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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Russia's Parliamentary Elections Will be Hidden From the World

The New York Times reports:

Western election observers on Friday pulled out of a mission to monitor Russia’s Dec. 2 parliamentary vote, citing restrictions imposed by the Kremlin on their work. The cancellation by the election-monitoring arm of the 56-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe means the elections being held by President Vladimir V. Putin’s government may not be seen as legitimate by Western Europe and the United States.The group’s decision to withdraw from the monitoring mission was the first such occurrence in Russia since the country undertook to hold free and fair elections and to allow access for observers to monitor them in 1990, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. It will probably be seen as another breach between the government of Mr. Putin and the West. The group, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or O.D.I.H.R., cited what it called unacceptable Russian demands to limit the mission’s size, making it impossible to determine whether the elections are marred by fraud. It also noted the failure on the part of the Russian authorities to issue visas for its advance team, with only two weeks to go before the vote. The Warsaw-based group said in a statement that Russia had so curtailed its work that it would be “unable to deliver its mandate under these circumstances.” The observers evaluate opposition groups’ freedom to assemble, campaign and gain access to news media throughout the former Soviet Union. In Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or O.S.C.E., concluded in a statement that “the authorities of the Russian Federation remain unwilling to receive O.D.I.H.R. observers in a timely and cooperative manner.”

In Washington on Friday, Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman, said, “It is extremely unfortunate that the Russian government put up all these obstacles to the O.S.C.E. sending a monitoring mission to Russia.” Russia’s Central Election Committee, the agency overseeing the polling, contested the assessment. It placed blame for the dispute on O.S.C.E. mishandling of Russian visa paperwork. A spokesman, Igor B. Borisov, said in a telephone interview that the dispute stemmed from observers’ being late in submitting applications to visit Russia. “The Central Election Commission did all possible so that the representatives of O.D.I.H.R. could be present and observe the election,” he said. Russia’s invitation remained open if the group reconsidered, Mr. Borisov said. Also, a separate mission under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, made up of parliamentarians from the member countries, is still considering attending the Russian elections for the 450-seat Duma, the lower house of Parliament.

The Dec. 2 election is the first since Mr. Putin forced through a measure in 2004 that gave him the power to replace popular elections of governors with Kremlin appointments and prohibited candidates from running for Parliament independent of a political party. Mr. Putin’s government has broken up street protests, outlawed nongovernmental organizations, harassed opposition political parties and used election law to prevent opponents from organizing. His party, United Russia, is expected to win an overwhelming majority in the Dec. 2 vote. Konstantin I. Kosachev, the head of the international affairs committee in Russia’s Parliament and a member of United Russia, said Friday it would not be “so tragic” to be rid of the observers. “It’s obvious these so-called experts did not find any serious basis to fault our legislation and our elections for parliament,” Mr. Kosachev said, according to the Russian news agency Regnum. “They tried to raise a fuss without cause. In my opinion, the scandal has failed. What of it if these observers do not come to our country? Don’t be so tragic about it.”

The O.S.C.E. sends long-term and short-term observation teams, often numbering in the hundreds of people, to elections throughout the former Soviet Union. Its reports are weighty in the politics of the region, cited by the United States and the European Union in assessing democratic development in former Eastern Bloc nations. In the last Duma election in Russia, in 2003, Russia invited 400 or so observers from the office three months in advance. This fall, Russia told the group only 70 observers were welcome. The O.S.C.E. has monitored elections in Russia since 1993. The O.S.C.E. first worked with the team of parliamentarians and then with a professional monitoring mission run by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. O.S.C.E. statements drawing attention to rigged elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan became catalysts for protests that overthrew entrenched autocratic governments in the so-called “color revolutions” of 2003 through 2005. The Kremlin has characterized these movements as a threat to regional stability and its own power.

The Financial Times rips Putin a new one:

Russia, say supporters of President Vladimir Putin, must find its own way to democracy. The country needed strong rule to recover from the chaos of its 1990s dash to the market. Its vastness, cultural diversity and complex history mean it cannot transplant overnight a fully functioning copy of US, French or British democracy. Cut us some slack, say Kremlin spin-doctors.

