By Rohit Bhatachaarya
Allegations of foreign interference in national elections have traversed a full circle between Russia and the United States of America. Ironically enough, the Russian government, through a statement issued by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, has warned its American counterparts about “meddling” in its upcoming elections. Russia’s response comes in the aftermath of the US State Department’s criticism of Russia’s decision to ban prominent opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny from contesting the forthcoming elections.
American “interference” angle
As per a recent statement given to Business Insider, a US State Department representative had condemned the Russian’s government “ongoing crackdown against independent voices, from journalists to civil society activists and opposition politicians”. Furthermore, the State Department urged the Russian government to organise legitimate elections that are free, fair and transparent, thus enabling the free expression of the will of the people in consonance with Russia’s obligations to the International Human Rights Law.
Through a post published on her official Facebook page, Zakharova claimed that the issuance of such statements by official American government institutions clearly amounted to a direct interference into the electoral process and internal affairs of Russia. She also suggested that this was certainly not going to be the last of such statements to be released from the US government.
According to Zakharova, it is hypocritical of those individuals, who have continually expressed concern over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections and have constantly engaged in the persecution of Russian media across the globe by labelling news outlets such as RT and Sputnik as foreign agents along with investing vast sums of money for the purpose of countering so-called Russian propaganda, to now partake in similar transgressions. Many Russian news agencies, including the state-owned TASS, have extensively reported upon Zakharova’s comments over the past week.
Going on the offensive?
Zakharova’s accusations have conveniently and perhaps not so coincidentally sprung up at a time when an ongoing investigation is being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller into allegations of interference by Russia itself in US Presidential elections of 2016. Moreover, there are several congressional panels that are also scrutinising the role played by Russia in the surprising election that resulted in a shocking victory for current US President Donald Trump.
The American Intelligence community has collectively expressed high confidence about the usage of an influence campaign by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government in the run-up to election with the ulterior motive of undermining the American public’s faith in the democratic electoral process of their nation and smearing the reputation of the Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton, thus reducing her chances of getting elected and enjoying a potential presidency.
Trump re-affirmed his faith in the sincerity of Putin’s denials last month and added that the prolonged inquiry into allegations of Russian interference had made it difficult to expect any mutual cooperation from Moscow. After his meeting with Putin in Vietnam, Trump remarked that he had asked his Russian counterpart about whether there was any truth or substance to the accusations of Russian interference in American elections, only to receive a response in the negative, which has consistently been Putin’s stand right from the beginning.
The next presidential election in Russia is currently scheduled to take place in March. Putin has already made an official announcement clearly declaring his intention to seek a fourth presidential term and is expected to coast to a victory. Nevertheless, his administration has adopted stringent measures in order to eliminate any possible competition for Putin even before the election. Their ultimate goal is to completely discredit Navalny, who submitted his documents to register as a presidential candidate last Sunday, in the eyes of the voters.
Last Monday, the Central Election Commission released a ruling barring Navalny from contesting the elections against Putin, with the reason for the same being the activist’s earlier conviction for financial embezzlement. On the contrary, Navalny and his supporters vehemently argue that the move was politically motivated.
Navalny released a video after the decision, in which he stated that there would not be an election because of the fear in the mind of Putin, who sees an ominous threat to his iron-fisted grip over Russia in having to compete with him. He accused Putin of ordering his puppets in the Central Election Commission to reject his registration. Navalny has also repeatedly urged the people of Russia to boycott the upcoming election, which has resulted in the Russian government retaliating with its own threats of legal action to be taken against Navalny. Last Tuesday, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin, said that there was a necessary need to investigate whether calls inciting a boycott of elections by the people were a violation of the law.
As it stands, Navalny is technically barred from contesting the election due to his prior criminal convictions, although they are regarded by many as a sheer political vendetta for his anti-corruption crusade. Several human rights watchdogs have noted the Electoral Commission’s decision to bar Navalny from participating in the democratic process as part of a larger agenda to crack down upon and effectively stifle dissent in Russia against the ruling authorities, especially Putin.
Europe speaks out too
The European Union (EU) has also voiced its concern and questioned the fairness of the upcoming election, by stating that the electoral commission’s decision to disqualify Navalny has cast serious doubt over the existence and strength of political pluralism in Russia. Maja Kocijancic, a foreign affairs spokeswoman for the EU, said that politically motivated charges should not be used to prevent political participation. She also stated that the EU expected Russian authorities to ensure the subsistence of a level playing field in the upcoming presidential elections.
In what is clearly a game of allegations and counter-allegations between global powers, the stakes are tremendously high. While in the US, accusations of Russian interference could still result in the downfall of Donald Trump, the methods adopted by Putin to maintain his reign over Russia are being questioned. While scrutinizing the major powers at play here, it is also important to look at the bigger picture, which is the destruction of the democratic electoral process in these countries, which is only going to hurt ordinary citizens the most.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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