Interview: Anna Bochilo from Golos, The Movement for Defence of Voters’ Rights

Golos is the only independent election watchdog in Russia, with offices in 45 Russian regions. We talked to Anna, a Golos coordinator from the South Siberian region of Altai, to find out how Altai's civil society differs from the rest of Russia and if there is a way to improve the Russian electoral system.

First, let's talk about Golos and what it does in Russia. What is your role as a regional coordinator of Golos?

The Golos Movement monitors elections, both “short term,” meaning during the election day, and “long term” pre-election activities. We monitor all stages of the elections: nominations of candidates, campaigning, registration, elections. Our monitoring is politically neutral. We advocate for political pluralism and honest and equal competition.

My work begins 3-4 months before elections when campaigning starts. We monitor media reports of campaign violations or [improper] administrative pressure. On election day I coordinate volunteers, providing them with legal and organizational support. I just sit behind my computer with my phone, writing reports, answering questions in a volunteer chat (for example, during the presidential campaign we had a chat of 100 volunteers). After the election day, I usually write a report with a summary and the results of our monitoring.

I’ve organized three monitoring campaigns: the presidential elections of 2018, and the gubernatorial elections in our region (Altai Kray) and neighboring region (Republic of Altai). In the Republic of Altai, they don’t have a Golos office, so I was asked to monitor their elections too.

From June 25 to July 1 a so-called “All-Russian Vote” to reform the Constitution was held in Russia. Many perceived it as an attempt to prolong Putin’s reign until 2036. The official results are 78.6% “for”, with 68% turnout. Golos, in their post-election announcement, declared that the vote was an “attack on the sovereignty of the people,” that the directives given by initiators of the vote discredited the vote from the start, and that the results were falsified on an unprecedented scale, mostly during the 6 days of the early voting.

How did the monitoring and voting go in Altai, how do you feel about the results?

I’m sickened by this vote. These constitutional reforms don’t have anything to do with laws or rights. The week of the vote confirmed that for me.

In my region, we had many cases of forced mobilization to vote. Really, people were pressured to go and vote. At one of the voting stations in Barnaul, a woman said she is a justice of the peace and even she was pressured to vote. People were just used, but I don’t feel bad for them. They are pressured, humiliated and pressured and they just meekly obey and go vote, and nobody complained! As always. I don’t know where their self-respect and dignity are. I can’t understand that.

As for monitoring, there was a very distinct trend towards secrecy from the election committees. They didn’t even try to be honest and open. The procedures were blatantly not followed; independent commission members were absolutely illegally suspended, responses to complaints were “just because”. We submitted two official complaints to the investigative committee and the prosecutor’s office. Waiting for the reply… waiting to hear one more time that black is white.

What are the most difficult and disappointing aspects of your job?

We’ve had a lot of difficulties, but for me, they are actually stimulating rather than discouraging.

My first monitoring campaign was during the 2018 presidential campaign. That campaign was hard, and the election day was hard – we had a big scandal in our region. I even had to call international observers from the OSCE [The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe].

One of our observers noticed that the ballots were counted incorrectly and that there were more ballots in every packet than the polling station commission said there were. When the international observers got there, they were shocked: they saw that the packet with ballots for Putin actually contained ballots for Grudinin, Sobchak and other candidates.

In the end, the commission chair and one member got a disciplinary punishment, but it didn’t influence the results. We couldn’t achieve any change to the results! That’s the way our law enforcement works. Even if this case went to court, we wouldn’t be able to change anything. We don’t have any protection in court. The only thing we can do is tell people, educate them on what’s going on.

Another example: I usually don’t observe at the polling stations, but last year in December I was an observer in Tatarstan. They practice local referendums on taxation laws, and I served as an observer there in a small town in the countryside.

At some point, a man came to the polling station who everybody was calling a “sponsor.” He was trying to talk to us, invited us to lunch, tried to give us gifts. We didn’t get what was going on, even though we probably should have. When my colleague was outside, he came up to her and offered her 30,000 rubles ($430) for us to leave the polling station [for comparison, the average monthly salary in Altai Krai is 27,900 rubles].

Anna at the polling station in Tatarstan

My colleague was caught by surprise, so she didn’t record that conversation. Obviously, we didn’t think to take the bribe and leave. We started to think about how to make sure we were safe, especially after he came up to me again, not to offer a bribe, but to offer to take us to lunch in his car. We thought if we went to the police we wouldn’t be able to prove anything. We were in a random village in the middle of nowhere, didn’t know anybody, and nobody would protect us. The only thing we could do was immediately give publicity to what happened. We called journalists we knew in Kazan, as well as the main Golos office, and made sure there was media coverage out there of what happened.

