Moscow (CNN)Russians are casting votes to pick regional legislators and officials in an election seen as a serious test for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. About 160,000 candidates are seeking seats in local parliaments and 20 regions are electing a new governor, according to the Central Elections Committee.
The vote comes a few weeks after the suspected poisoning of Russia’s leading opposition figure Alexey Navalny. He fell ill on a tour to Siberia where he met local candidates taking part in his project called “Smart Voting” and filmed investigation reports on the activities of local United Russia members.
The “Smart Voting” strategy promoted by Navalny urges Russians to vote tactically in support of a single candidate on any ballot most capable of unseating an incumbent from United Russia.
Navalny unveiled “Smart Voting” during local elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2018, costing United Russia dozens of seats in regional bodies. This year, Navalny headquarters runs the platform under the “Nullify United Russia” slogan in an apparent reference to a recent constitutional amendment resetting the clock on Vladimir Putin’s presidential term count.
United Russia’s popularity declined in the past years as its image has been marred by unpopular reforms and corruption scandals, many of them exposed by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, with Navalny himself giving the party a moniker “the party of crooks and thieves.”
This is the first election Russia has held since the vote on controversial constitutional amendments that gave Putin grounds to stay in power until 2036.
The vote spans three days between September 11-13 in an attempt to limit crowds and prevent the spread of coronavirus, a practice adopted in the July vote on constitutional amendments, which independent monitoring organizations say lowers voting transparency and makes it easier to falsify votes.
“Early voting traditionally makes the election process much less transparent,” monitoring organization Golos said in a statement. “The lack of proper public control is especially important, given that on the first day of voting the methods of administrative mobilization of voters were massively used and local administrations actively interfered in the work of election commissions.”
The vote could turn into a popularity test for the ruling pro-Putin United Russia party in a year that has seen a controversial pandemic response from Russian regional leaders, record-low approval ratings for Putin, and unrest in some regions over pressing local issues such as the arrest of popular governor Sergey Furgal in the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk.
The protests in Khabarovsk have raged for weeks since July. Furgal, often referred to locally as “the people’s governor,” beat a Kremlin-backed candidate from the ruling United Russia party in the 2018 local elections in a surprising single round. He refused to drop out of the race under pressure from his Kremlin-backed opponent, who had offered to allow him to serve as his deputy. He has been portrayed as disloyal to Putin and the Kremlin.
The results of this vote could serve as a bellwether for the key 2021 elections to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of the parliament, where United Russia controls the majority of the seats.
(CNN)A Covid-19 vaccine developed and tested in Russia generated neutralizing antibodies in dozens of study subjects, and while the vaccine often caused side effects such as fever, those side effects were mostly mild, according to data published Friday in the medical journal The Lancet.
Russia drew criticism when it announced the world’s first approved coronavirus vaccine for public use in August — even before crucial Phase 3 trials had been completed.
In the Phase 1 and 2 studies of the vaccine, which is named Sputnik V, all 76 study participants developed antibodies to the virus that causes Covid-19, according to Friday’s report in The Lancet.
The levels of neutralizing antibody response were similar to the immune response that people had after naturally recovering from Covid-19, according to the study.
The researchers also looked at responses from T cells, another component of the immune system.
“[Outcomes from] the trial also suggest the vaccines also produce a T cell response within 28 days,” the researchers wrote.
Larger trials needed
Scientists not involved in the study said that, while the results are a positive sign, only larger, Phase 3 trials can confirm whether the vaccine actually prevents illness with Covid-19.
“The data on the Russian vaccine studies reported in The Lancet are encouraging,” said Brendan Wren, professor of microbial pathogenesis, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In the study, half of the participants developed fevers and 42% developed headaches. In addition, about 28% experienced weakness and 24% had joint pain.
The article did not say how long these side effects lasted but said “most adverse events were mild.”
The vaccine was registered in Russia in August, before it had gone through large-scale trials. The researchers at the Gamaleya National Research Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology in Russia received approval on August 26 to do a Phase 3 trial, which is expected to have 40,000 volunteers, according to a press release from The Lancet.
The researchers are already distributing the vaccine to high-risk groups, according to Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is financing Russian vaccine research.
Gamaleya is using adenoviruses in their Covid-19 vaccines; this is the same approach used in the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca. The adenovirus delivers genetic material for the spike protein that sits atop the virus that causes Covid-19, and that genetic material is designed to generate an immune response to the virus.
Adenoviruses can cause a variety of symptoms, including the common cold. The researchers manipulate the virus so it will not replicate and cause illness.
