Party Led By Putin Steamrolls Opponents

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 30, 2007

MOSCOW, Nov. 29 -- Across Russia, officials loyal to the Kremlin have used unprecedented administrative pressure and harassment to disrupt the electoral campaigns of opposition parties and maximize the vote of United Russia, the party that President Vladimir Putin is leading into Sunday's parliamentary elections, according to opposition party members, independent monitors and political analysts.

Millions of pieces of opposition campaign literature have been seized or destroyed, those observers report. Parties have found themselves unable to secure billboard or other advertising space, so that on the streets of Moscow and other cities it appears that only one party, United Russia, is running.

Campaign workers have been arrested and beaten across Russia. For example, in the Urals city of Perm, workers were detained while attempting to canvass voters. A party organizer was reported beaten up in the Mordovia region. And a candidate for the Yabloko party was shot and killed last week in the southern republic of Dagestan.

Speaking to foreign diplomats in the Kremlin on Wednesday, Putin dismissed the cacophony of complaints from the opposition. "We know the value of real democracy," he said. "And we want to hold honest elections that are as transparent and open as possible, without organizational failures and problems. I am confident that this upcoming election will be of precisely this kind."

But across the country, people tell a different story. Employees and students at state enterprises and institutions, including hospitals and universities, have come under pressure from their bosses and deans to vote for United Russia on Sunday or face retribution, according to activists.

On national and regional television stations, which are controlled by the authorities, opposition parties have received brief, non-prime-time slots for political statements and been neglected or derided in news programming. Putin and other United Russia leaders, in contrast, are the subject of glowing reports.

"There was no political campaign; there was only propaganda for United Russia," said Lilia Shibanova, director of Golos, a Russian private organization that monitors elections. "In all state media, there was huge preference and prevalence in coverage of United Russia. Any coverage of other parties was almost 100 percent entirely negative."

Russian elections have long been marred by dirty tricks and the mobilization of state resources on behalf of particular parties.

"There was unfair competition in 2003," said Vladimir Gelman, a professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg, referring to Russia's last parliamentary elections. "But the dominance of the ruling party was not as overwhelming as it is now. The pressure is very, very hard."

Putin's decision to head the United Russia ticket, the first time a sitting president has led a party in parliamentary elections, has essentially turned the vote into a personal plebiscite. The governors of the country's 85 administrative regions, who depend on the president for their jobs because he abolished direct gubernatorial elections, appear determined to secure the maximum turnout and maximum vote for United Russia.

Sixty-five of the governors are heading local United Russia election lists Sunday, compared with 29 in 2003. That has placed almost the entire regional apparatus -- from police to tax inspectors -- at the party's disposal.

According to opposition parties and analysts, citing contacts in regional administrations, governors have received informal directives that they should at least match Putin's 71 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election .

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