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Can we expect fair elections in Russia?

While a fourth of Russia’s territory is located in Europe, the country has never shared the same values as the rest of the continent. For years, Russia has been known for internet censorship, surveillance, and human rights violations. What can we expect from the upcoming legislative election?

Can we expect fair elections in Russia?

How is Russia “preparing” for the election?

On September 17—19, Russia will elect 450 members to the State Duma, a central part of the country’s government. They will take seats for a term of five years. This election is highly important to Vladimir Putin. His popularity has declined in recent years, and he needs the State Duma’s support for an upcoming reelection in 2024.

In the beginning of September, several VPN providers were blocked in the country for “violating Russian laws”. The government has been trying to regulate VPNs for a while, but as we’re getting closer to the election day, they took additional measures.

VPNs are often used by Putin’s critics. This crackdown will definitely make communication harder for the anti-Putin movement. You can be imprisoned or even killed for criticizing the long-time leader, so the opposition has to be extremely careful online.

Just weeks before the election, Russian authorities blocked sites associated with the Smart Voting app designed to promote other parties than the ruling United Russia. The government also asked Google and Apple to remove the app from their stores and threatened them with fines. The Russian election has already started, and the authorities are working hard to silence any critical voices.

A history of internet censorship in Russia

  • Following the legislative election in 2011, huge protests broke out in the country and continued into 2012 and 2013. In response, websites encouraging people to stand against the government were blocked and social media platforms were asked to remove content. Since then, the government has been strengthening local laws and introducing new means of censorship.
  • In August 2019, telecom operators were ordered to block mobile data in Moscow during the protests against the government. While it was not the first time internet outages were introduced, this was the first time it happened in the capital.
  • After a couple of months, the government introduced a new “sovereign internet” law, which obliged ISPs to install a special type of equipment, so authorities could block content and reroute traffic themselves.
  • Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other platforms have repeatedly been asked to delete content related to imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The government threatens the tech giants with fines and warns them they will be blocked if failing to comply. While companies try to resist pressure, they have already deleted many “inappropriate” posts.
  • In 2019, Russia passed a bill that requires manufacturers of smartphones, laptops, and smart TVs to pre-install Russian made software on devices. The authorities said that this will help local companies to compete with Western technological rivals. However, it’s likely that these pre-installed apps allow authorities to track citizens and censor the internet.
  • On September 8 2021, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal censor, blocked Google and Cloudflare DNS services, which resulted in the internet going down for about an hour.

How can a VPN help to bypass censorship?

A VPN hides your IP address and encrypts traffic, so nobody can see what websites you visit, what you do online, and or where you’re located. For millions of people living in countries with censorship, a VPN is the only way to securely communicate.

NordVPN even has obfuscated servers designed to bypass heavy restrictions; these servers can hide the fact that you’re using a VPN.

Since Russia started blocking VPN providers, it became harder for regular users to connect to a VPN. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible — you can still manually configure a VPN on your device.

If you’re going to use a VPN in Russia, however, we urge you to act with extreme caution, and to be very wary of banned or censored content. The Russian state has no compunction about cracking down on those who go against its authority.

Supporting social causes

At NordVPN, we believe that the internet should be free and unrestricted, and that no government has the right to censor it. However, millions of Russians can’t express their opinion without facing very real danger, and it’s likely that the upcoming election will not be free or fair.

NordVPN provides Emergency VPN assistance for political activists, journalists, and NGOs. In 2020, NordVPN received 7,100 Emergency VPN requests from countries known for heavy surveillance like Iran and Hong Kong. The number of requests we receive always increases during civil unrest and protests, as people are looking for secure ways to communicate.

As more and more citizens realize how corrupt Russia’s political system is, the government is doing everything it can to silence opposing voices. One thing we know for sure: the Russian people will need all the help they can get to wrestle their freedoms back from an increasingly authoritarian state.

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