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Russia targets U.S.-linked election monitor

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MOSCOW — Just days before parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday, Russia’s only independent election monitor has been coming under ever more forceful attack.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin set the tone in a televised speech this past Sunday to delegates of the ruling United Russia party before they nominated him for the presidency. He made a lacerating, if veiled, allusion to the monitor, Golos, which operates on grants from the United States and Europe.

“Representatives of some states are organizing meetings with those who receive money from them, the so-called grant recipients, briefing them on how to ‘work’ in order to influence the course of the election campaign in our country,” Putin said.

“As the saying goes, it’s money down the drain,” he added. “First, because Judas is not the most respected of biblical characters among our people. And, second, they would do better to use that money to redeem their national debt and stop pursuing their costly and ineffective foreign policy.”

Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos, said Putin’s speech reaffirmed, for anyone who doubted it, the official position on election monitoring. Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is sending 200 monitors, the most Russia would permit, for the upcoming elections, the country has 95,000 polling stations. Golos operates year-round, is local and has produced an award-winning online map on which campaign and voting violations are reported.

“This has been piling up since last week,” Melkonyants said. “We’ve been attacked every day. It’s a well-thought-out national campaign aimed at closing down Golos.”

The official rhetoric has an anti-American, anti-Western tinge, reflecting the fact that the U.S. Agency for International Development covers the costs of operating the headquarters; the National Endowment for Democracy provides grants for long-term monitoring, as does Europe; and the National Democratic Institute offers training for monitors. Sweden, Norway and Britain also give grants.

“They have not been able to discredit us, so they tried other tricks,” Melkonyants said. “Using people’s attitudes toward the U.S. is one of their old tricks, but it doesn’t work anymore. Our society has changed. The rhetoric that the West or U.S. is to blame for all of our problems — people think it’s stupid.”

When President Dmitry Medvedev stirred memories of the Cold War last week, saying Russia would aim missiles at Europe if the United States and NATO pressed ahead with a new missile defense system in Europe without Moscow’s agreement, his words were widely written off as electioneering.

“The West knows that Moscow’s rulers are demagogues and corrupt but not suicidal,” longtime military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in Novaya Gazeta.

Oleg Kashin, an outspoken journalist who was badly beaten a year ago for unexplained reasons, said the attack on Golos bore the signs of official sanction.

“When they are pressing observers,” he wrote in the Kommersant newspaper, “it means that the violations have been already planned.”

Golos, founded by an association of human rights groups in 2000, says the grants make it independent of Russian authorities.

“Of course they don’t want any monitoring,” Melkonyants said, “because, of course, there will be falsifications and Golos will report on it.”

On Saturday, he said, a television crew from the pro-government NTV network barged into training sessions for observers. They shouted at him, he said, demanding to know whether he worked for the CIA. Lilia Shibanova, Golos’s executive director, agreed to give an interview. Later, they realized that a couple of trainees had left with the crew, raising the suspicion that they were plants.

On Tuesday, three Duma deputies asked the general prosecutor to shut down Golos for interfering in the elections. On Friday, the government-owned Rossiiskaya Gazeta described privileged Golos employees getting cellphones and other perks under the headline “Voice of Money.” On Wednesday, Gazeta.ru, a partner on the election-violation map, removed a bannered link to the map from its Web site. Its deputy editor resigned in protest.

The attention has had an unintended effect, Melkonyants said. On Wednesday, a usually sparsely attended Golos news conference was packed. The phones ring constantly.

“We have never been so much in the news,” he said.

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