Putin accused of using state power to distort poll

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin hailed the convincing victory of his United Russia party in Sunday's parliamentary election, describing it yesterday as "another step towards strengthening democracy in Russia".

But international observers of the election said that, although it had been free, it had been far from fair and - in some respects - called into question Moscow's commitment to Western standards of democracy.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe had sent more than 400 observers all over Russia to observe the conduct of the poll and the preparations that preceded it. Generally, they were complimentary about the organisation of voting: the accuracy of the electoral registers, the management of the polling stations and the integrity of the count.

However, Bruce George MP, president of the parliamentary assembly of the OSCE, was damning in his assessment of how the Kremlin had manipulated the media - and how some sections of the media had allowed themselves to be manipulated - in the run-up to the election. "Our main impression of the overall electoral process was ... one of regression in the democratisation of this country," he said.

Detailing some of the shortcomings, he went on: "In this election, the enormous advantage of incumbency and access to state equipment, resources and buildings led to the election result being overwhelmingly distorted."

He said that it was the "shared and unanimous view" of the observers that those deficiencies "called into question Russia's willingness to move towards European and international standards for democratic elections".

Mr Putin, addressing a meeting in the Kremlin, implicitly rejected the OSCE criticism, stating: "The elections reflected the real sentiments of the population ... and what Russians really think of the realities of our political life."

The provisional results, released by Russia's Central Electoral Commission yesterday morning, gave United Russia, the pro-Putin party, 36.8 per cent, making it the biggest single party in the Russian parliament since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Communists just beat Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Liberal Democrat party into second place, with 12.7 per cent and 11.6 per cent respectively. The new left-patriotic party, Rodina (Homeland), took 9.1 per cent, with the moderate reformist party, Yabloko, taking only 4.3 per cent, and the free-market Union of Right Forces (SPS) only 3.7 per cent.

The failure of both parties on the reformist wing of the previous parliament to pass the 5 per cent bar for representation as parliamentary parties was widely interpreted as a setback for economic reform in Russia - though how big a setback will depend on the direction in which Mr Putin takes United Russia.

Mr Putin appeared to offer reassurance to fearful reformists when he said in a meeting at the Kremlin that they would continue to have a voice at the centre of power, despite their poor electoral showing. He said their ideas and their people would still have a positive role to play.

The Communist leader, Gennadi Zyuganov, denounced the elections as a "shameful farce" and said he would not accept the results until his party's own monitors had reported from the constituencies and given him some feedback.

The Communist vote was almost halved, largely reflecting the rise, from nowhere, of Rodina, which had successfully exploited the issue of the "oligarchs" in calling for Russia's natural resources to be returned to state ownership. Otherwise, the Yukos oil company scandal appeared to have little impact on the election.