The arguments have some merits. Yet watching the run-up to Russia’s parliamentary poll on December 2 it is becoming ever more difficult to take them at face value.

Russia’s last elections four years ago were heavily stacked in favour of United Russia, the dominant pro-Kremlin party, in terms of access to state media and official support. But parties and individuals who wanted to take part could generally do so. With half the 450 seats elected from single-member constituencies, about 100 went to smaller-party or independent candidates.

This year’s polls, by contrast, are sliding towards the standards of authoritarian neighbours such as Belarus or Kazakhstan. Friday’s decision by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to cancel its observer mission after Russian foot-dragging and lack of co-operation is testimony to that fact.

Much has changed since 2003. Russia has made legal requirements for parties so tough (50,000 members even to register; 200,000 signatures to contest elections) that the Kremlin can in effect choose its opponents. Among more than half a dozen parties excluded are the Other Russia coalition, led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov, the Greens, and the Republican party, led by Vladimir Ryzhkov, a young Kremlin critic elected as an independent last time.

A shift to full proportional representation means Mr Ryzhkov will not get in this time; candidates outside approved parties cannot run. Russia has also raised the minimum voting share to win seats from 5 per cent to 7 per cent. If United Russia wins an expected two-thirds majority, even many well-established parties – like the 1990s-era liberals, Yabloko and Union of Right Forces – will struggle to get 7 per cent. The result may be a two-party parliament with only the rump Communists opposing an overwhelming pro-Kremlin majority.

Mr Putin’s supporters defend the rule changes as strengthening party politics. Tough registration requirements, they say, prevent the merry-go-round of tiny parties seen in the 1990s. But Russia’s rules are stricter than in most, even non-mature, democracies. Its voting threshold for seats in parliament is also higher than most other countries’, except Turkey’s 10 per cent – though Turkey permits independent candidates. Assuming half Russia’s 100m voters turn out, a party could poll nearly 3.5m votes and win no seats. Opposition parties report the kind of dirty trick seen in other former Soviet republics, from mysterious cancellations of meeting venues to confiscation of campaign literature. Union of Right Forces said this month police seized 14m copies of its manifesto to check whether it violated laws against “extremism”. Mr Kasparov and others have been pursued using the same laws.

Nobody suggests the Kremlin is directly behind all these cases. But it has created an environment where officials at all levels feel it wiser to try to please their political masters than enforce rules impartially.

The Putin administration could once argue with certain justification that charges of “backsliding” on democracy were unfair since Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was hardly a model democracy. Now it can be judged against its own standards – and 2007 looks like a step back even from 2003.

The pull-out of OSCE observers means what is generally seen as the most authoritative election monitoring organisation will not be in Russia to chart this. Russia had already said it would slash the total number of international observers by three-quarters, and the OSCE contingent from 450 to 70. When it found itself still waiting for visas barely two weeks before the polls, it decided on Friday to pull the plug.

The irony is that Mr Putin’s sky-high popularity means United Russia – whose candidate list he is, symbolically, heading – could almost certainly win free elections subjected to full scrutiny. Much of what is happening now seems a response to Ukraine and Georgia’s “coloured” revolutions. The Kremlin sees those as coups engineered by an unholy alliance of western observers, diplomats, security services, non-governmental bodies and exiled Russian “oligarchs” eager to do the same in Russia.

In those cases, however, unpopular regimes attempted to retain power by rigging elections – not the story in Russia today. Even the Kremlin’s staunchest critics do not believe widespread poll-rigging is needed to ensure victory for the pro-Putin party. They suggest, however, there may be a temptation to boost its majority and turnout figures if, as is likely, the party’s triumph is to be used to legitimise Mr Putin’s assumption of some other political role, or even constitutional changes to allow him to remain as president.

Mr Putin told visiting foreign experts in September that he was committed to creating a “multi-party system” and “normal political parties”. If he does remain Russia’s guiding figure, he may one day fulfil that pledge. But Russia’s 2007 parliamentary elections seem an odd and inauspicious way to start.

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