The Gamaleya vaccine is given in two doses, and each dose uses a different adenovirus vector.
“Using two different viruses gives a theoretical advantage,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccinologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Naor Bar-Zeev, deputy director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins University, said in a linked comment that the studies are “encouraging but small,” according to The Lancet. Bar-Zeev was not involved in the Russian study, but peer reviewed it.
Dmitriev, CEO of the RDIF, said that the trial results confirm the “high safety and efficacy” of the vaccine, adding in a statement Friday that the results are “a powerful response to skeptics who unreasonably criticized the Russian vaccine.”
Mass trials begin next week
Russia has previously said it plans to begin mass vaccination of citizens in October, and the country’s health ministry has said the country’s frontline medical staff and teachers will be the first vaccinated.
Post-registration trials of the vaccine will begin in Moscow next week, the city’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, said Friday.
More than 5,000 people have already signed up to participate in the trials, according to Sobyanin, who spoke during a video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sobyanin also announced that he had been vaccinated with the first of the vaccine’s two shots.
The mayor said polls suggest around half of Russian citizens are skeptical about the vaccine.
“According to the polls, around half doubt whether they need to get vaccinated for coronavirus, whether it is developed enough or not. Two months ago, there were almost 90% skeptics,” said Sobyanin.
Without completed Phase 3 trials, Russia has not proven to the world Sputnik V works, though Dmitriev has previously said several countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia have expressed interest in procuring the vaccine.
Russia isn’t the only country fast tracking its vaccine — China approved an experimental coronavirus vaccine in June for members of its military, and in August, it emerged the country had been using the vaccine on those in “high risk” professions — such as frontline medical professionals and border inspectors — since July.
CNN’s Zamira Rahim and Amy Woodyatt contributed to this report.
All week, millions of Russians have been voting to reform their constitution, many using polling stations set up on tree stumps, park benches and even car boots.
Giant prize draws have helped entice them to the ballot, with the chance of winning everything from shopping vouchers to a car or flat.
Opposition figures have dismissed the whole process as a farce, stretched over seven days with no proper monitoring or independent scrutiny.
But for the Kremlin the amendments are vital. The vote will clear the way for Vladimir Putin to stay in power up to 2036, if he chooses.
Putin’s vision of Russia
Not that the president mentioned that in his address to the nation ahead of the final day of voting.
“We are voting for the country we want to live in… and which we want to hand down to our children,” Mr Putin declared, standing beneath a giant, ghostly new statue of a Soviet soldier, to underline the “patriotic” theme that runs through this process.
The sovereignty of Russia is supported by our feelings of genuine patriotism… as well as respect for our history, culture, language and traditions
The biggest overhaul of the constitution since 1993, this vote is partly about setting down Vladimir Putin’s vision of Russia: spelling out the values and priorities he has established during two decades in the Kremlin.
“Putin can’t just say to himself, ‘I need to do everything possible to stay in power!’,” argues Tatiana Stanovaya, the head of R.Politik, a political think-tank.
“People try to hide the low things they’re doing within something more grandiose and positive. So he says instead, ‘I want to create a great Russia, and stay in power too’.”
What are Russians voting on?
The new constitution includes articles promoting a patriotic education, reiterating the ban on same-sex marriage and adding explicit mention of God – all in line with the increasing cultural conservatism of Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Those “ideological” articles, alongside “social” ones like minimum wage guarantees, are the changes actively discussed on state TV and by celebrity endorsers.
By contrast, the amendments allowing Vladimir Putin to restart the clock on his presidency when his current term ends in 2024 – and so run twice more for president – are barely mentioned.
They were left off the initial information on the vote altogether.
Russia’s new constitution
The amendments cover dozens of existing articles, and add several new ones. They fall broadly into three categories and many enshrine things in the constitution that are already federal law:
1: Conservative ideology
Banning any action aimed at the “expropriation” of Russian territory, or calls for that.
Protecting the “historical truth” of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) and banning any “belittling” of the feats of those who fought.
Protection of the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Senior officials barred from holding foreign passports, residency or overseas bank accounts.
Refers to Russians’ faith in God, as handed down by their ancestors.
Pensions to be index-linked.
Minimum wage no less than subsistence minimum income.
Forming a “responsible attitude” to animals.
State Council to set “direction of domestic and foreign policy and socio-economic priorities”.
A person can only hold the presidency for two terms (replacing “two consecutive terms”).
In the case of a person already holding the presidency, previous terms will not count – the so-called “zeroing” of Vladimir Putin’s terms so far.
