Putin Calls Voting Fair; Observers Disagree

Steven Lee Myers
MOSCOW: International observers on Monday criticized parliamentary elections here as a step backward in Russia's democratic transition, but President Vladimir Putin described the voting as "free, honest, open and democratic."
United Russia, the party defined almost entirely by its fealty to Putin, swept to overwhelming victory on Sunday after benefiting, the observers said, from fawning coverage on state television and official support at all levels of government.
Riding Putin's popularity, United Russia crushed the Communist Party and ousted all but a handful of liberal democrats from the Parliament, capturing the most votes of any party in any election since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
As the last votes were being counted Monday, the extent of Putin's electoral victory became clear. With the support of two nationalist parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and Motherland, deputies loyal to the Kremlin are projected to hold nearly two-thirds of the 450 seats in the Parliament, cementing Putin's political dominance as he begins his campaign for a second term next March.
"It is absolutely clear that these results reflect the real sympathies of the population," Putin said in his first public remarks since the results became clear late Sunday night. "They reflect what the people of Russia think. They reflect the realities of our political life." Two groups that sent election observers, the Council of Europe and the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a report that the results also reflected "the extensive use of the state apparatus and media favoritism to benefit the largest pro-presidential party."
The report, based on the findings of 500 observers, offered some of the harshest European criticism yet of Russian elections, saying the vote called into question "Russia's willingness to move towards European Standards for democratic elections." The president of the organization's parliamentary assembly, Bruce George, said at a news conference that the vote Sunday represented a "regression in the democratization process" in Russia. He also cited "blatant fraud" in the vote in the republic of Bashkortostan and "irregularities" in Siberia and the Far East. In Washington, the White House voiced concerns, though mildly.
There was universal agreement across the political spectrum that Sunday's election heralded a new era, but there was profound disagreement over what kind of era it would be. The country's two main liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, fell short of the 5 percent threshold of votes required to secure a bloc of seats. It was the first time since the first parliamentary elections in 1993 that a democratic party failed to win a bloc.
Half of the Parliament's 450 seats are apportioned based on overall party votes, while the rest are chosen in individual districts. The final results of all the district races are not yet complete. So far Yabloko has won three of those races and the Union of Right Forces one.
The two parties, which represented a small but vocal coalition of reformist, pro-Western deputies, have now been marginalized to the point of extinction. It is not clear they will survive as political parties, as Yabloko's leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, acknowledged in an interview in a hotel cafй across the Moscow River from the Kremlin. "We now have, again, a one-party Parliament," said Yavlinsky, who has been the public face of Russia's democrats for the last decade.
"Russia has had no such Parliament since Brezhnev." Vladislav Surkov, an influential adviser to Putin who orchestrated the Kremlin's political strategy, said in a rare interview on Monday that the results signaled the demise of "the old political system, which is based on Marxist dogmas of the right and left flanks." "A new political era is coming," he told the Interfax news agency, "and the parties that have not gotten into the Duma should be calm about it and realize that their historical mission has been completed."
With 98 percent of the vote counted, United Russia won 37 percent. While the final composition of the Parliament will not be settled until next week, United Russia was projected to control about half the seats outright. The Communist Party, led by Gennady Zhuganov, received only 12.7 percent of the vote, nearly half its showing in 1999, when it won the largest bloc of seats.
The Communist Party still managed to eke out a victory over the Liberal Democratic Party, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which received 11.6 percent of the vote. Motherland, a new party created only months before the election, received 9 percent. One of the party's leaders, Dmitri Rogozin, who campaigned on a nationalistic message, dismissed the criticism of the election, saying the observers were "directly interfering in Russia's internal affairs."
Putin seemed to anticipate criticism of the elections. He said Russia would work to overcome "all shortcomings" in the voting, but called the election "one more step for the strengthening of democracy" in Russia.
He noted that the low turnout - while a disappointing 56 percent of eligible voters - was close to the turnouts in Britain and Canada.09.12.2003 / Source:The New York Times/