Get off my ballot Abusing a new law against ‘extremists,’ Russian election officials have started barring opposition candidates

Evgeny Feldman

Last week, election officials in Moscow refused to register opposition politician Ilya Yashin’s candidacy in an upcoming by-election for the City Duma. He isn’t alone: the authorities also rejected a candidacy bid for the State Duma by Oleg Stepanov, Alexey Navalny’s former coordinator in Moscow. In both cases, officials cited a new law that prohibits anyone with recent connections to organizations designated as “extremist” (including Navalny’s campaign offices and the Anti-Corruption Foundation) from running for elected office. While the new law’s applicability is expansive, Meduza explains why it is nevertheless illegal at this time to bar the candidacies of Yashin and Stepanov.

Election committees have already started barring oppositionists from ballots

Oppositionist Ilya Yashin, a municipal deputy representing Moscow’s Krasnoselsky district, already holds elected office. Last week, when Yashin submitted paperwork to run in the City Duma’s by-elections and begin fundraising, officials turned him away, citing a new federal law that prohibits political candidacy for individuals with “extremist” connections. 

“The election commission declared that I have been recognized as ‘someone involved in extremist activity’ and banned me from participating in the elections,’” Yashin wrote on Facebook. “The court did not review my case and presented no evidence of ‘extremist activity.’”

Earlier this month, election officials in Moscow’s Nagatinsky single-mandate district reached the same decision regarding former Team Navalny activist Oleg Stepanov, who sought permission to open a campaign bank account and begin collecting nomination signatures for a spot on the ballot in the upcoming State Duma elections. 

Stepanov is currently under house arrest as a suspect in a sweeping felony case against several opposition activists accused of violating Moscow’s pandemic-lockdown restrictions during pro-Navalny demonstrations in January 2021. Stepanov’s colleagues submitted his candidacy paperwork on his behalf. After three days of silence, just 10 minutes before closing time, officials finally informed Stepanov that his bid for elected office was denied.

Election officials based their rejection of Stepanov’s candidacy on his involvement in the activities of a designated extremist organization, but his team argues that this decision is illegal, insofar as no court order to this effect has yet entered into force.

Election officials are citing a court ruling that still hasn’t entered into force

Applying the “candidacy ban” to specific individuals requires a corresponding court order that has already entered into legal force. In other words, the time limit for appealing a ruling must have expired. In Stepanov’s case, it’s one month from June 9. 

Once these conditions are met, former managers in the Navalny movement who held even remotely executive positions within three years of the June 9 court ruling are prohibited from seeking elected office for the next five years, meaning that Navalny’s senior associates can’t run in elections until the summer of 2026 — a whole parliamentary cycle in the future.

“It’s funny that my name isn’t even mentioned in the ruling cited by the election commission. Neither the court nor the commission even bothered to observe formalities or somehow prove my ties to the Anti-Corruption Foundation,” Ilya Yashin complained in a video on YouTube. On Telegram, Team 29 attorney Ivan Pavlov, who represented Navalny’s groups in court, confirmed that Yashin’s name appears nowhere in the case files, though he says a state prosecutor did mention once in court that Yashin signed up for monthly donations of 1,000 rubles (about $14).

Given that Oleg Stepanov served as the coordinator of Alexey Navalny’s Moscow campaign headquarters, it’s no surprise that his name appears in the ruling that outlawed his office together with the Anti-Corruption Foundation. The Moscow City Court never released these records to the public, but Team Navalny shared the documents online, showing that the authorities relied, at least in part, on “information posted on the Internet” to establish the Navalny movement’s ties to Stepanov and many others. 

But even this isn’t enough to bar Stepanov’s candidacy now because the verdict that outlaws the Navalny movement and mentions Stepanov hasn’t yet entered into force. Stepanov’s campaign team has made this same argument on its Telegram channel.

The court decision designating Navalny’s political and anti-corruption organizations as “extremist” won’t take effect until July 9 at the very soonest. More likely, the verdict won’t enter into force until even later, after the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s lawyers have exhausted all their appellate options. Until then, the only part of the Moscow City Court’s decision that entered into force immediately was its order to terminate the Navalny organizations’ activities. 

In the meantime, the Moscow City Court’s June 9 decision cannot serve as the legal basis for refusing to register the political candidacy of anyone — even Oleg Stepanov, whose name appears directly in the ruling.

Election officials are abusing their authority

Vladimir Shveda, an expert in Russia’s electoral laws, analyzed the election commission’s rejection of Stepanov’s candidacy and concluded that officials also overstepped their powers by barring him at the signature-drive stage, before his actual candidacy is even in question. “To participate in elections, a candidate goes through two stages: nomination and registration. At the nomination stage, a candidate is required to submit an application for nomination, along with various documents and information demanded by the law,” Shveda wrote on his website. “At the nomination stage, the election commission doesn’t assess the facts set out in the application. […] Within three days, the commission must issue the candidate a permit to open a special campaign bank account. The law does not recognize any procedures for refusing to reach this decision.”

It’s not until the registration stage, says Shveda, that individuals must provide documents and information that are subject to inspection that actually determines the commission’s decision regarding an individual’s candidacy. 

Shveda also made a few guesses about why Russia’s election officials have decided to flout the law by barring candidacy for people like Ilya Yashin and Oleg Stepanov:

Are they doing this just to attract attention? Or is it to send a signal that Navalny’s supporters shouldn’t count on legality or fairness at any stage of the electoral process? Are they signaling that they’re outside the law and should expect anything, even being “wiped out in the shitter,” as Putin once put it?

Stepanov says he intends to challenge the election commission’s decision, but he warns that losing another two weeks to litigation will complicate his campaign’s efforts to collect enough nomination signatures. “Getting 15,000 signatures in 40 days is very hard,” Stepanov wrote on Telegram. ”Nobody has managed yet to pull it off, let alone while under house arrest and in the midst of constant repressions.”

Ilya Yashin says he will take the election commission to court, as well, but he has also clarified that he “has no illusions” about his chances. “A political decision has been reached not to allow me into any elections ever again,” Yashin told the website Open Media.

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Story by Kristina Safonova and Tatiana Lysova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock


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