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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

OSCE: Vote Fundamentally Distorted

APOSCE chief Bruce George discussing Duma elections at a news conference Monday.
International observers on Monday issued a stinging indictment of the State Duma election campaign, calling it a step backward in Russia's transition toward democracy.

Earlier in the day, President Vladimir Putin had said just the opposite, that "the most important result of the Duma elections is that one more step has been made toward the strengthening of democracy in the Russian Federation."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, which together had about 500 observers at Sunday's election, however, said the final tally was "fundamentally distorted" in favor of United Russia because of the abuse of administrative resources during the campaign, including preferential coverage in the state media. The election observers also criticized the inclusion of about one-third of the country's governors on United Russia's party list.

The White House weighed in later in the day and threw its support behind the OSCE. "It was the OSCE which monitored the elections, and they expressed concerns about the fairness of the election campaign. We share those concerns," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

The international observers drew a line between the actual voting, which they said the Central Elections Commission carried out "highly professionally," and the election process as a whole, which they said was "fundamentally unfair."

"These elections failed in meeting many OSCE and international standards," said Bruce George, a British MP and president of the OSCE's parliamentary assembly. "We are certain the government knows how to meet these standards. What we are yet to see is the willingness to meet them."

George described it as a "regression in the democratization process in Russia."

The sharpest criticism was directed at the use of "administrative resources," or state infrastructure and personnel, on behalf of United Russia. In many regions, the party used state offices as its local campaign headquarters free of charge, while in others, the monitors said, local governments supplied office equipment and services to Putin's party. Senior officials around the country actively promoted its candidates. In many regions, opposition candidates were barred from meeting voters and, in some instances, denied the use of public advertising space for which they had signed contracts.

Meanwhile, the inclusion on the United Russia party list of about 30 regional leaders "who have no intention of taking a seat is deceitful," said David Atkinson, head of the monitoring delegation from the Council of Europe.

There is an "invisible line" between the natural advantages of incumbency and abuse of executive authority, George noted. "Was that line crossed here? Yes, it was," he said, which led to "the election results being fundamentally distorted."

Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said he agreed with the international observers. As far as the actual voting was concerned, these elections were better than the ones four years ago.

"The Kremlin did not pressure the governors, and the governors, relatively disinterested in the [election] results, allowed the local election committees to report the results objectively," Petrov said.

But as for the process, the latest elections were as much a "disappointment" as in 1999, Petrov said.

The state-funded media also came in for criticism from the OSCE, which said they "failed to comply with their legal obligation under Russian law to provide balanced and unbiased reporting on candidates and political parties."

On election day, for example, a news update on state-controlled Channel One television broadcast back-to-back segments of Putin and United Russia co-leaders Boris Gryzlov and Sergei Shoigu casting their votes and urging Russians to "wake up."

"We regard these elections as free, but they were certainly not fair," Atkinson said.

The OSCE also took the highly unusual step of betraying its preference for the outcome. "I think it is one of the saddest things," said George, commenting on the failure of the two liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, to surmount the 5 percent barrier for entering the Duma.

Putin, however, said "the government had ensured fair, free and open elections" and the results "reflect the real sympathies of the people, and what the Russian people think, and the realities of political life."

At a press conference held immediately after the OSCE released its preliminary report, Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov dwelled at length on the observers' praise for his commission's work. But he declined to comment on the OSCE's complaints. "Soon, even the greatest skeptics will be left without any questions or doubts" about the outcome of the elections, he said.

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst, said violations, including "administrative resources," probably did play a big part in the elections. But these are also used in the West, and the difference is one of degree, not kind.

"Strictly speaking, [U.S. President George W.] Bush was not elected democratically either. And in Italy, the prime minister [Silvio Berlusconi] controls 90 percent of TV," he said. "Russia needs democratization, but I'm becoming wary of talking about it, because any discussion of our problems is seized upon by Putin's enemies as a wound to poke at."

The Communist Party has been the most vocal critic of the election. In just two days, the party has received around 150 complaints from all over the country, said Vladimir Ryasnoi, a legal adviser and member of the party's central committee. He said the party will forward the complaints to Veshnyakov and the Prosecutor General's Office.

Leaders of two parties seen as clear winners -- Dmitry Rogozin of Rodina (Homeland) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party -- separately called the OSCE's assessment "interference in the internal affairs of Russia."

OSCE, in its turn, criticized LDPR for making "xenophobic, racist and extreme nationalist statements" during the campaign.

The observers singled out Bashkortostan for particular criticism, with George saying there were "elements of blatant fraud" in both the Duma contests and the republic's presidential election.

On Friday, a second radio station that had talked about the opponents of incumbent President Murtaza Rakhimov was taken off the air. On Sunday, the vote counting was temporarily suspended after a power outage in the office of the election committee. Power outages have been the local administration's favorite tactic in dealing with rivals.

OSCE also noted that oil refinery workers in Bashkortostan were herded to vote en masse on Sunday, having been threatened with losing their jobs if they refused.