Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Election Observers Sidelined

MTLilia Shibanova, second left, and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, center, attending a Golos news conference earlier this month.
The country's only group of independent election observers has been forced to reduce its activities ahead of weekend elections after coming under intense pressure from the authorities.

Golos, a nongovernmental organization that receives EU and U.S. funding, has had to suspend its activities in the Samara region amid a criminal investigation that it says is politically motivated.

The head of Golos' two offices in the region, Lyudmila Kuzmina, has been charged with installing unlicensed software on the group's computers.

The investigation means that Golos, which has branches in 40 regions, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, will not be able to monitor the vote in Samara, Kuzmina said. More important, she said, it signals that the Kremlin is doing its best to squash criticism of the State Duma elections Sunday.

"The goal of the authorities is to conduct the elections so quietly that you can't hear a mosquito," Kuzmina said by telephone from Samara. "We remain the only troublesome mosquito buzzing in the silence."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had never heard of Golos, so it was difficult to comment on the case. Peskov said, however, that Kuzmina's accusations "don't correspond with reality."

"The Kremlin's task is to conduct the elections legally and with maximum transparency," he said by telephone.

But Peskov told foreign reporters at a meeting Tuesday night that President Vladimir Putin was referring to some foreign-funded NGOs involved in political activities when he spoke of greedy "jackals" taking orders from foreign patrons during a speech last week. Peskov refused to identify any of the NGOs, saying it was a job for law enforcement officials.

Samara police are helping the local branch of the Federal Registration Service investigate whether Golos' offices failed to follow their charter and improperly spent money on communications equipment. Kuzmina herself has been barred from leaving Samara while she awaits trial on the software charges.

Other organizations critical of the Kremlin have also faced charges of using unlicensed software this year, including a Chechen NGO and a regional office of Novaya Gazeta. The use of unlicensed software is widespread but rarely prosecuted.

Vadim Malikov, the acting head of the registration service's Samara branch, did not specify Golos' purported violations in a written response to questions. He said only that Golos had committed "repeated legal violations" and "charter violations ... detected during planned inspections."

Police carried out the first inspection May 10, hours after Kuzmina criticized Samara authorities on Ekho Moskvy radio for detaining opposition activists who were distributing leaflets about a Dissenters' March. Police seized all the office computers.

Kuzmina said the police had told her that "investigative information" had meant that it was necessary "to check the economic activities" of the NGO.

The next day, on May 11, police sealed the office for a week and on May 18 closed it for three months for what they described as fire-safety violations.

Later that month, a burst pipe flooded the office, destroying stacks of paperwork.

Golos activists continued working from home until the office reopened Sept. 10. But they have suspended all activities since Sept. 19, when the police began a new, monthlong check.

In the meantime, the Federal Registration Service suspended the activities of Golos' other office for six months and asked a regional court to close it.

Police charged Kuzmina in late October, but the case has yet to be sent to court. "Out of this fact, I draw the conclusion that the main aim is to put pressure on me," Kuzmina said.

Kuzmina has been involved in public activities since the early 1990s and helped set up Samara branches for Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces and the Democratic Party.

Nationwide, Golos has been monitoring the media and interviewing party members, NGO activists and ordinary people about the Duma elections since July. It has examined, among other things, whether parties are being granted fair access to state media and public awareness about the elections.

In late October, Golos issued a report of campaign violations by various parties. The group, which disclosed the findings at a news conference with Transparency International and the Information Policy Fund, also said politicians and parties were using their official positions or ties to government institutions to influence the outcome of the elections more than they had done before the 2003 Duma vote.

Golos plans to open a media center at the Independent Press Center in Moscow to collect and distribute information about voting violations Sunday. It will release additional information during the week after the vote.

Besides Golos activists, Russians expected to observe the elections belong to political parties and Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group.

Golos was founded in 2000 as an association of NGOs dedicated to protecting voters' rights and developing civil society. It has received foreign funding since the beginning, Golos executive director Lilia Shibanova said at a news conference last month.

For the past three years, Golos has been operating on a $2.3 million grant from the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, and USAID, a U.S. government agency, Shibanova said.

Its previous backers have included two U.S.-based organizations, the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, nonprofit organization aimed at strengthening democratic institutions around the world, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a private foundation, a Golos spokeswoman said.

Golos' founders include the Moscow Helsinki Group, led by human rights pioneer Lyudmila Alexeyeva; the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, a regional NGO; the Women's Information Net, an independent nonprofit organization; and the Youth Union of Lawyers, a national NGO.

Golos is a member of the Public Chamber's coordinating council and the European Net of Elections Monitoring Organizations.

Kuzmina, who denied wrongdoing, expressed hope that Golos would overcome its difficulties in Samara.

"I will fight to the end," she said.

"We mustn't allow them to shut us down, because once we allow that ..." her voice trailed off into silence.