Yes or No
Voters can only select one of two boxes: accepting or rejecting all of the amendments.
Lobbying for either option is officially banned, but fliers posted to Moscow apartment blocks all called on people to vote “for” the amendments, rather than “on” them.
A much smaller counter-campaign has plastered stickers with Mr Putin’s face around town urging Muscovites to say “No”.
Will the pandemic affect the vote?
A short drive from the capital, on the outskirts of Podolsk, voters were invited to a tent in a car park to make their choice.
Election officials in face visors, masks and white suits were a reminder that this nationwide vote was being held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Postponed from April, the Kremlin was keen to reschedule as soon as possible.
A poll by the independent Levada Centre in early May reported a slide in Mr Putin’s approval rating to 59% – his lowest ever. The continuing Covid-19 crisis is unlikely to improve things.
So officials have done their utmost to get people out to vote.
An election official in Omsk, Siberia, made national headlines when she won an apartment in the lucky draw. Her protest that she was “just another voter” met with a deeply sceptical response.
There were no prizes in Podolsk, but plenty of enthusiastic pensioners.
“All the amendments suit me!” Galina said, dropping her voting slip into a transparent plastic briefcase decorated with a double-headed eagle.
“The index-linking of pensions, the right to study and work and housing,” she listed as her favourites, although the latter few are not explicitly covered by this reform.
“I like the idea that marriage should only be between a man and a woman,” said Elena, selecting her top amendment.
In her thirties, she also had no problem with Vladimir Putin staying on as president. “He suits us for now,” she said.
Is there much opposition?
In the town centre, beneath a tower block decorated with Russian flags, some younger voters were scornful of the vote.
“What’s the point? Putin will stay forever in any case,” one girl flung over her shoulder.
Maxim said he and “lots of friends” had voted against.
“We’ve had one president for 20 years, and Putin could do another 16 years? I think our country needs something new,” he said.
Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, has published a stream of posts on social media mocking the makeshift nature of the vote and highlighting irregularities.
They include pressure on some to vote and other people discovering their ballot had already been cast for them.
Influential blogger Yury Dud described the vote as “shameful”, in an Instagram post liked by more than a million people. He quoted Vladimir Putin himself in 2008 insisting that it was “absolutely unacceptable” to remain in office for life.
But the blogger hadn’t decided whether to boycott or tick the “No” box.
In fact, this vote is not required by law: the reforms to the constitution were approved by Russia’s parliament back in March.
But the Kremlin is said to want a high turnout and 70% support at this ballot, as a popular mandate to point to in future.
One exit poll already published – something that’s banned at a normal election – suggests it’s well on target.
In any case, the new constitution has already been printed and is on sale in bookshops.
Disinfection officials provide hygiene during the annual Red Square Book Fair held in Russian capital Moscow.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Russia surpassed 500,000 on Thursday, and the rate of new daily cases remains high, but restrictions are being lifted quickly ahead of key political events.
Experts say Russia is keen to lift unpopular lockdown measures ahead of two important political milestones which were rescheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic: Moscow’s Victory Day Parade — Russia’s annual show of military hardware — and a historic referendum on constitutional changes that would allow President Vladimir Putin to run for further terms in office.
The Kremlin has insisted that the coronavirus crisis is under control and restrictions can be safely lifted.
Russia’s Covid-19 case tally hit 502,436 Thursday after a further 8,779 cases were reported. The country’s coronavirus crisis center said a further 174 people had died in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of deaths to 6,532. The number of new cases had risen from 8,404 reported the previous day, but the daily death toll was lower than Wednesday’s 216 fatalities.
The grim milestone of 500,000 cases and high number of daily cases (albeit declining slowly) comes amid a relatively swift lifting of coronavirus restrictions that were imposed in late March. Russia allowed manufacturing and construction industries to reopen in mid-May, followed by more non-essential retailers reopening on June 1, ranging from hairdressers to pet stores.
Moscow, where the majority of cases and deaths have been recorded, started lifting lockdown measures in early June. It then announced Tuesday that it would abruptly lift remaining restrictions, including those around self-isolation, digital travel passes and a system of scheduled walks that allowed citizens to leave their homes at certain times and in certain areas.
The measures had been very unpopular with some Muscovites comparing the rules to George Orwell’s “1984” and the Gulag labor camps during the Soviet era, according to the Moscow Times.
A worker in gloves wears a face protective shield over a medical mask at the Starlett beauty salon. Starting from 9 June, Moscow’s beauty and hair salons, which were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, reopen.
