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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ex-Election Chief Slams Putin's Vote Reforms

For MTAlexander Ivanchenko
The next national elections could be more like a Soviet-style pantomime than a democratic vote after President Vladimir Putin shook up voting rules, a respected former election chief said.

The reforms skew the voting system to favor United Russia and turn it into a latter-day Soviet Communist Party, said , who headed the Central Election Commission from 1996 to 1999.

"People are losing the opportunity to take part in free, pluralistic elections," said Ivanchenko, now the head of the Independent Electoral Institute, a think tank.

The most high-profile reforms are the abolition of elections for governors and changes to how the State Duma is elected. However, buried in the small print were other changes that put the country's democracy in doubt, Ivanchenko said.

An acknowledged expert in his field, Ivanchenko said he did not belong to any party, and his criticism adds authority to opposition protests about the electoral reform.

"[With these new laws] we've formed a quasi-state party like the Communist Party was in its time," he said.

Putin started the reforms 10 days after the September 2004 Beslan school massacre, in which 330 people died. Aides said political institutions had to be strengthened to stop future attacks.

With its huge majority, United Russia pushed through the Duma a package of Kremlin-sponsored laws that it said would help build a handful of big, European-style parties.

"We believe these measures will bring more democracy, more candor, more openness; and most importantly, the formation of strong parties will allow us to create accountable rulers," said Vyacheslav Volodin, a senior United Russia official. Alexander Veshnyakov, Ivanchenko's successor at the elections commission, has echoed that view.

One change in electoral law forces parties that want to run for the Duma to pay a $2 million bond or submit 200,000 signatures. They can be barred if 10 percent of the signatures are ruled to be fake, compared with 25 percent before.

However, the requirement applies only to the parties not in the current Duma, a category that includes all of the most outspoken groups that some analysts say the Kremlin most fears.

"It is a technical amendment that is also very dangerous and negative in my view," Ivanchenko said.

The new laws forbid parties from uniting into blocs to run in elections.

"In those regions where blocs ran against United Russia in local legislature elections, United Russia lost," Ivanchenko said. "The ban on blocs ... serves the interests of one party: the party of power."

Ivanchenko said the change, having effectively turned governors into Putin's appointees, would make it easier for the Kremlin to manipulate election commissions. While in theory impartial, the commissions run local elections and half their members are nominated by the governor.

"What sort of honest vote count ... can you have under these circumstances?" Ivanchenko said.