Europeans Call Russia Vote 'Not Fair'

An opposition activist, left, clashes with Kremlin supporters in Moscow the day after state-controlled parties secured 393 of 450 parliamentary seats.
An opposition activist, left, clashes with Kremlin supporters in Moscow the day after state-controlled parties secured 393 of 450 parliamentary seats. (By Ivan Sekretarev -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

MOSCOW, Dec. 3 -- Russia's parliamentary election, which the pro-Kremlin United Russia party won overwhelmingly, was "not fair" and failed to meet international democratic standards, observers from two leading European organizations said Monday. They accused the authorities here of "the merging of the state and a political party."

The election campaign "took place in an atmosphere which seriously limited political competition and with . . . media coverage strongly in favor of the ruling party and an election code whose cumulative effect hindered political pluralism," the parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in a joint statement.

"The merging of the state and a political party is an abuse of power," the statement said.

With near-final figures in Sunday's vote giving United Russia and two Kremlin-controlled parties all but 57 of the 450 seats in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, condemnation flooded in from Western governments as well.

Officials here brushed aside the statements, which are likely to widen the growing rift between Russia and foreign governments on a host of issues.

Igor Borisov, a member of Russia's Central Election Commission, said the statement by the Council of Europe and the OSCE resulted from "a political order," according to the Interfax news agency. "A political expediency dictated from overseas prevailed over the principles of objective monitoring which must be carried out by international observers."

During the campaign, President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian government figures accused Western governments of plotting to undermine the legitimacy of the vote, using local puppets, in an effort to destabilize Russia.

Attention was focused again Monday on Putin, who has signaled his intent to remain in charge after his second presidential term ends next year but has not said clearly how he might accomplish that. Under the Russian constitution, he is forbidden to run for a third consecutive term in a presidential election scheduled for March 2.

Speaking at a factory in suburban Moscow on Monday, Putin continued to keep his plans under wraps but said he was pleased with Sunday's election results. "This is an obvious success and a good victory," he said. "It's now clear to me that Russians will never allow their country to develop along the destructive path seen in some other countries of the former Soviet Union. It's a good example and a good indication of Russia's internal political stability."

The United Russia party, whose ticket Putin headed, won more than 64 percent of the vote, according to nearly complete tallies by the Central Election Commission, to collect 315 seats in the Duma. Two Kremlin-controlled parties, the Liberal Democrats and Fair Russia, won 40 seats and 38 respectively. The Communist Party will be the only opposition party represented in the new parliament, with 57 seats.

With its majority, United Russia will have the power to make changes to the constitution, including amendments to allow Putin to remain in power beyond the current limit of two consecutive terms.

In blunt assessments Monday, Western governments and international agencies said stability had been achieved at the cost of political pluralism and competition. "Measured by our standards, this wasn't a free, fair and democratic election," Thomas Steg, a spokesman for the German government, told reporters in Berlin.

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "There were allegations of election day violations, and we have urged the Russians to look into those," adding that President Bush had expressed "concern" about possible fraud before the vote.

Opposition parties, including the Communists and smaller groups that were shut out of the next parliament, complained throughout the campaign that the authorities were using state agencies, including the police, to sideline United Russia's rivals and maximize that party's vote. They said Putin's presence at the head of the United Russia ticket was a major factor in distorting the campaign because it prompted his underlings to seek victory at any cost.

Opposition leaders welcomed Monday's assessment by the European observers, which carries no penalty, though Russia is a member of both the Council of Europe and the OSCE.

"Their evaluation was totally precise," said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and the leader of the Union of Right Forces, a party that failed to get into parliament. "It means that, according to democratic standards, Russia does not differ from Belarus."

Belarus, a former Soviet republic that borders Russia, has been ruled by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994. Now in his third term, Lukashenko has systematically centralized power in his office and has paid little attention to international findings that the country's electoral system is unfair.

Some of the results from particular regions in Russia were not credible, opposition figures said. In Chechnya, for example, United Russia was reported getting 99.36 percent of the vote with turnout of 99.5 percent.

"It's a normal result. I'm pleased," said Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman president of Chechnya and a Kremlin loyalist who has pacified large parts of the war-torn republic in southern Russia. "The most important thing to me is that people were voting with pleasure. Almost all people came to the elections. It shows the level of trust in the power."

No observers from either the Council of Europe or the OSCE were present in Chechnya for the election.

Observers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional group that includes China, Russia and Central Asian nations, said the election was "open, fair and free."

"There is not just one category of democracy in the world. You cannot import, copy or buy democracy," said Gao Yusheng, a Chinese citizen who headed the organization's observer mission in Moscow. Observer groups from other republics of the former Soviet Union reached similar conclusions.

Europe's largest election monitoring group, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, an arm of the OSCE, declined to send observers, citing restrictions that Russia imposed on a planned mission.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company