The Vote Was Not Free or Transparent

Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Elections Commission, gave a small group of foreign reporters a personal guarantee five days before the State Duma elections took place. "They will be the most free, most transparent and most suitable elections for citizens," Churov said.

Churov was right about one thing: The elections were transparent. Indeed, it was clear long before the results started coming in Sunday night that United Russia would win by a landslide. The preliminary results indicate a big step back from the 2003 elections, when United Russia only secured a two-thirds majority by hastily cobbling together alliances with independent deputies after the vote. Even Kremlin insiders have admitted privately that Sunday's vote was no contest.

By the standards of leading democracies, the elections did not come close to being transparent. In large part this was because the Kremlin did not even bother to conceal its distaste for transparency. Its decision to sharply reduce the number of international election observers, and a subsequent visa imbroglio that caused a key observer mission to pull out, cast a dark cloud over the elections and their credibility.

Even the presence of the observers, however, might not have offered assurances of a more transparent vote. A senior election official told Moscow Times reporter Francesca Mereu in an article published Tuesday that regional election officials manipulated results from polling stations in 2003 as foreign observers watched on unsuspectingly.

Ahead of Sunday's elections, the official said, regional committees were ordered to resort to any means necessary, including fraud, to ensure that United Russia won 70 to 80 percent of the vote -- up to double the amount that the party was getting in opinion polls last week.

The orders to guarantee a big victory are all the more astonishing because United Russia would have won anyway. Over the past month, United Russia has enjoyed a near-monopoly on campaign billboards nationwide. The state-controlled airwaves have been so saturated with United Russia coverage that 8 percent of voters actually believed the party had beat its opponents in televised debates -- even though the party had refused to participate in them.

More disturbing are the statements from numerous people -- including bureaucrats, doctors, teachers and students -- that they planned to vote for United Russia and convince friends to vote as well to avoid being fired, passed up for a promotion or given bad grades. The senior election official -- who was told to vote for United Russia and asked to recruit 10 people to follow suit -- said the pressure was coming from the party.

This kind of badgering is unacceptable. Elections cannot be described as free unless they are insulated from external authority, interference or restrictions, and no talk of the peculiarities of sovereign democracy can explain this away.

Free elections are held to determine the will of the people, and Russian voters have long backed President Vladimir Putin's course. This is what makes the hijinks surrounding Sunday's vote all the more disappointing and seemingly unnecessary.

But does this in any way make the elections the "most suitable for citizens," as Churov put it? The Kremlin obviously thinks that its current course is best for the country -- as well it should. Some Kremlin insiders, however, say the only way to guarantee this course is to block Grigory Yavlinsky, Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov and other opposition figures from the Duma. But this sounds like nonsense even to the most cynical manipulator: A small opposition faction would in fact give the Duma a semblance of credibility while posing no threat to United Russia.

It would be easy to view this mindset as another example of paranoia from a Kremlin intent on controlling every aspect of politics. But in this case, the Kremlin actually might have something to be nervous about. Its bet that Putin's endorsement of United Russia would translate into a bigger victory for the party was looking shaky as recently as last week. United Russia's popularity was somewhere from 45 to 60 percent, depending on the opinion poll, while Putin's rating was above 80 percent. This was disturbing news for a Kremlin that had sold the elections as a referendum on Putin's course. This might be why Putin made an eleventh-hour televised appeal to Russians to vote for United Russia on Thursday.

No Western election observer is needed to determine that this vote did not meet the common standards of being free and transparent. But Churov never promised a fair democratic election. What he offered instead was a fair sovereign democratic election. Sunday's vote serves as another brick in the wall that is isolating Russia from the true values of democracy.