Vybaru had been detained by the 9th of August.

Finally, national election observation was also done by independent citizen observers. In order to register as such, one needs to collect 10 signatures of Belarusian citizens in support of his or her candidacy. These elections witnessed a rise of civic activism resulting in many Belarusians expressing their wish to observe the elections. These observers, just as the representatives of the aforementioned civic initiatives, were not allowed on the premises of the polling stations. All they could do was to stay outside and sometimes look through the windows or doors at the work of electoral administrations. In spite of these limitations, the “outside independent observers” played a very important role in gathering evidence of electoral falsifications. Their main function was to register voter turn-out and to count voters wearing “white bracelets” – a symbol for demonstrating opposition to the ruling regime. This was particularly crucial during the early voting which is the usual time when the electoral administrations engage in vast falsifications. The data from independent observers demonstrated that the official voter turn-out during early voting presented by the authorities was twice as high in comparison to the actual results.

The second part of the publication will be published on Monday, the 12th of October.