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Poll Observers In Russia Find Voting Valid But Flawed

Moscow, June 20 (RFE/RL) -- Fears of widespread voter fraud proved unfounded, but minor violations during last Sunday's presidential elections in Russia indicate the country still has a way to go to before becoming a full-fledged democratic state.

Not since presidential elections in South Africa following the collapse of the apartheid regime, have so many election observers descended upon a country. By most counts, some 800 election monitors representing organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, and countries from the United States to Japan observed Russia's presidential poll.

Moreover, campaign officials of the rival candidates were also out in force at polling stations across the country. Before the elections, Communist party candidate Gennady Zyuganov said he feared the results would be falsified, by supporters of President Boris Yeltsin. He promised to dispatch more than 200,000 Communist Party faithful to polling spots to ensure fair polling.

The OSCE reports that, indeed, the Communists were,far and away the most vigilant. The OSCE says monitors from the Communist Party were at more than 70 percent of the country's balloting stations. Supporters of reform economist Grigory Yavlinsky were next, observing at about 65 percent of polling places.

Most observers came away convinced the polling was conducted in a free and fair atmosphere with the vote tally reflecting the will of the Russian electorate. Even an orginally sceptical Zyuganov said afterwards he believed no widespread fraud had taken place.

The vote was, as one official from the OSCE said, another step on the road to democracy in Russia. The country has come a long way from the days when people put an x on the ballot next to the one candidate from the only party in the country, the communist party.

But even with the armada of monitors, there were reports of electoral violations.

Earlier this week in Moscow, the OSCE gave an account of some of the most noteworthy. Michael Meadowcroft said the most serious cause of concern was in Tatarstan where, in a number of polling stations visited, supporters of President Yeltsin openly operated inside the polling stations, appealing for voters to support Mr. Yeltsin. Moreover, in some cases these Yeltsin faithful actually entered the booths themselves.

OSCE observers in Tatarstan were concerned at the role played by local observers for President Yeltsin. They held influential positions in the local administration and appeared to control the activities of the polling station commission chairmen. Observers criticized also the counting methods in Tatarstan, describing it as chaotic.

Meadowcroft said observers mentiioned most a lack of secrecy when voters cast ballots. He said that more booths were needed throughout the St. Petersburg Region and that in some cases there were no polling booths at all.

Meadowcroft also said there were cases in which workers at the polls lacked impartiality. He said that in a polling station in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, three ballot boxes bore Communist Party symbols. At another, at Arsk in Tatarstan, the Communist Party symbol was displayed on the wall behind the electoral commission's seats.

Meadowcroft said concern was widespread over the media coverage of the candidates during the runup to the vote. He said that free air time on television and radio wasdoled out fairly, but that news and comment program coverage of the different candidates' campaigns was not. He said that not only was more coverage devoted to Yeltsin's, but that Yeltsin's campaign also tended to be depicted positively. He said Gennady Zyuganov was generally depicted negatively.

The OSCE criticism of the Russian media was echoed by an American delegation led by U.S. Senator John McCane (Republic, Arizona) and former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.

In addition, the 35-member American delegation criticized Russian campaign financing. Thornburgh told a press conference in Moscow earlier this week that "changes need to be made to better track where the money is going and who it came from."

Despite the number of international observers, some doubts linger as to how effective they were able in gauging how fair the elections actually were. Meadowcroft said that most of the OSCE monitors were concentrated in the capital Moscow and in St. Petersburg. The Russian hinterlands, in many cases, were thinly monitored. Moreover, no OSCE observers were present in Chechnya where there were reports of egregious voting violations.

The American delegation, sponsored by the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute, deployed teams to Arkhangelsk, Kemerovo, Novosibirsk, Perm, Rostov-nad-Don, St. Petersburg, Volgograd and Voronezh.

But some correspondents say that some monitors were merely on a junket to Russia and gave a superficial accounting of how the voting was carried out.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.