Russia elections a step backward, observers say

Putin calls Duma vote `free, honest, democratic'


MOSCOW - International observers criticized Russia's parliamentary elections as a step backward in the country's democratic transition, only moments after President Vladimir V. Putin described them yesterday as "free, honest, open and democratic."

United Russia, the party defined by its fealty to Putin, swept to overwhelming victory Sunday after benefiting, observers said, from fawning coverage on state television and official support at all levels of government. Putin's party crushed the Communists and ousted all but a handful of Liberal Democrats from parliament, capturing the most votes of any party in any election since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Turnout was a low 56 percent.

Two groups that sent election observers, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a report that the results also reflected "the extensive use of the state apparatus and media favoritism to benefit the largest pro-presidential party."

The report offered some of the harshest criticism yet of Russian elections, saying the vote called "into question Russia's willingness to move toward European standards for democratic elections."

The president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Bruce George, said the vote represented a "regression in the democratization process." He also reported "blatant fraud" in Bashkortostan Republic, in the southern Urals, and "irregularities" in Siberia and the Far East.

The criticism is not likely to dent the exercise of Putin's power. Russia, which is a member of the OSCE, has ignored the group's protests over its conduct in Chechnya.

Putin interpreted the results as a validation of the course he has set in the four years since he became president, despite steps viewed here and abroad as autocratic, including the war in Chechnya, the stifling of dissent and a prosecutorial assault on the country's richest man and a potential political rival, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

"It is clear that these results reflect the real sympathies of the population," Putin said. "They reflect what the people of Russia think. They reflect the realities of our political life."

With 98 percent of the vote counted, United Russia won 37 percent. While the final composition of parliament will not be settled until next week, the party was projected to control around half the seats outright.

The Communist Party, led by Gennady Zhuganov, received only 12.7 percent of the vote, half its showing in 1999, when it won the largest bloc of seats. The Liberal Democratic Party, led by ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, got 11.6 percent.

It was the first time since the first parliamentary elections in 1993 that a democratic party failed to win a bloc. And with the support of two nationalist parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and Motherland, deputies loyal to the Kremlin are projected to hold nearly two-thirds of parliament's 450 seats, cementing Putin's political dominance as he approaches his campaign for a second term in elections next March.

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