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On September 1st don’t forget your election leaflet

On September 1st the first bell rang and Russian pupils all over the country returned to classrooms. Every year the so-called Knowledge Day marks the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year. However, this year the end of holidays was different, as it was accompanied by agitation surrounding the upcoming Duma election, the campaigns for which did not spare educational institutions. School principals, teachers and pupils with them, were taken over by the election fever.

September 20, 2016 - Filip Rudnik - Articles and Commentary

election russia

During one of the first classes, apart from school textbooks the students received extra handouts, which, without a doubt, also had some educational value. In Zheleznovodsk (Stavropol Krai), for instance, these were colourful and cheerful school journals and schedules with the symbols of the United Russia Party. Moreover, pupils could get to know the local deputies (and election candidates) personally, or at least become familiar with their names. During the Knowledge Day celebration, the principal of School No. 5 greeted one of the candidates and said to the students: “Now our future city deputy will wish you good luck!”, and gave the floor to the local deputy from the United Russia Party, Sergey Pavlovich Vorobyov. In his speech, Vorobyov promised that the ruling party will continue to represent pupils and their parents’ interests, wishing the students every success. Another United Russia member and deputy, Igor Olegovich Nikolaev also said a few words. Moreover, the school administration announced the introduction of a new subject aimed to develop political consciousness.

Before the Knowledge Day, Golos (a nonpartisan movement for protecting voter rights) warned about possible violations during the first school day. In the past years, pupils and their parents had a possibility to experience a similar illegal agitation. In 2013, during their first classes, students from Yekaterinburg received a political leaflet with United Russia’s programme titled “New Yekaterinburg Horizons” distributed among ordinary textbooks. The brochure also contained greetings from the then-candidate for the Duma.

Partisan balloons and flags

In some educational institutions the Knowledge Day was celebrated with a greater fanfare. In St. Petersburg Schools No. 537 and No. 643, students had a unique opportunity to receive blue and white balloons with the surname “Milonov” written on them. Vitaliy Valentinovich Milonov was a United Russia candidate for the State Duma from St. Petersburg district No. 218. Still, the balloons paled in comparison with the Knowledge Day in Kaliningrad. In the local high school No. 31, the local candidates gave speeches to greet the pupils and wish them a successful school year. The principal expressed her gratitude for the deputies’ presence and gifts that they donated to the school. The icing on the cake was the pupils’ show in which they waved the flags of United Russia. The principal – Yelena Vasilievna Ivanova was a chairman of the Local Election Commission no. 203 in the Kaliningrad Oblast.

Between August 31st and September 6th, the Golos-run online “Violation map” showing electoral violations received nearly 250 reports. They partially concerned agitation in educational institutions across Russia; 25 of them came from Krasnodar Krai, which has made the region an inglorious leader when it comes to misconduct. Nonetheless, similar reports came from various regions. The long-known pattern was identical everywhere. Deputies or candidates (very often both at the same time) gave their speeches with principals’ applause and donated handouts with symbols of their parties to students. In Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, pupils received insurance policies from United Russia. The candidate of this region proudly posted about it on his social media site. Shortly afterwards, he deleted the post. While the voters’ memory may be short, the internet does not forget.

According to the Russian law, every sort of agitation in state and local educational institutions is strictly forbidden. Bribing is banned as well, in any form. Gifts given by a candidate during a campaign are seen as bribes. What’s more, encouraging underage persons to take part in lobbying is punishable by an administrative fine. Nevertheless, the list of sins committed by political parties only on one day, September 1st, is quite long. It is worth mentioning that the United Russia Party was not an isolated troublemaker; balloons with the symbols of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation were also given to the students. Proof of such agitation, in the form of videos and photos are widely accessible in the internet.   

The song remains the same

On August 19th, Vladimir Putin dismissed the Minister of Education. The unpopular Dmitriy Livanov was replaced by Olga Vasilieva, the first female Minister of Education in Russian history. Her predecessor was often criticised by the United Russia members and, at the beginning of 2016, he was fired from the Party’s Supreme Council. Livanov’s administration did not manage to solve any real problems such as massive delays in the payments of wages for educational workers. The newly appointed Vasilieva was warmly welcomed, which facilitated renewed dialogue between the government and teaching staff.

Governmental ignorance in the area of education could prove to be dangerous for United Russia. After all, teachers vote actively and take care of the masses of future voters. So far, pedagogues felt forgotten – especially in the regions. The replacement brought hope for long-awaited developments.

The wind of change blew from the other direction as well. The upcoming elections remained one of the most important topics in Russian media, and the election fever had an impact on almost every member of society. It is widely believed that these elections could be described as freer than the previous ones. The new chairman of the Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, took some steps to increase transparency of the pre-election process. She supported domestic observers and citizens who can inform commissions about violations. In the new mixed electoral law more political parties have an opportunity to be chosen. The number of non-partisan candidates also has been increased. Indeed, these have been steps in the right direction.

At the same time, however, some argue that these positive innovations are just a smokescreen. Free elections were just an impression, as violations were still present. This year’s Knowledge Day is a case in point. Bribes and unlawful agitation were present just as in previous years. Needless to say, teachers were under great pressure from the top, as their employment has been directly connected with the local administration. The bad financial situation of many schools as well as the fear of being fired had made teachers and principals actively participate in the agitation process. Just as in Soviet times, political activity could help one’s career, and informal connections between principals and the local administration remain very important; they can come in handy when it comes to solving many practical issues such as school renovation.

Unfortunately, the adjustments at the top have not changed much at the local level in the education sector. The continuing poor situation of teachers forces them to violate the law and thereby become a partner in crime. It requires great civilian courage to stay out of the game.

Meanwhile, an ordinary student in Russia has to accept the political agitation. He or she has to listen to boring speeches, in which politicians wish them every success and underline that a given party cares for them. The pupil will leave his or her first day with some fancy schedule donated by a political fund. Maybe in the next few years he or she will get a pen or a ruler. Schedules, unfortunately, quickly become out-of-date. 

Filip Rudnik is a BA student at the Centre for East European Studies, University of Warsaw. 

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