Monitors cry foul over Russian vote

Critics focus on Putin's involvement in campaign

December 04, 2007|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- European officials and vote monitors denounced Russia's parliamentary elections yesterday as an undemocratic exercise engineered by President Vladimir V. Putin and his party.

"Neither a free, fair nor democratic election," said a German government spokesman. "Steered democracy," said the Swedish foreign minister. "Not a level playing field," added the European observer mission.

With Putin's second presidential term drawing to a close and political uncertainty shadowing the country's future, Russians trooped to the polls Sunday to elect a lower house of parliament, balloting widely regarded as a plebiscite on the president's ability to run the country. After an intense and often surreal campaign that featured Putin as its star and almost sole player, voters delivered a landslide victory to his United Russia party.

Putin, a 55-year-old former KGB agent, appeared unruffled by the criticism. During his regular Monday meeting with Cabinet ministers yesterday, he called on parliament to assemble for its first session quickly, rather than wait the usual 30 days after an election.

The victory at the polls was "a sign of trust," Putin said. "Russians will never allow the nation to take a destructive path, as happened in some other ex-Soviet nations."

With 98 percent of the votes tallied, United Russia was poised to capture more than 64 percent of the vote. The results gave Putin's party more than two-thirds of the seats in the lower house, a large enough majority to amend the constitution without the support of other parties.

Much of the criticism from the West focused not on events at the polls but on the carnival-like campaign engineered by the Kremlin. European election monitors pointed out indignantly that Putin had personalized the parliamentary elections by putting his name at the top of the United Russia ticket, involving himself to a degree they considered inappropriate for the sitting president.

State-controlled news media cheered on Putin's party, government resources were abused and opposition parties were harassed, the monitors said.

"If Russia is a managed democracy, these were managed elections," Luc van den Brande, head of the Council of Europe delegation, told reporters in Moscow. "For us, it is an unprecedented situation that a sitting president is running in an election."

Russia fired back against its critics, dismissing the complaints as unfair barbs hurled by Western foes.

"It is a political order," Central Election Commission member Igor Borisov said of the critics, according to Interfax. "A political expediency dictated from overseas prevailed over the principles of objective monitoring which must be carried out by international observers."

Speaking with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov suggested that the foreign observers had been misled by the propaganda of embittered opposition groups.

Analysts shrugged at what they depicted as a typical war of words in the increasingly belligerent relations between Russia and the West.

"The elections have nothing to do with democracy, but this was clear and blunt a year ago," said Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Security Institute in Moscow. "I don't know why the Europeans were so surprised."

In the restive northern Caucasus, voter turnout reached nearly 100 percent, and some 90 percent of the votes went to Putin's party, according to official results. In Chechnya, election officials announced a voter turnout of 99.5 percent and said more than 99 percent of the ballots went to Putin's party.

Asked by a reporter whether he believed the numbers were correct, Peskov groped for an answer. "Well, it's a very interesting result. I don't think I have a right either to believe or not believe," he said. "At least, I don't have a right to speak about that. But I know for sure these are official results, and I don't have a reason to distrust them."

With the vote settled and Putin pushing forward with a new sense of popular mandate, attention turned to the mystery of how the Kremlin will reapportion power when Putin's last term reaches an end next year. Many observers believe that Putin will find a way to hang onto power.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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