Leaders relish chance to lecture America

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The Independent US

With a sneer trembling on his pale lips, President Vladi-mir Putin noted that the head of the Russian electoral commission was in the US, and could, if necessary, offer advice about how to conduct elections.

With a sneer trembling on his pale lips, President Vladi-mir Putin noted that the head of the Russian electoral commission was in the US, and could, if necessary, offer advice about how to conduct elections.

"Sure, democracy works better in Russia than in America," said a security guard watching Mr Putin. "Over here we can tell you who will win the presidency long before the election and over there they can't even tell you afterwards." This is not a joke on which Mr Putin is likely to elaborate; he almost certainly owes his own election on the first ballot in March to electoral fraud in outlying Russian provinces.

One consequence of the disputed vote in Palm Beach is that it will be used to explain, or at least play down, more serious ballot-rigging in the former Soviet Union. Yesterday, the daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote that the loss to Vice-President Al Gore of a few thousand votes due to a poorly constructed ballot paper would be used to justify "the appearance of a million votes in favour of President Putin".

The disputed ballot in Florida underlines the varied western reaction to electoral malpractice in former Communist countries, depending on whether the beneficiary is considered a friend or a foe.

A diplomat in Moscow said: "Can you imagine how Madeleine Albright and Robin Cook would have reacted if Slobodan Milosevic had announced after the Yugoslav election that Kostunica had won a majority of the vote, but had then gone on to announce that because of a quirk in the Yugoslav constitution ... Milosevic had won the election to be the president?"

In private, the tone of western Europe's politicians has been acerbic. When the European Commission met on Wednesday one commissioner quipped that there are two important countries suffering from chronic political instability: Romania and the United States. Across the Continent, the media has voiced its criticism of an election that has moved between drama and farce. In Turkey the issue has been seized upon in the press: "An American legend collapses", said Hurriyet.

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