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Russia: Electoral Commission Turns Blind Eye To Irregularities

Russia's Central Electoral Commission had hoped to be seen as the objective guarantor of honest and fair elections by rigorously applying a new, stricter electoral law. But the Commission's impartiality has now been called into question. Last week, it barred ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party from running because of incomplete property and income declarations. But a few days later, reports RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini from Moscow, the commission closed its eyes to similar irregularities in a more respectable party.

Moscow, 19 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Recent decisions by Russia's Central Electoral Commission (CEC) -- the institution that is supposed to guarantee fair parliamentary elections in December's parliamentary vote -- have spurred doubts about its impartiality. Deciding on different parties' rights to participate in the vote during the past few weeks, the commission seemed motivated more by the parties' political stances than by the letter of the law.

It was the ultranationalist and outspoken Vladimir Zhirinovsky --and his allies with alleged criminal ties -- who were the victims of the CEC's apparent discrimination. Yesterday, Zhirinovsky was forced to re-register his party under the name "Zhirinovsky's bloc." That's because his Liberal Democratic Party was barred last week from participating in elections when two of its leaders failed to reveal ownership of a house and three Mercedes cars. The CEC said that if one of the first three candidates on an electoral list is barred, the whole list is banned.

Today, after getting rid of about 140 dubious candidates, "Zhirinovsky's bloc" is still awaiting CEC approval.

A week earlier, the CEC had ruled that 10 candidates of the Fatherland-Russia party could not run because traffic police said the candidates had not provided a complete list of cars they owned. Fatherland-Russia is the party of former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. The CEC also criticized Primakov himself for not declaring a 10-year-old Russian Zhiguli car he had sold but kept under his name. After several days of deliberation, however, the CEC decided not to bar the party's top candidates.

At the time, the commission's fussiness won it general approval. The apparent nit-picking about finances was seen as necessary to limit widespread suspicions of corruption among candidates. Many voters believe that financial criminals seek office in order to take advantage of the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of parliament. The CEC has been portraying itself as the main defender of civic honor in the campaign by implementing a new, stricter electoral law.

But when it appeared that the leader of the reformist Yabloko party, Grigorii Yavlinskii, had failed to declare a high speaking fee he had received, the CEC visibly softened. Exerting its right to evaluate the seriousness of any omission, the CEC said the violation did not seem essential and registered Yabloko immediately.

Zhirinovsky this week has repeatedly denounced what he called the CEC's partiality. But he clearly was not unhappy about the publicity the affair brought him. He said: "At least now no one can accuse me of being a tool of the Kremlin" -- a reference to rumors that his party was set up by the Kremlin to steal protest votes from the communists.

According to Yavlinsky, too, hidden property was not the real reason for banning Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats. In an interview with Russia's independent NTV, the Yabloko leader implied that the CEC banned the party largely because Zhirinovsky's list of candidates contained several alleged criminals.

Indeed, businessman Anatoly Bykov -- the second name on the Liberal Democratic list -- is in hiding outside of Russia, seeking to dodge an arrest warrant for money laundering and contract killings. Until the CEC barred him from running, Bykov's best hope was winning a seat --and immunity from prosecution -- in the next State Duma.

Two other former Liberal Democrat candidates also had made underworld news. Number 16 on the list -- businessman Sergei Mikhailov -- was acquitted last year by a Swiss court of organized criminal activity. Media reports quoting Russian and international police sources says Mikhailov heads the Solntsevo mafia. Another alleged Solntsevo gang member was also on the party list.

Yet on several occasions in the past, CEC President Alexandr Veshnyakov had publicly denied that he would bar such candidates. Veshnyakov said: "Unfortunately, even people wanted by the police or under criminal investigation are allowed to run."

Observers are now questioning the commission's motives. Nikolai Petrov is an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. He told RFE/RL: "The new electoral law is actually not that rigorous, and leaves a lot of leeway for the CEC to turn into a sort of government ministry for elections. As this [Zhirinovsky] incident shows, one of the problems is that the CEC has no other way of barring candidates of disputable reputation and motivations but to grab at some small offense."

According to Petrov, the commission's power is especially worrisome because it has the right to check campaign financing during the entire electoral process -- and bar parties that exceed their legal budget. Petrov says: "Since all the major parties are bound to exceed the unrealistically low maximum [allowed by the law], they could all be singled out, even barred. If this is done on a discriminatory basis, it gives the commission a lot of power."

Law professor Valentina Lapaeva is more worried about voters' apparent lack of concern for their own rights. She wrote in a newspaper today: "Although the Liberal Democrats are not my friends, the truth is still more important. Judging by the CEC's assertiveness and society's indifference toward legal issues, such incidents could be repeated."

Political commentator Sergei Dorenko was even blunter. On his television program this week, he said: "Basically, this affair means that either you don't own anything, like the communists, or you have to manage to transfer your property to another name." He added that the parliamentary elections could very well become a contest to see who has the cleverest legal adviser with the best ways of hiding property.