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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Not Free, Not Fair, But Accurate All the Same'

APAndreas Gross
Sunday's presidential election was neither free nor fair, though the victory of Kremlin-backed candidate Dmitry Medvedev largely reflected the will of the voters, European and independent Russian election monitors said Monday.

Andreas Gross, head of the 22-member observer mission from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, told a news conference in Moscow that election officials had ignored the organization's suggestions to improve the fairness of the election.

PACE observers conceded, however, that Medvedev, who officially won with 70.2 percent of the vote, would have been elected in any case.

"The president-elect will have a solid mandate," the mission said in a statement.

Gross described the election as a "plebiscite" and "a vote of confidence in the incumbent president," but not a step toward democracy.

But "we should not impose our concept of democracy, our views on anyone," Gross added.

Gross cited cumbersome registration rules for candidates and slanted media coverage as significant grounds to conclude that the election was neither free nor fair. He also called for increased transparency in campaign financing.

Central Elections Commission chief Vladimir Churov reacted indignantly to the PACE mission's recommendation to promote more transparency during the vote-counting process.

"What else should I do? Should I have elections commission members strip naked?" Churov said in televised comments.

The claim in the PACE statement that Russia's "democratic potential" was not tapped in the election was insulting to Russian voters and election officials, Churov said.

"Raising doubts over the fairness of the election results is an insult to millions of organizers and participants," he said.

The PACE delegation was the only regular Western observation team that came to monitor Sunday's election. Two observer missions from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe canceled their plans to monitor the vote, saying the country had placed overly severe restrictions on the work of their monitors. Russia has dismissed the claim.

At a separate news conference Monday, Golos, the only independent Russian election monitoring group, also said the election was unfair and far from Western democratic standards. It also conceded, however, that Medvedev would have won anyway.

"If the question is whether to believe that Medvedev is the candidate who won the election, the answer is yes," Golos analyst Andrei Buzin told reporters. "But we cannot believe them when they say the elections were fair according to the Russian Constitution and international standards."

Many Golos monitors were denied access to polling stations despite having all the necessary documents, Golos head Lilia Shibanova said. "Thus the real vote count and turnout at these polling stations cannot be independently verified."

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov got 17.75 percent of the vote, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky had 9.36 percent and independent Andrei Bogdanov garnered just 1.3 percent, according to Central Elections Commission figures Monday evening.

The results should be treated "with great, great misgivings," Shibanova told reporters.

In Rostov, Golos observers were arrested and told they would have to sign a statement saying they were drunk in order to be released, Shibanova said.

"These elections were the first in Russia to have been carried out without any civic control," Shibanova said. "Those who tried to monitor the elections are in detention facilities."

Golos deputy head Alexander Kynev said the group was receiving a steady stream of reports of bribery and intimidation of voters by officials.

Some voters were paid to vote for Medvedev, receiving half the sum before going to the ballot box and the other half after showing cell phone photographs of their ballots showing they had voted for Putin's preferred candidate, Kynev said.

Several voters called Golos' hotline Sunday and said they were forced to obtain absentee ballots and vote at polling stations set up on their work premises, Kynev said. Students reported that they were threatened with eviction from their dormitories if they did not vote, he said.

"What is sad about all of this is that people have lost their trust in elections," Kynev said. "This creates potential danger of instability in the future."

Golos also said Medvedev enjoyed a disproportionate amount of television coverage during the campaign, a conclusion noted in two separate reports by media monitors of the four candidates' television coverage.

Kynev concurred with other observers that Medvedev did not need such enormous advantages to win but said the Kremlin wanted to control every aspect of the election process.

Golos said it deployed more than 1,500 observers in 36 regions on election day.

At a news conference early Monday morning, Medvedev indirectly responded to monitors' concerns over the fairness of his victory, noting the high turnout.

"Any person who received the support of the majority of those who participated in the election will have the necessary mandate of trust," Medvedev said.

Ilya Yashin, leader of the youth wing of liberal opposition party Yabloko, said he accompanied a colleague in Murmansk who managed to obtain several ballots Sunday by telling polling station officials that although he had no identification, he wanted to vote for Medvedev.

"We received a ballot form at five of seven polling stations we visited," Yashin said in a telephone interview Monday.

Yashin said he and Dmitry Volov managed the feat in three hours and that they planned to report their experiment to authorities and demand that the incidents be investigated.

Voters must present a passport in order to obtain a ballot.

Staff Writer David Nowak contributed to this report.