Russian election watchdog kicked out of Moscow office in run-up to poll


IN ONE of the quieter corners of central Moscow recently, Grigory Melkonyants talked a group of young people through the finer points of Russian electoral law.

They had come to the Moscow headquarters of Golos, Russia’s only independent election-monitoring group, to volunteer as observers in the March 4th presidential election. or to assist the overworked, understaffed and increasingly high-profile organisation in some other way.

The office was not easy to find. It is a long way down a snowy side-street, through a gap between two buildings, in through a back entrance and up the stairs to the third floor, but a growing number of people were making their way here.

Despite being accused by state media of working to destabilise Russia in return for funding from the United States, Golos has enjoyed a surge in support from the same Muscovites who rally in their tens of thousands to demand political change.

They will no longer find Melkonyants and his colleagues at their old address, however, because the independent election-monitoring group was yesterday forced to leave its main Moscow office in what the group calls an illegal move initiated by state officials to disrupt its work barely a fortnight before the election.

“We always had good relations with the owners of the office. It seems clear that they have been ordered to get rid of us.”

Calls to Golos were not answered yesterday, but when Melkonyants spoke to The Irish Timesin the old office, he said election-monitoring group might end up sharing space with other non-governmental organisations.

The publishing house that owns Golos’s old office has said it needs more space to accommodate an expansion of its own operations. But Melkonyants and his colleagues believe their eviction is the latest stage in an intensifying campaign to undermine their group.

Two days before parliamentary elections last December, Golos was summoned to court and fined for publishing people’s complaints about breaches of campaign regulations on its online, nationwide “Map of Violations”.

The same day, state-controlled NTV television aired a show on the election-monitoring group which combined pictures of its training sessions with images of street protests and suitcases stuffed with dollar bills, while a voice-over questioned its alleged links to opposition parties and foreign governments.

On an earlier occasion, Melkonyants gained a little internet fame when he faced down an NTV film crew that burst into the Golos office and demanded to know: “Who is funding you? What is your organisation doing? Why are you ruining the election process?”

The election-monitoring group’s soft-spoken deputy director filmed the intrusion on his mobile phone and answered each question with a line that has become a mantra for critics of Russia’s slavish state media: “You are Surkov’s propaganda. NTV is Surkov’s propaganda.”

Vladislav Surkov was for years a chief architect of the “managed democracy” built by Vladimir Putin during eight years as president and four as prime minister. Surkov was demoted after alleged vote rigging in December’s general election triggered the biggest protests of the Putin era. Other officials are now guiding his almost inevitable return to the Kremlin next month.

He has pledged to relax his grip on politics, business and media, while still denouncing his critics as puppets of western states. The plight of Golos, and increasing pressure on Russia’s remaining independent media outlets, suggest the new Putin might not differ greatly from the old.

“The authorities want to turn society against us. But their campaign has had the opposite effect,” said Melkonyants. “Now, more people than ever know about us, and want to work with us.”