Opposition parties complain of police harassment

The Yabloko party expressed concern yesterday about increasing interference by the law enforcement agencies in the election campaign. The Communist Party is preparing a similar appeal. The Central Electoral Commission has yielded its place as election arbiter to the law enforcement agencies.

The Yabloko party expressed concern yesterday about increasing interference by the law enforcement agencies in the election campaign. The Communist Party (CPRF) is preparing a similar appeal to the president. The Central Electoral Commission (CEC) has yielded its place as election arbiter to the law enforcement agencies. The police, rather than electoral commissions or even prosecutors, are taking the lead in the parliamentary campaign. CEC staff acknowledge this trend. The opposition and analysts link the situation to participation in the presidential election.

The active involvement of Interior Ministry police units in the electoral process has been a feature of the 2007 campaign season. A source at the CEC told us: “In the past, local and regional electoral commissions were the first to respond to any breaches of regulations – calling in the police if necessary. But now the police are interfering as they see fit, while electoral commissions come up with retroactive legal justifications for the actions of the police.” The source attributes this policy to a determination to counter the opposition as fast as possible.

The law enforcement agencies started preparing for the campaign season well in advance. As we reported earlier, they compiled data on opposition activists and candidates. The trend is very obvious now: almost all the scandals in the parliamentary campaign have been initiated by law enforcement officers. The United Russia party’s most active rivals are the most frequent targets. The CPRF’s Omsk branch was attacked in October. According to CPRF activists, there was an incident at a rally in the town of Sosnovskoye on October 16: police seized placards and confiscated 140 copies of Pravda, the party’s newsletter. On October 11, GIBDD traffic police detained a driver who was delivering opposition newsletters to remote districts; they held him for some time, without giving any reasons. On October 17-18, police questioned CPRF activists Yuri Tyulepov and Ivan Mineyev in their own homes, on the pretext that some cars allegedly hired by the CPRF had been involved in an accident; no documentary evidence of the accident was provided.

Fifteen police officers entered the CPRF Omsk regional office on October 18, without a search warrant, and confiscated documents belonging to the OOO Flexo-Pak company, which is based in the same building and prints campaign materials for the CPRF. The Irtysh-Print company, also involved in printing CPRF campaign materials, had its printing equipment confiscated by police. And the first target was the Provintsia publishing house, hit with a tax audit immediately after printing some leaflets for the CPRF on October 2; its documents and printing equipment were confiscated. According to the CPRF Omsk branch, its activists are being harassed with administrative penalties all the time, on any pretext. For example, traffic police fined the CPRF’s official driver for not wearing a seat-belt, twice on the same day – although witnessed denied the charges on both occasions. CPRF activists were penalized for administrative offenses nine times in two days (October 22-23). Two GIBDD police cars are on duty outside the CPRF office around the clock.

The Union of Right Forces (SPS) printed 15 million copies of its campaign leaflets – and almost all have been seized in a police-initiated wave of confiscations across Russia: in the Moscow region, Krasnoyarsk, Bryansk, Kirov, Perm. In the Moscow region, two drivers were detained while delivering SPS campaign materials; one was held for over two days without being charged. And the company that printed the SPS leaflets has faced two weeks of harassment over alleged fire safety violations.

“As a rule, pretexts are found after the searches: sometimes they say they’re checking us for extremism, or claim they’ve found some cocaine,” SPS lawyer Vadim Prokhorov says wryly. “At best, they’ll follow procedure and leave us a list of the items they confiscate. If we’ve done something wrong, let them press charges – but they’re doing nothing of the kind.” The police are reluctant to correct their mistakes. In Udmurtia, for example, confiscated items have been returned; in Kirov, this has yet to happen. According to Prokhorov, a similar situation has arisen in the Bryansk region. Police are visiting the homes of SPS campaign activists, fabricating administrative penalties and forcing the activists to hand over their campaign materials. Even when the SPS complained to the courts and won its case, the police did not return the items they confiscated.

As the end of the campaign approaches, methods are becoming harsher. In early November, the media reported the arrest of CPRF Central Committee member Vladimir Nikitin’s teenage nephew. And police actions in Nizhny Novgorod on November 7 were strongly reminiscent of how the Dissenter March was dispersed in Moscow last April. At the Nizhny Novgorod CPRF rally, only the presence of journalists restrained police from beating up demonstrators; as soon as the journalists left, a busload of police arrived. Officers started shoving CPRF activists into the bus; Andrei Klychkov, deputy director of the CPRF legal affairs service, had his wrist injured and his watch broken. Among the people arrested were Mikhail Gvilia and Alexei Zhuravlev, members of the Nizhny Novgorod region’s electoral commission. At the station, police admitted that they have no right to detain electoral commission members without permission from the Prosecutor General’s office and regional prosecutors. But police punished Alexei Perov, a member of the Nizhny Novgorod municipal legislature: he was charged with an administrative offense – for walking down the street wearing a red scarf with the CPRF logo and carrying flowers.

SPS lawyer Vadim Prokhorov points out that Article 20.3 of the law on suffrage rights states that elections are the sphere of responsibility of electoral commissions. “The police never used to intervene in elections unless requested to do so by the commissions. But now, as I understand it, the Interior Ministry has issued orders: they are allowed to interfere,” says Prokhorov. “In their view, the fact that President Putin is a candidate serves as a kind of indulgence for the police. They used to give Just Russia the benefit of the doubt, as an allegedly pro-presidential party. But now it’s become clear that they’re defending one party only, while persecuting all the rest.”

According to Prokhorov, the CEC’s change of leadership has also affected the situation. Under the leadership of former chairman Alexander Veshnyakov, the CEC did indeed manage elections. In contrast, the CEC’s current team doesn’t seem to care about anything other than voter turnout. The rights of political parties are not protected; they are left to the mercy of the law enforcement agencies, says Prokhorov.

Political analyst Alexander Kynev maintains that the increased role of law enforcement agencies in the electoral process is a direct consequence of the Kremlin’s endeavors to use all available leverage: “On the one hand, they’re putting pressure on everyone via the executive branch hierarchy. On the other hand, they’re using the law enforcement agencies to obstruct the opposition as much as possible.” Kynev agrees that President Putin’s participation in this election serves as an incentive for local and regional officials seeking to curry favor: “They understand the value of a ‘good’ election result these days, and they’re using any and all methods to secure those results.”

Kynev says that the situation is being exacerbated by the way the CEC is dissociating itself from campaign events: “The police never did pay attention to the opinion of local or regional electoral commissions, but the CEC was able to draw public attention to abuses – it could call for decent behavior. These days, it isn’t even doing that much. When the SPS had its campaign materials confiscated, the CEC simply turned tail and fled – it took no stance at all, it’s just trying to ignore this entirely.”