International observers declared Monday that Russia's parliamentary elections failed to meet widely accepted democratic standards, saying President Vladimir Putin and his government abused their power to favor the dominant Kremlin-backed party while opposition forces were harassed.
The strong criticism, coupled with sometimes-harsh assessments from European countries, highlighted a growing rift between Moscow and the West over Russia's perceived turn toward authoritarian rule under Putin.
The central conclusion was that Sunday's vote "failed to meet many of the commitments and standards that we have," according to Goran Lennmarker, president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Parliamentary Assembly. He said it was "not a fair election."
Luc van den Brande, who headed the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, pointed to a lack of real separation of the branches of power, saying that the vote appeared to be more of a referendum on Putin's policies than a parliamentary election.
Russia is a member of the OSCE and the Council of Europe, but often complains that the organizations are trying to impose Western standards on Russia and undermine Putin's concept of "managed democracy."
Van den Brande cited an "overwhelming influence of the president's office and the president on the campaign" and said there was "certainly abuse of administrative resources" to influence the outcome. He also said there were "flaws in the secrecy of the vote."
"Effectively, we can't say these were fair elections," he said at a news conference.
The two groups said in a joint statement that the elections were well organized, but added "there was not a level political playing field in Russia in 2007." They said the vote took place in an atmosphere that "seriously limited political competition," pointing at official interference, media coverage biased in the Kremlin's favor and new election laws that hindered political pluralism.
"There are a lot of concerns about the evolution of democracy" in Russia, van den Brande said. "Political stability and economic growth should go hand in hand with ... strengthened democracy."
Lennmarker cited reports of widespread harassment of opposition parties as one of the problems with the campaign.
"I'm sad to say, I hoped that this would be a step forward" for Russian democracy, he said. "But I don't think it is so."
In Berlin, German government spokesman Thomas Steg said "Russia was not a democracy and Russia is not a democracy."
Britain's Foreign Office called on Russia to investigate claims of voting irregularities, which, "if proven correct, would suggest that the Russian elections were neither free nor fair."
"It is up to the Russian authorities to clarify and calm down the international community on the election results," Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said on a trip to Albania.
French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said France had taken note of the allegations of irregularities in the voting. "We hope that Russian authorities will shed full light on these allegations," she said.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote in his blog that the election process in Russia was an illustration of what some ideologists in Kremlin call controlled democracy. "The result was secured largely as desired, due to efforts from both slanted national television channels and so-called administrative resources," Bildt said.
The Czech Foreign Ministry pointed at a "disproportionate action taken by state authorities against opposition forces" during the election campaign, adding that circumstances of the campaign "will always cast a shadow over the future lineup of the Russian Parliament."
Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, voiced concern about signals of vote irregularities. "Regardless of reservations about the standards, that seems nevertheless to be the Russians' choice, and I see no reason for us to question that," he said on a conciliatory note, apparently reflecting a desire to mend a rift with Moscow.
The critical assessment came amid tension over election monitoring between Russia and the West, which is part of a broader, widening divide. Putin has taken an increasingly assertive stance in relations with the West, amid accusations that he has backtracked on democracy during nearly eight years as president.
The OSCE's elections-monitoring arm, regarded in the West as the most authoritative assessor of whether an election is fair, canceled plans to send observers. It said Russia had delayed granting visas for so long that the organization would be unable to conduct a meaningful assessment.
Russia had already come under criticism from the West for saying it would allow only 70 OSCE observers for the elections, far fewer than in the past. Russia, which is a member of the OSCE, accuses Western members of bias and is seeking to restrict the group's election-monitoring activities.
Lennmarker said it "would have been better if there had been more election observers" for Sunday's vote. Van den Brande said that it was "very important for the future - there should be no limits on elections observations."
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