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Russian election criticized by monitors

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

MOSCOW -- Allies of President Vladimir Putin won a sweeping victory in parliamentary balloting, but the White House expressed concern Monday over the election's fairness and human rights officials condemned the vote as a retreat from Russia's democratic reforms.

With more than 98 percent of the vote counted, United Russia -- a pro-Putin party led by Cabinet ministers -- won 37.1 percent, leaving its rivals far behind, Central Election Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov said at a news conference.

The Communists were next, with 12.7 percent, followed by the party of flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia -- at 11.6 percent. Homeland, a new, apparently Kremlin-approved patriotic grouping formed to syphon votes from the Communists, had 9.1 percent, preliminary results show-ed. Smaller parties ac-counted for the remaining percentages.

Putin, speaking on television, called the elections "another step in strengthening Russia's democracy."

International observers delivered a blistering assessment of the vote, calling it free but not fair. Taxpayer money and state television was used to benefit a few parties, monitors said in their criticism.

The head of the parliamentary assembly for the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, Bruce George, told reporters at a news conference that the ballot "failed to meet ... international standards."

"Our main impression of the overall electoral process was ... one of regression in the democratization of this country," he said.

He expressed concern that, because of the use of administrative resources and the biased media, legitimate democratic opposition parties would not get the 5 percent of the vote they need to enter parliament.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan noted the OSCE's "concerns about the fairness of the election campaign. We share those concerns."

He said he hoped Russian lawmakers would "press ahead on a reform agenda and support the United States-Russia partnership."

"We support Russia's continued efforts to press ahead with both political and economic reform, building those institutions of democracy that are important to free and democratic states," said McClellan.

Russia's two main liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, known by its Russian acronym SPS, were below the 5 percent minimum.

Voter turnout appeared lower than past elections, with many Russians disillusioned and uninspired by the generally lackluster campaign. Veshnyakov told reporters that turnout was at 56 percent as compared to 62 percent recorded during the previous Duma vote, in 1999.

Nearly 5 percent of the electorate -- or about 2.8 million people -- voted to reject all candidates. The protest votes mean that in four constituencies, run-off elections must be held, election officials said.

United Russia's winning more of the 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower parliament house, should make it easier for Putin to push through market-oriented economic reforms he has promised and to cut the bureaucracy that stifles Russian growth.

It would also give Putin a stronger hand as he heads into what seems sure to be a second term after the presidential ballot next March.

"The United Russia party has won, the president has won. That means that democratic reforms in Russia will continue. This is a serious victory we can rightly be proud of," said Lyubov Sliska, a top figure in United Russia.

Kremlin critics, however, fear too much power for Putin could prompt a drift closer to authoritarianism.

Nikolai, a 54-year-old entrepreneur in Moscow who gave only his first name, said he did not vote for United Russia "because the state is in danger: the danger of single-party rule."

Analysts said United Russia and its allies were angling for a two-thirds majority required to make constitutional changes -- a lever they could use to extend Putin's term or let him run for a third term, provided the pliant upper parliament house, Russia's regional legislatures and the president himself approve.

The surprisingly strong showing by the ultranationalist Zhirinovsky's LDPR might also help the Kremlin. In the outgoing Duma, the LDPR almost always voted the Kremlin line despite Zhirinovsky's fiery statements and populist politicking.

The chief of the liberal SPS, Boris Nemtsov, expressed alarm at the strong showings by United Russia and the nationalist parties, suggesting they will act together to tighten government control over the economy and society.

"The majority will belong to those who stand for a police state, for curtailing civic freedoms, for shutting down independent judicial authority" and for antagonistic relations with Russia's neighbors and the West, Nemtsov said on television.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov dismissed the elections as a "disgusting show ... that has nothing to do with democracy." The head of the Communists' Moscow branch, Alexander Kuvayev, claimed widespread violations in the capital, including ballot-box stuffing and votes cast for dead people.

He vowed the party would protest what he said were falsified results, the Interfax news agency reported.

Half the Duma seats will be distributed proportionately among the parties winning more than 5 percent of the nationwide vote, while the other 225 seats will be filled by the winners of individual district races, who may or may not be affiliated with a party.

The full extent of the Kremlin's power over the Duma will not be clear until after results from the district races -- and the allegiance of independent deputies -- is known.

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On the Net: Results can be followed on the Web at www.cikrf.ru


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