An interview with Central Electoral Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov

The United Russia party has started rewriting electoral laws again. In this interview, Central Electoral Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov discusses the impact of these new legislative initiatives. He also comments on electoral procedures and the condition of Russia’s political parties.

The United Russia party has started rewriting electoral laws again. The “against all candidates” option, beloved of many voters, will soon be gone; early voting will return. Parties are being forbidden to form electoral blocs, and lawmakers are being forbidden to change factions. Finally, measures are being proposed to prevent extremists of any variety from getting into power. There are also proposals to extend the definition of “extremist” to cover anyone who publicly accuses a senior official of a major crime. In this interview, Central Electoral Commission (CEC) Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov discusses the impact of these new legislative initiatives.

Question: Judging by the increased activity of lawmakers and regional leaders, denouncing extremists, we may now congratulate you on the start of the election campaign.

Alexander Veshnyakov: The official start of the campaign is just over a year away. But everyone has long since realized that the 2007-08 election season is being taken very seriously indeed. The recent actions of some politicians indicate that people are considering specific steps with the aim of achieving a convincing victory.

Question: Convincing for whom?

Alexander Veshnyakov: The CEC’s goal is to ensure that normal, fair, and democratic elections take place in Russia. Politicians aim to create optimal election conditions to get themselves into office. So some differences between the CEC and lawmakers are inevitable. We had hoped that Duma members would be more consistent. Back in 2003-04, electoral practice in federal and regional elections was systematically analyzed. The subsequent work on amendments to electoral legislation was completed less than a year ago. Last summer, for example, everyone agreed that early voting should not be introduced; the existing institution of proxy voting would suffice. But now the parliamentary majority is attempting to backtrack on this issue. Moreover, it is proposing to introduce legislation that would make it possible to deny registration to parties or candidates whose documentation is “improperly” presented, or if candidate information is incomplete or inaccurate. In my view, these rules should not be reintroduced. They were thoroughly discredited – condemned by the public and the lawmakers themselves. I don’t see any new objective reasons for revising everything again. It’s illogical, and dangerous.

Question: Most likely, you’re simply not a fan of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, whose views are fashionable these days. He taught that straight after the communists take power, there shouldn’t be any elections at all. Sorting out democracy can wait until the people have learned to think properly.

Alexander Veshnyakov: I don’t think we should take that path. And I have some questions for those who consider that we’re not mature enough for democracy. Will we ever be mature enough? Is democracy our goal at all? If the answer is yes – that is, if we abide by the Constitution – then we ought to move in that direction, rather than in the opposite direction, as described by Ilyin sixty years ago. Yes, moving too fast with some democratic techniques, before our society is ready for them, could also lead to negative consequences. Some of the broader capacities of democracy discredited themselves in the course of earlier elections, and following a thorough analysis, lawmakers considered it necessary to abandon some of them and amend others. But there’s no need to leap to the opposite extreme by introducing rules that distort democracy.

Question: But those who claim to be fighting extremism also speak of the standards of a democratic society.

Alexander Veshnyakov: What disturbs me is that while one hand fights extremism, the other frequently creates preconditions for it – by reducing the political space available to people who want to participate in public life. Why push people into a position where it’s impossible for them to participate in politics lawfully? Many states, including our own, have experienced such methods of regulation in the past.

Question: Some regional leaders have released a statement in which specific individuals are named as extremists and sponsors of radicals. Do you see any signs here of the Soviet-era disease – fighting dissent?

Alexander Veshnyakov: What can I say? We all grew up in that era. A Soviet upbringing leaves its mark, on the authorities and the opposition alike.

Question: Have you read the amendments to the law on countering extremism? What is your impression?

Alexander Veshnyakov: Yes, I’ve read them. And I’m concerned that the regulations in that bill could be interpreted too broadly in practice. In my view, we should take a very cautious approach in amending legislation dedicated to countering extrmism. In any event, we should not have laws that make it possible for candidates or parties to be kept out of elections simply because they criticize the existing order.

Question: The explanatory notes attached to these bills are hardly likely to admit that the authors have prepared these amendments with the aim of making it easier for themselves to win elections. So what kind of arguments do they offer in favor of bringing back early voting, for example?

Alexander Veshnyakov: They say that the proposed measures are aimed at boosting voter turnout. But how do they intend to achieve this? Like in St. Petersburg, where thousands of voters were bused to polling stations? Or like what happened when Karachaevo-Cherkesia elected its regional leader in 1999, with up to 30% of voters voting early? That election was followed by months of unrest in Karachaevo-Cherkesia, and Moscow found it difficult to resolve the situation. Do we really want to produce such conflicts again?

