An interview with Central Electoral Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov

Vladimir Churov: “I think that administrative resources of various kinds are more often used at lower-level elections. Secondly, we have strong parties. One of the great achievements of Russian democracy is the formation of proper parties.”

An interview with Central Electoral Commission (CEC) Chairman Vladimir Churov.

Question: What was the outcome of the hypothetical Duma election organized by the CEC on August 7?

Vladimir Churov: Opinion polls indicate that over the first two months of summer – June and July – citizens became better-informed about the upcoming Duma election, and the proportion of people who firmly intend to vote has risen slightly. That percentage is already approaching my prediction for voter turnout: 60%.

Question: Was the hypothetical election exercise also helpful in raising public awareness?

Vladimir Churov: Yes. The performance of the media, exceeding my expectations, has confirmed my conviction that Russia is achieving world’s best standards in everything – including the press, which matches CEC staff in its knowledge of federal legislation. This exercise has been very significant for further public awareness efforts. A video based on the training materials will be distributed to all regions.

Question: How many staff does the CEC have?

Vladimir Churov: Just over 200 staff, plus the 15 CEC members.

Question: What do all these people do in between elections?

Vladimir Churov: They work on elections. That’s because even though the law has introduced common voting days in March and December, many regions have election cycles that don’t coincide with the four-year federal cycle. And then there are referendums on forming new regions, as well as local elections at all levels.

Besides, the four-year federal election cycle doesn’t start when the president issues a decree setting the election date. The CEC has developed and adopted over 60 documents in the lead-up to the decree – from March to August this year.

The 1.5 million election workers across Russia will be joined by a further 1.5 million observers delegated by political parties.

Question: When you were appointed as CEC chairman, many commentators pointed to your lack of experience in elections, predicting that you would be easily manipulated.

Vladimir Churov: What do you mean, lack of experience? I’ve been involved in elections at various levels since 1990! My teachers were the people who wrote our Constitution: primarily the late Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak, who would have turned 70 on August 10. He headed one of the Constitution writing groups.

I was also acquainted with other academics who worked on the Constitution of 1993. That was a good school – good teachers.

Question: You have been placed in a situation where regional leaders will be carrying out assignments for the Kremlin in this election, while blame for the sins of other will focus on you. Are you prepared to play this role?

Vladimir Churov: To be honest, I’m skeptical about media theories regarding who gives what kind of assignments to whom. Here’s why. I have seen repeated evidence that assignment theories rarely coincide with actual voting results.

Question: But on August 7 I interviewed Boris Nadezhdin, a member of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) federal political council, and he told me how a certain deputy governor of the Moscow region had apologized to him for rigging the regional election in March. The deputy governor said: “Don’t be mad at me, Boris – it’s nothing personal. The Kremlin ordered me to under-report the SPS party’s share of the vote.”

Vladimir Churov: If any real deputy governor had said any such thing, his political career would be over.

Question: Nadezhdin didn’t name that individual. But even if he had, the deputy governor would have denied his own words – then sued Nadezhdin for defamation, and sued me as well.

Nadezhdin also told me how members of district electoral commissions in the Moscow region altered the figures on voting records. Why have they kept their jobs?

Vladimir Churov: According to Article 29.1 of the law on suffrage, people with criminal records may not be members of electoral commissions, let alone commission leaders. Neither may people who have a record of administrative penalties for breaking election laws. Overall, about 100 district commissions nationwide encountered problems of this nature. Compare that to the total number of district commissions: 100,00. That’s a negligible percentage. And believe me, the United States has a similar number of election districts and a similar percentage of errors.

Question: How can future elections be safeguarded against any repeat of such “errors,” as you put it?

Vladimir Churov: Very simply. District commissions must keep observers informed and invited them to observe all events and measures, including re-writes of voting records if they become necessary, and their resubmission to regional commissions. And observers must accept these invitations. This is what happened in our hypothetical exercise on August 7: we have to provide party representative observers with convenient places and tell them what is being done at any given stage. Observers are allowed to come closer to the table when ballot-papers are being counted, and even ask the vote-counters to move over if they can’t see the procedure clearly. Observers may not handle ballot-papers, but they are entitled to request to see them if they are recognized as invalid. That’s what we are teaching the observers sent to us by parties.

Question: What about administrative resources?

Vladimir Churov: I think that administrative resources of various kinds are more often used at lower-level elections. That’s the first point. Secondly, we have strong parties. One of the great achievements of Russian democracy is the formation of proper parties. I’m more aware of this than most people, because as of March 27, after consulting our colleagues, we decided that we would prioritize cooperation with parties. No matter how often I call on people to come and vote, the fact remains that they won’t be voting for me. I’m not a candidate. Thus, at our first press conference, we said that we won’t be at an equal distance from parties – we’ll be in equal proximity. Think about it: keeping an equal distance from all parties, while using a proportional voting system, means disrupting the elections.

Question: You have said it’s unlikely that the Kremlin issues instructions to regional leaders – you call this a product of the media’s imagination. But regional leaders and city mayors do meet with election commission members, openly or secretly, to meddle in their work and put pressure on them.

Vladimir Churov: During my video conference, which was heard by all interested parties, I said: “If there’s any pressure, complain to me.” That’s even though in an election campaign period, the law gives the regional election commission chairperson powers that can exceed the regional leaderh’s powers, in some cases. That’s what the law says. And I’m telling them that during the campaign period, they’re in charge.

Question: Courageous people are very few.

Vladimir Churov: No, we have very good people heading the election commissions. Look at the Primorye territory: the election commission chairman is a professor and a lawyer. Elections in that region are real power-struggles. But no one has ever made any serious complaints against the chairman, since he does everything according to the law. And if you do things according to the law, all will be well. If you don’t know what to do, look at the law, or send your question to the CEC.