Less than three weeks before Russians go to the polls to elect hundreds of local and regional governments, the country's biggest independent election monitoring group, Golos, is struggling to reinvent itself after being effectively destroyed by a new law that requires nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents."
The outcome of Golos's efforts will probably settle any debate over the intentions of Russian authorities when they framed the controversial NGO law, which requires all groups that receive any degree of foreign funding and engage in any kind of public outreach authorities deem political to register and self-identify in all their materials as "foreign agents" – a term that connotes "spy" in Russia.
Russian authorities insist the law is just about reining in foreign influence and ensuring transparency in the NGO sector. Critics have argued from the start that the law is part of a battery of legislation that aims to straitjacket civil society, clamp down on free speech, and, specifically, to prevent any repetition of the mass exposure of alleged electoral fraud in December 2011 Duma elections made possible by 50,000 trained citizen polling station monitors fielded by Golos.
Leaders of Golos say they want to reconstitute as a "public movement," similar to the new Popular Front headed by President Vladimir Putin, which does not require official registration or strictly controlled bank accounts the way NGOs do. They insist they can find ways – without foreign funding -- to maintain a civil society force dedicated to monitoring campaigns and closely observing polling stations around the country.
"Golos was a pioneer in election-monitoring in Russia, and now we find ourselves acting as pathfinders for NGOs which are in the position of being forced to cease activity under this new law," says Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos.
"We decided to form a public movement, like Putin's. After all, why not use the experience the authorities provide? The main thing is to find ways to continue doing the work we are dedicated to, training citizen observers and systematically monitoring elections," he adds.
The prospects do not look good. On Wednesday, just a few days after Golos publicly announced its decision to liquidate the NGO and reform itself as a movement, the landlords at its Moscow offices ordered it to vacate the premises. The pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant interviewed the landlords, who said they made the move after receiving "a request from some influential people" whom they declined to name.
"Golos was the major target of the NGO law, and now it doesn't exist in the way it did before," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor of political science at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
"They remain active, but there's no getting around the fact that the organization is basically wrecked. They do not any longer have the stature, the nationwide network of trained observers who could provide valid voting samples from various parts of the country, and therefore they're not a real threat to the Kremlin," he adds.
Since it was founded in 2000, Golos has been Russia's largest and most trusted grass-roots election monitor. Without it, elections may still be observed by representatives of political parties and other, mostly local, monitoring groups, but monitoring would be fragmented and would lack the authority and nationwide sampling that Golos previously provided.
As to whether Golos will be allowed to return to its former function, or will become the victim of fresh obstacles, Mr. Petrov is pessimistic.
"It's hard to believe they will be permitted to cheat the Kremlin by some legalistic sleight of hand. They may continue, but it will be a largely symbolic effort rather than the systematic one it was before. Golos, as it was, cannot be continued in the present environment," he says.
Russia will hold its first "unified election day" on Sept. 8, with polls in 70 of the country's 83 regions, including elections for 16 regional legislatures, 8 governors, and 10 mayors. The struggle for the mayorship of Moscow will be the most closely watched race of all.
Mr. Melkonyants says that even the authorities should start to realize that they need an independent civil society force to monitor poll results, if only to restore the flagging credibility of Russian elections.
According to a public opinion poll conducted this month by the Moscow-based independent Levada Center, public confidence in the electoral process is at a low, with just 26 percent of respondents agreeing that the coming vote would be a "real competition for power," down from 43 percent who thought that of the looming presidential election in February 2012.
Sixty-one percent believed the election will be an "imitation struggle," with the outcome decided in advance by authorities, up from 44 percent who thought that about the presidential polls a year and a half ago.
"It is of critical importance to raise trust in elections. This cannot be accomplished by PR measures and declarations. It must involve real measures," Melkonyants says.
"The first step should be a restoration of dialogue between the authorities and civil society. The authorities accuse election observers of provocations; observers say the authorities are guilty of falsifications. We need to reboot this relationship. Citizens are watching. They see the authorities ignoring violations, and nothing is done. If they think these problems will disappear into thin air, they are mistaken. Unless something is done, public confidence will continue to plunge," Melkonyants says.
It's possible the Kremlin has concluded that its assault on NGOs may have gone too far, after several cultural groups were targeted and even the pollster, the Levada Center, was ordered to register itself as a "foreign agent."
"Does it [the NGO law] need to be updated? Probably. But not in terms of toughening or liberalizing; things just need to be put in order," Mr. Putin told a youth forum in early August. "Some clear criteria for political activity should be set."
Pavel Chikov, chairman of the Agora Association, an NGO that provides legal assistance to other NGOs, says that the first wave of assaults on civil society groups is over, and it remains to be seen whether more organizations will be driven out of existence the way Golos was.
"So far the Golos situation is practically unique. There are only two other groups in the same position," he says.
"The rest of us find we can continue to operate, even though nobody has agreed to register as a 'foreign agent.' We see that the authorities are split over how to proceed in this campaign, and there are some hopeful signs. The first wave of repressions against NGOs is over, and the burning question is, will there be another wave?" he says.