Why are measures being lifted so quickly?
Analysts think the lifting of restrictions is coming deliberately early ahead of the June 24 Victory Day Parade in Moscow, an event that fosters national pride and seen as a key show of strength for President Vladimir Putin.
They also think that restrictions are being lifted ahead of Russia’s referendum on constitutional amendments on July 1. Among the changes being voted on is the amendments that would allow Putin to run for further terms in office beyond his current tenure that ends in 2024.
Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and principal Russia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC Wednesday that “the Victory Day parade is a major symbol of legitimacy for the Kremlin and it was only reluctantly rescheduled. Pushing the parade back further from 24 June is not an option.”
In addition, Putin is looking ahead to the referendum on July 1 and lifting measures early could secure the public’s approval in the vote at a time when his own approval ratings have fallen amid the crisis.
“Putin is aware that the more the perception takes hold that the government has mismanaged the pandemic, and the more his own approval ratings decline, the more difficult it will be to secure a ‘clean’ victory in the vote without having to resort to outright manipulation,” McDowell added.
S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile launchers are seen during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia on May 09, 2018.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
However, McDowell noted that the biggest factor behind lifting restrictions may simply be lack of capacity to sustain a lockdown, with evident failures around measures designed to limit the spread of the virus.
“The tracing app released by Moscow city authorities (“Social Monitoring”) has had major issues and has issued repeated fines to compliant users. Reliable data on voluntary compliance with other lockdown measures, including social distancing and mask wearing, is patchy but reportedly quite poor,” he said.
“In short, it appears the Kremlin can neither implement an effective lockdown by either persuasion or coercion. Continuing to try enforcing one would undermine not only make the government appear incompetent, it would undermine the Kremlin’s image of unassailable power, which can be fatal for authoritarian states.”
Moscow defends itself
While forthcoming political events are likely to be at the forefront of the Kremlin’s mind as restrictions are lifted, it can be said that Russia, along with its European neighbors, is just eager to return to some kind of economic and social normality.
Andrius Tursa, central and eastern Europe advisor at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC Wednesday that, among other things, the lifting of restrictions reflected “mounting economic pressures,” and was also just a response to an improving epidemiological situation in the city, in line with many other countries.
“Although this raises the risk of renewed disease outbreak in the capital, Russia is no different from many other countries which have started lifting restrictions without seeing a significant drop in new infections,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a Victory Day military parade marking the 74th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told CNBC Tuesday that the coronavirus dynamics in the country were “quite positive” and that the lifting of restrictions was appropriate.
“We stable on the plateau and gradually of infections is decreasing day by day, although quite slowly,” he said, adding that there was no longer the danger that Russia’s healthcare system could be overwhelmed.
“Now we can be sure that we have a significant number of beds, a significant number of ventilators, and all the needed protective materials, so we’re ready for any developments in terms of the pandemic,” Pescov said.
“The only thing we know is that now the situation is better and that gives us an opportunity to reopen Moscow and some other cities in Russia. Every regional government is taking its personal decisions, its their prerogative to take these decisions to reopen or to keep some sectors closed. But the general tendency (trend) is positive.”
Asked about Trump’s proposal, the Canadian prime minister told reporters Monday that Russia should not be welcomed back. The U.K. also said Monday that it would veto any such plan.
“Its continued disrespect and flaunting of international rules and norms is why it remains outside of the G-7 and it will continue to remain out,” said Trudeau, who later added in French: “It will not be acceptable to accept it within the G-7.”
Trudeau has urged Putin, Russia’s president, in the past to play a more positive role in the world.
Trump was set to host the summit of advanced economies later this month in the U.S., but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he’s postponed the meeting until September. His announcement came after German Chancellor Angela Merkel declined his invitation to attend a June G-7 summit in Washington because of the pandemic.
Trudeau also took a question Monday on whether he would attend the G-7 summit if Putin were on the guest list. He didn’t directly answer the query, instead stressing that many discussions were still to be had on the details and timing of the U.S. meeting. The U.K.’s position does not rule out Putin being invited as a guest.
“The G-20 is a forum in which we regularly have exchanges across various countries that we don’t necessarily have great relations with,” Trudeau said.
“But the G-7 has always been a place for frank conversations among allies and friends who share much and that’s certainly what I’m hoping to continue to see.”
Trump made a splash ahead of the 2018 G-7 summit, hosted in Canada by Trudeau, when he called for Russia’s reinstatement into the group.
Decisions on membership must be backed unanimously by the G-7 members.