How did you begin volunteering in Golos?

I began volunteering at Golos ten years ago. I was a team leader during that terrible election of 2011-2012. They jammed our phones, evicted observers from polling stations.

I remember how during my volunteering at Golos I was called to our local FSB office [Federal Security Service, Russia’s domestic security agency] for a “conversation” because of my work with Golos. However, Golos wasn’t the only reason that I was brought in. I also participated in a program at the Theodor Heuss Academy in Germany. At the FSB they think that [the Heuss Academy] teaches [participants] how to organize a revolution at that place. I was literally asked what exactly I studied there. They also told me that Golos is a U.S. agent organization. They asked me not to tell anyone about this conversation, but I, of course, told everyone about it.

At that time, when I first started volunteering at Golos, I got an offer to work for them a coordinator, but I refused. At that time, I worked at a university, teaching constitutional law, and writing my dissertation. I was in the final stages of it, I needed to finish it and be done.

I started to participate in Golos less and less while writing my dissertation and living abroad. I thought I was heading in another direction, but the circumstances turned out to be different. In 2017, the candidate for the coordinator role at rejected the position and suggested to me as their alternative. I felt like I could not say no. I felt responsible for Golos: my activist past, my relationships with people there. I knew that Golos can’t end in Altai Krai, and I needed to step in to make sure our work continued. I didn’t sleep at all that night, wondering how on earth I was going to manage it all.

Is this a full-time job for you?

No, it’s not a full-time job. My main job is my daughter, she is 4. This is what I do in my free time.

Why and when did you start being an activist? How did you realize that you can create change, that you have civic responsibility? At least for me, it wasn’t something I was taught at school.

Actually, for me, it was my school. I was lucky, I studied at a free Russians school in the 90s – early 2000s. We had philosophy lessons, debates about God, wrote argumentative essays. They taught us to think critically, be outspoken. <…> We also had some student self-governance, we organized protests and went on strikes. On the wall of our school it said: “When everybody thinks the same way, nobody thinks.” <…>

Later I attended the School of Civic Education in Barnaul. It’s a seminar for local businesspeople, politicians, and activists. That was a way for me to enter the activist community in Barnaul.

After I finished law school, I couldn’t find a job, so I worked handing out flyers for the parliamentary elections in 2007. While I was handing out flyers, one of the local leaders of SPS party [The Union of Right Forces, a liberal-conservative electoral bloc] talked to me, found out I’m a lawyer and asked me to be a lawyer for their campaign office. That was the way I started working with elections.

Do you feel like what you do is appreciated by people around you? How do people feel about activism?

We have a core group of people who support our movement, as well as other opposition movements. There is some antagonism from the side of propagandist circles, especially before the elections: sometimes we see some articles about me and Golos, saying that we are paid by the West, by the US. It’s funny, because most of us are volunteers, and we all bear so much more risk than we get back in material benefits.

The level of activity of the general public always depends on external factors. When Navalny [a prominent Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist] came around [he started his presidential campaign in 2016, but was barred from running], we had a pretty active office here, and a lot of activists and election observers came from there. During other election campaigns, when we don’t have any interesting candidates, I see a decline in observers: people don’t care, don’t see a reason to monitor the elections.

What steps would you take to fix elections in Russia?

That’s an interesting question. Whatever steps we take, they are all useless without a just court. If a person doesn’t have the right to be protected in court, they don’t have any rights – not to fair elections, not to free labour, not to freedom of movement. They are deprived of all rights. Thus, first and foremost, we need a fair court.

Then we can reform our political institutions and try to move away from this dominance of officials and this centralized command. For that, we need a victory over corruption, political liberalization, access for critically-minded candidates to elections on all levels, and independent media.

All that would ensure the succession of power, creating the possibility for fair elections. And that will create good candidates. It’s a myth perpetuated by our government that we don’t have any good candidates. They are out there.

Well, we are still far from taking any of those steps. Do you think there is any hope for democracy in Russia?

There should always be hope. If not, what’s the reason for doing anything at all? In our conditions, we have to do what we can: educate, tell people about what’s going on, teach our children the feeling of freedom and critical thinking. If our generations don’t see change, maybe our children will be able to change something.

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