Sunday, April 18 saw a yawn-inducing victory for Vladimir Putin in the Russian election, as sarcastic gasps of shock echoed through Western Europe. Collecting of 75% of the vote on a turnout of 67.5%, the incumbent, in effective control since the turn of the millennium, used his victory speech in front of the Kremlin to call for “unity to solve Russia’s problems”.
There are those, especially in Moscow and St Petersburg, who are so disillusioned with the Russian election process that it does not even bear discussion, so corrupt and absurd has it become. Nevertheless it was not without its points of interest; indeed, savvy observers of social media will have noticed a change in the last year, specifically related to a single social media outlet.
The rise of Twitter
Facebook has not become as politicised in Russia as in Europe or the US, and primarily exists as a forum on which friends communicate – it also faces a stern challenge in this regard from its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.
Twitter, however, has provided a platform for some of the typically quieted voices throughout the country in the months leading up to the election. Perhaps most notably, opposition candidate Alexei Navalny, who was barred from running in this election after being convicted of fraud and money laundering, used Twitter to organise mass protests, even continuing once under house arrest.
The impact of Twitter on the Russian election was somewhat underwhelming if compared to, for example, the mass mobilisation in Tahrir Square some seven years ago, but the use of the site as a candle in the dark during the election day festivities might have given the Kremlin pause for thought.
Fraud in the North Caucasus
In Dagestan, where corrupt officials were being detained in the month leading up to the election, independent auditors were summarily dragged out of voting booths on election day. The likes of Zukhrab Omarov, an election observer, was forced out of the voting booth by the police after filming electoral violations in Makhachkala.
Taking to Twitter, another Dagestani, 27-year old lawyer Marat Ismailov, told the story of his assault at the hands of “goons” while monitoring for ballot stuffing. His story would be accompanied by videos like this, where physical intimidation is clearly occurring.
На участке 1072 неизвестный мужчина напал на нашего наблюдателя после отказа убирать камеру. Его вывела полиция pic.twitter.com/2eozWnwbYD
— Наблюдатели Дагестана (@DagestanElect) March 18, 2018
In the neighbouring republic of Chechnya, the same tactics were being used. In the town of Argun, a man was spotted liberally administering ballots into the requisite box, in what was seemingly an attempt to match previous turnout rates of near 99%. In this election, unlike the last where it was reported that they met their 99% quota, by 8pm independent observers were reporting turnouts of as low as 29%, abysmal by their previous standards.
The official figures record a turnout in Dagestan of 87.5%, over 90% of which voted for Vladimir Putin. In Chechnya, the figures were even higher, with 91.5% for both turnout and for Putin.
Social media accountability
These facts, which had previously been assumed, but could not be corroborated by evidence, now have a small foothold in truth gained by the work of independent election observers in the North Caucasus, but also around the entirety of the Federation.
In this region specifically, voter turnout and results are often wildly misrepresented, partially due to the general lack of popularity for the Kremlin in places like Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia.
In an all-too-transparent attempt to prop up the Kremlin’s popularity, as independent observers witnessed, ballots are stuffed to inflate turnout numbers. Other tactics, both physical and psychological, are implemented to ensure that Moscow avoids embarrassment in any possibly dissident Republic.
Further, these republics have their heads appointed by the Kremlin. The Russian election is, in a sense, a test of the competence of these officials: they must show that they are 1) in control of the republic, and 2) that the republic in question is loyal to Putin. This explains tactics that, even in other parts of Russia, must seem rather squalid and desperate.
As self-described “Russia watchers” from abroad continue to grapple with the opacity of Russian politics, the consumption of uniquely Russian media on Twitter will provide useful resources for anyone wishing to gauge democratic temperature and direction.
Those who are willing Russia to democratise may hope to have detected early signs of possible radical change popping up on timelines around the world; they must be hoping that it may simply be a matter of time before their claims fall on attentive ears.
For how long the administration believes Twitter to be an acceptable media outlet however, remains to be seen.