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Russia: Central Electoral Commission Pleads Good Intentions

Russia's Central Electoral Commission (CEC) is due to announce later today how many parties will be allowed to compete for seats in December elections for the State Duma. The announcement follows lengthy discussions in the CEC over long lists of alleged violations. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini takes a look at the CEC's role and at its efforts to convince the Russian public that it is a serious election monitoring group.

Moscow, 3 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's Central Electoral Commission has been trying to convince the public through meticulous inspection of candidate property and revenue declarations that this time the law will be strictly applied. However politicians and observers have often been critical of the commission's work.

Principally, CEC President Aleksandr Vesnhyakov is being criticized for being a strict legalist while missing the larger mission of ensuring a fair elections process. Politicians say that they are being harassed while potential criminals can easily slip through the pre-electoral check. Other observers note that because his income declaration was in order, nothing could keep the CEC from registering Aleksandr Barkashov, a self-proclaimed fascist and racist, from being registered yesterday.

Veshnyakov has also been accused of limiting freedom of the press by saying that any news report that portrays a candidate in a positive or negative light can be labeled as illegal "agitation".

To all these criticisms, Veshnyakov has just one answer -- he is applying the electoral law. He has said, quoting, "It may be far from perfect, but it is still the law."

Carnegie Foundation expert Sergey Ryabov tells RFE/RL that "Veshnyakov's tactic is to stick to the letter of the law." He says that this gives "imperfect results, because the law is imperfect." Ryabov notes that the election law says something vague about the need for the media to be objective in its coverage of candidates. He says the CEC was wrong to interpret this language as barring positive and negative candidate portrayals. But Ryabov says the strict interpretation was meant to put some order into the media war that is raging between television channels controlled by competing political groups.

Many recent sessions of the CEC took on the tone of a court of law. The fifteen commission members held sessions almost every day in a room next to the presidential administration, right off Red Square. Their main focus has been on whether or not to allow various parties to run in the Duma elections. Discussion includes the number and accuracy of signatures collected and the information given by the candidates about their earnings in 1998 and the property they possess. The idea is to bar dishonest people from running.

Across from the commission sit electoral bloc leaders who remain sometimes for hours. One top candidate has to be present to answer any questions and defend his party's case.

At the same table sit representatives from the tax police and the Interior Ministry whose role it is to confirm or deny the information stated by the party representative.

The whole process is open to the press and the room is filled with journalists. It is a rare sight for the Russian press to observe close up political stars like Yevgeny Primakov or Grigorii Yavlinsky answering embarrassing questions about their wealth.

Yesterday, Russia's popular television anchor Arina Sharapova declared roughly the equivalent of what a pensioner receives and was barred from running for hiding part of her income.

But most of the time, the inquiry involves long discussions about car ownership. It is a usual practice in Russia to sell a car by giving a general power of attorney to the buyer in order to avoid the bureaucratic hassle of re-registration.

That is why Primakov received a warning for omitting the ownership of a ten-year-old Zhiguli. Since for years cars were considered a profitable investment and even-small scale business, this kind of selling and buying is very common. The result -- cars appear in the Interior Ministry's computer even if hidden financial incomes do not.

The issue of car ownership foiled registration of the Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Zhirinovsky tried again after cleansing his list of dozens of candidates and won approval for his new list under another name.

The CEC's Veshnyakov was obviously happy that Zhirinovsky had learned his lesson. He praised him, stating that Zhirinovsky had "become disciplined."

The Carnegie Foundation's Ryabov says that although these kinds of scenes may seem like a farce, the general effect of the CEC's work is, nevertheless, positive. He says that "at least the candidates learned that they are indeed responsible before the law."

Ryabov says that this does not mean that the CEC can keep all candidates from cheating, but he says it does act as a restraint. Ryabov says that there are many problems with the Russian election process, but he says that "at least, some first steps have been taken."