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Russia: Observers Say Election Falls Short Of Democratic Standards

Moscow, 8 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- International observers today said yesterday's parliamentary election in Russia failed to meet international standards for a democratic vote.

Bruce George, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said the election represented a reversal of Russia's democratization progress. George said the election results were "overwhelmingly distorted" because of the ruling party's access to state media and resources.

"Just because procedures on election day were conducted in a technically correct way, it is even more regrettable that the main impression of the overall electoral process is that it was one of regression in the democratization process of this country," George said.

The OSCE monitoring mission denounced extensive use of government resources and media favoritism to benefit the largest pro-presidential party, Unified Russia.

George stressed that he was not saying that the results would have been "enormously different" had the campaign been conducted in a more equitable manner.

But he did say that, to his mind, the "saddest thing" was the fact that Russia's "genuinely democratic parties" would not be represented -- a reference to the liberal Yabloko and Union of Rightist Forces parties, neither of which managed to pass the 5 percent minimum needed to gain any of the Duma's 225 party-list seats.

The head of the observer mission from the Council of Europe, David Atkinson, also criticized politicians' use of state media and taxpayer money to promote their parties. He said the election can be regarded as free, but not fair.

Atkinson also had some more harsh words for Unified Russia's practice of putting 29 governors and cabinet members on its party list. "The inclusion of many holders of high office on party lists who have no intention of taking up their seats as parliamentary deputies is misleading and deceitful," he said.

The two bodies organized monitoring of 19 Russian regions as well as coverage by state television and Central Election Commission procedures. Today's speakers criticized the practice of media bias in favor of Unified Russia, so-called "black PR" against adversaries, and outright intimidation. In Bashkortostan, for instance, the antenna of Radio Bulgar, a privately owned station, was sawed off by "unidentified individuals."

Rita Suessmuth, who lead a long-term observation mission for the OSCE, said that the overall lack of balanced coverage "restricted information available to voters to make an informed choice." She then concluded that media freedom has become an issue of general concern in Russia. "The concerns we have here inevitably reflect the more widespread concerns about media independence in this country," she said.

The mission noted "blatant" fraud in Bashkortostan where workers had been shipped "en masse" to vote under threat of dismissal by their bosses. Irregularities also took place in other national republics, as well as in the Far East and Siberia. Observers witnessed intimidation of voters in 3 percent of polling stations.

Beyond the issue of equal competition, the mission also noted xenophobic statements by some political parties, and a decrease in the number of female candidates.

For more on this story and other information on the parties and key individuals running in the Russian elections, see The Russian Federation Votes 2003-04