Russia, GOLOS, and the Funding Dilemma: Is Fair Voting Just a Western Plot?

By Cailean MacLean

AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev
For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union and the chaos of the early 90’s, ordinary voters have taken to the streets in significant numbers in Russia to challenge the veracity of the recent parliamentary election. United Russia, the political party established by Vladimir Putin, saw its share of the vote fall from the 64% of 2008 to the historic low of 49%. While this represents a significant drop, numerous reports of vote rigging, electoral fraud, and government domination of official media point to a true tally that is far below the published results. The true numbers and full extent of any vote falsification is unlikely to ever be known to the public, principally due to the lack of independent electoral monitors able to function freely within the country.

The organization GOLOS (meaning voice or vote in Russian), the only independent monitoring organization in Russia, had attempted to play that role. It tallied numerous electoral irregularities in the 2008 elections and was widely regarded as the only Russian body capable of doing so in 2011. In actuality its operations were hampered through constant legal harassment, de-certification, and laws specifically designed to keep GOLOS observers away from polls. The primary charge of United Russia against GOLOS stems from its supposed CIA funding and collusion with Western powers to hurt the efforts of United Russia and destabilize the Russian political process.  

Both United Russia and Prime Minister Putin, who will be running for President in the 2012 elections, have blamed foreign instigators for both questioning the vote as well as encouraging these ongoing rallies. Blaming foreign powers is a time-worn tactic throughout the world in times of civil unrest. “Outside elements” were blamed during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria as well as the colour revolutions which swept through the countries of the former Soviet Union in 2004-2005. While this is often little more than a cynical ploy to discredit the authenticity of opposition movements and information it does occasionally resonate and hamper efforts of advocacy and persuasion.

In the case of GOLOS there is a kernel of truth in the changes. Denied significant funding through legitimate funding channels in Russia due to the harassment such a donation would attract, the majority of its aid comes from outside sources such as USAid and the European Commission. These foreign connections have provided the primary fodder for Putin and his allies in their dismissal of the “US-backed GOLOS”.  

Money, unfortunately, is the lifeblood of any organization, human rights focused or otherwise. Many of the funding sources for such organizations are Western based, either through government grants from Western departments of foreign affairs or through private foundations, themselves often based in developed countries. Many countries facing human rights crises often lack local foundations or citizens capable of provided the funding needed for a trained staff and investigative operations. Accepting this money, and therefore the ability to research, investigate, and in essence function opens one to charges of imperialism, anti-patriotism, and foreign control. While these charges are often false or exaggerated, their accuracy is almost beside the point. If there are “outside” connections, their investigations and charges can be dismissed as illegitimate. This funding choice is thus a central and constant dilemma. While NGOs that concentrate on research must maintain an objective perspective regardless of their funders, organizations active in front-line human rights work can face more physical and direct intimidation. Foreign funding may not only result in dismissal, but also end in arrests, beatings, and criminal charges.

For human rights campaigns in low information societies, the perception of truth and integrity is occasionally more important than the reality on the ground. Calls to nationalism and suspicion of plots are often utilized in the government as an effective tool to shut down criticism. When the government acts as the only source of information, either through state media and/or coercion of independent media, such tactics hold significant influence. However, Russia is no longer such a low information society. Recent reports have shows Russian internet users to now number 51 million, more than any other country in Europe. People are no longer restricted to receiving their information from just the state or even from a single human rights organization. The photos and videos GOLOS produced and published are dwarfed by the number independently taken and posted on YouTube and file sharing sites. Criticism is now open-source and verifiable. Where people are able to independently research and verify the work of civil rights organizations and issues, simple appeals to xenophobia and political conspiracy fall on more sceptical ears. Such circumstances are not unique to Russia as similar claims of foreign plots and “western manipulation” failed to persuade the protestors out of Tahrir Square or the resisting villages in Syria.

This new media environment does not mean that such patriotism based accusations are dead, ineffective, or even untrue. It does mean that they’ve lost their pride of place and automatic acceptance in the authoritarian arsenal of propaganda. For Russia this means a small step towards a monitored and verifiable electoral system. For many human rights NGOs it means that funding from the governments of the ‘West’ or the Global North, often essential to their economic survival, is no longer quite the credibility dilemma it once was. 

About the Author:

Cailean MacLean is a 2011 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. He recently graduated from the University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies with an LL.M. in International Law and Relations.

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