Question: And so we come to the ever-popular topic of election fraud.

Alexander Veshnyakov: Early voting is not a transparent procedure, from the standpoint of public oversight. Of course it creates opportunities for various kinds of manipulation.

Question: Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who has already declared his presidential ambitions, said the other day that fraud in the Duma and presidential elections cannot be ruled out. According to him, the GAS Vybory electronic voting system “doesn’t allow for the possibility of a recount.”

Alexander Veshnyakov: If Mikhail Kasyanov has been quoted correctly, all I can say is that he’s ill-informed about the target of his criticism. If he wishes, the CEC can acquaint him with the workings of the GAS Vybory system, which is aimed at preventing fraud. Moreover, in future elections we will make it possible to use mobile communications devices to compare copies of records received from polling stations by party observers or journalists with the system’s own electronic records. All this is being done in order to minimize any possibility of tampering with votes. We have been working on this consistently for a long time.

Question: Looking at the United Russia faction’s activities, one might get the impression that the authorities aren’t entirely certain of victory in the Duma elections.

Alexander Veshnyakov: In the recent past, our country had an ornamental legislative branch and ornamental elections for it. At a certain stage, this did not prevent our country from making progress. But that system didn’t withstand the test of time – it collapsed, demonstrating its instability. United Russia, with its constitutional majority, is now tempted to correct electoral laws to suit itself, in order to win the elections at any price. But this would be a Pyrrhic victory. The United Russia party needs to show some wisdom and refrain from tightening electoral legislation so much that it makes real political competition impossible and turns elections into a farce.

Question: The upper house situation isn’t entirely straightforward either. At his recent news conference in Shanghai, President Vladimir Putin was asked about the fate of the Federation Council. He replied that it’s now become possible “to consider improvements to it.” How far might improvements go?

Alexander Veshnyakov: The practice of appointing Federation Council members has convincingly demonstrated that this system is full of problems and abuses. So this experience with the Federation Council provides a fairly definite answer to the question of whether our country needs democracy. There are several possible models for reforming the Federation Council, but it needs to be understood that membership procedures for the upper house are unlikely to be democratized before 2008.

Question: If taken past a certain point, legislative changes could turn our country’s elections into no more than an imitation of democratic procedures. How would you define that certain point? As the organizer of the electoral process, where do you see the boundary that must not be crossed?

Alexander Veshnyakov: It’s hard for me to describe that boundary in any clear terms, but it could be reached. Our legislation complies with international standards. We certainly do have some problems with application of electoral standards, with the law often being interpreted very loosely by electoral commissions, law enforcement agencies, or courts. We frequently observe administrative excesses during elections.

Question: Ukraine is reforming its system of governance so as to transfer some powers from the president to the parliament and the government. Do you think this situation might have a negative impact on the idea of forming a parliamentary majority government in Russia?

Alexander Veshnyakov: The Ukrainian parliament certainly cannot be described as purely ornamental. Some might say they have more democracy than we do. But has governance become more effective? That is highly questionable. Ukraine’s ruling coalition is extremely unstable. In general, such reforms aren’t the best example to imitate. Looking at Ukraine’s experience, some Russian politicians might even try to take some extra insurance measures, restricting the rights of parties, in order to avoid provoking any major crises or a drawn-out unstable situation.

Question: In recent years, Russia has been creating incentives to promote the emergence of stable political parties. There are more and more incentives, but fewer and fewer parties. What’s the problem?

Alexander Veshnyakov: Western-type parties can’t be expected to emerge here in such a short time. One or two years can’t produce a miracle. All in good time. The law has established the preconditions for such parties to be formed. Now we should all focus on preventing elections from turning into an imitation of democracy – that is, preventing citizens from coming to distrust election procedures. We’re already seeing a lower turnout trend. Quite a few people in Russia believe that administrative excesses are making it pointless for them to vote at all. The latest proposed amendments to electoral legislation would only exacerbate this attitude. We should be resolute in countering this. We should work to make elections more authoritative, and make the legislative branch more authoritative – it has never been at a high level in Russia.

Question: Are you optimistic about your own prospects of reappointment as CEC chairman next March?

Alexander Veshnyakov: I want to continue working at the CEC. As for whether my candidacy will be supported – that’s a question for those who select CEC members: the head of state, the Federation Council, and the Duma.