Alexander Veshnyakov: democracies don’t have laws like this

The authorities are setting out some more snares for the opposition. Central Electoral Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov has described the Duma’s planned amendments to electoral legislation as “an attempt to return Russia to the ranks of slave-owning countries.”

At the Duma’s last meeting before its summer recess, the United Russia faction approved a new definition of extremist activity: expanded to the utmost, and leaving a great deal of room for interpretation. Moreover, the Duma majority passed some amendments to electoral legislation in the first reading: these would give the authorities broad powers to keep unwelcome participants out of elections entirely or disqualify them during campaigns. The opposition was fiercely critical of these bills. It was joined by CEC Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov, who called on United Russia not to change current legislation in this way. But Alexander Kosopkin, President Putin’s representative in the Duma, basically ordered United Russia to ignore Veshnyakov’s statement and vote in favor of the revised election rules.

As we reported earlier, a number of lawmakers from the United Russia and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) factions, along with Motherland (Rodina) faction leader Alexander Babakov, have proposed substantial changes to Russia’s fundamental electoral law: the law on basic guarantees of voting rights. If a court finds that a candidate’s actions contain signs of extremism, the candidate may be denied access to elections or denied registration. The Prosecutor General’s Office will be empowered to protest against the decisions of electoral commissions. According to the opposition, this means that the Prosecutor General’s Office would cease to be an arbiter, becoming a tool in political battles. Moreover, the amendments propose to bring back the recently-abolished institution of early voting, which has been a major source of vote-tampering in the past. And the electoral process itself will require much more paperwork: parties and candidates will need to submit a great many documents and reports, and the punishment for omitting any required items would be denial of registration. The same penalty would apply to candidates who provide “incomplete” or “improperly presented” documents – but the proposed legislation doesn’t set out any clear definition of these two concepts.

Foreseeing a difficult debate, United Russia unleashed Vyacheslav Volodin, the secretary of its general council. The main idea presented in his speech was that United Russia is not changing electoral laws to suit itself; on the contrary, it’s trying to make life easier for its political opponents. But no one seemed to believe Volodin.

Ivan Melnikov, first deputy chairman of the Communist Party (CPRF) Central Committee, described the proposed amendments as “more snares for the opposition” and pointed out that for the first time ever, even the CEC chief disagrees with the Duma majority.

CEC Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov spoke toward the end of the debate. He said that the bill under discussion is 13 pages long, and the CEC’s comments on the bill also run to 13 pages. Veshnyakov criticized virtually all of the bill’s key proposals: denying candidates registration for signs of extremist activity, applying the same penalty to an entire party for the actions of only one “extremist,” bringing back the institution of early voting, and vague concepts like “incomplete data” or “improper presentation.” In Veshnyakov’s view, this could result in serious abuses. He noted that such concepts don’t exist in the electoral laws of democracies, and concluded that the proposed amendments would “return Russia to the ranks of different countries – slave-owning countries.” Veshnyakov called on the Duma to reject the bill.

But Kosopkin described Veshnyakov’s speech as over-dramatic, and said that the presidential administration supports the bill. In effect, this was an expression of no confidence in the CEC chairman. We asked a senior Kremlin official whether this is, in fact, the case. The official replied: “You journalists always over-dramatize things.” According to the official, “it’s a sign of democracy, after all, when different points of view are expressed in the course of a debate – so let the G8 watch all this.”

Alexander Moskalets (United Russia), first deputy chairman of the Duma’s constitutional law committee, said: “It’s good that we have officials like Veshnyakov who defend their point of view during debate, but will subsequently abide by whatever decision is made.”

CPRF faction coordinator Sergei Reshulsky admits that since everyone has long been aware that Veshnyakov is likely to be dismissed next year, “his current statements may be regarded as nothing but an attempt to create an opposition image for himself.”