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RUSSIA

Observers, Voters See Violations

Voters complained of intimidation and attempted bribery in what election observers called a coordinated effort to boost United Russia's results in the State Duma vote on Sunday.

Golos, the only independent Russian monitoring group, said it received more than 3,500 calls on its complaints hotline.

"We know for certain that this is just a drop in the ocean," said Grigory Melkonyants, Golos' deputy head. "We are seeing serious violations that we are afraid will just be ignored."

He said the fact that similar violations were being reported around the country suggested that orders had come from the authorities.

Opposition parties said they had recorded dozens of violations, and a popular LiveJournal elections blog carried reports of violations as well.

International election observers were expected to issue a negative report Monday.

At Polling Station No. 402, located in a school in the small town of Pestovo, in the Novgorod region, dozens of ballots were already marked with a check next to United Russia, a local voter said.

"There were rumors that pensioners would get expensive plates if they accepted a prepared ballot before midday at a handful of schools," said Ella, a 42-year-old unemployed woman who asked that her last name not be used for fear of reprisal.

"When we saw they were actually giving away the plates, we couldn't believe it," Ella said by telephone from Pestovo.

Among hundreds of other complaints, Golos observers reported that plainclothes officers in Moscow had offered voters 700 rubles (about $29) to vote for United Russia; United Russia promotional posters were visible near polling stations in Moscow and other cities; and United Russia calendars were hanging in women's restrooms at several polling stations. Golos said it was illegal to display promotional material at or within view of a polling station.

Another, perhaps less subtle, stunt was employed by the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDPR. A reporter spotted several minibuses with large "LDPR" letters on the sides -- accompanied by an ambulance with sirens wailing -- speeding down Yaroslavskoye Shosse.

Around midday, observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, sounded upbeat about what they had witnessed so far at the polling stations. "I have not seen any special problems. It's technically right. So far so good," said Luc van der Brande, head of the PACE delegation, at the Russian Academy of Sciences minutes before President Vladimir Putin voted there.

But, he added, "it's not enough to have free elections. You also need to have fair elections." He appeared to be referring to the generous and positive coverage United Russia has received from the national television channels, which are all state controlled.

The PACE delegation -- together with observers from a Nordic mission and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- were expected to announce a largely negative evaluation of the vote at a news conference Monday.

The Central Elections Commission said Sunday that there had been violations but refrained from describing them. Several commission members, stopped by a reporter at the commission's headquarters, refused to discuss the issue altogether.

The OSCE -- whose main election-monitoring group refused to observe Sunday's vote -- and the Council of Europe criticized the 2003 Duma elections as "fundamentally unfair" and a step backward in Russia's path to democracy. They cited lopsided media coverage, the abuse of administrative resources during the campaign, and the placement of governors on United Russia's candidate list.

The liberal Yabloko party reported mass absentee voting at several polling stations in Moscow and Chelyabinsk and that vendors at Moscow Polling Station No. 264 were selling books about Putin.

More than a dozen gay-rights activists were detained Sunday after voting at the same polling station as Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who has called gay parades "satanic" and denied permission to hold them. Police detained gay parade organizer Nikolai Alexeyev and 15 other activists at around 10:30 a.m. in central Moscow, Gazeta.ru reported.

Before they were detained, they wrote "No to Homophobia, No to Luzhkov" on their ballots instead of check marks, said Melkonyants, the Golos spokesman.

A law enforcement source told Interfax that the activists had been taken to the Tverskoye precinct for a "prophylactic conversation."

New complaints were posted on LiveJournal from workers who said their employers were forcing them to vote. One entry is a photograph of a letter pledging to support United Russia on election day that a kindergarten director allegedly told employees to sign.

Other workers have complained of similar pressure in recent interviews.

Moscow Times reporters noted that there were no enclosed voting booths at two Moscow polling stations, only booths open on two sides or completely open tables. The law requires enclosed booths.

Dmitry Shedrin, a Golos activist, told passers-by via a loudspeaker from a police station in the town of Ozyorny in the Tver region that he had been detained by Federal Security Service officials while attempting to monitor the voting. Shedrin, who works for the military, said state officials had told him that a proposed transfer he was seeking would be put in jeopardy by his work at Golos and that he faced further investigation.

United Russia had observers at more than 90 percent of the country's some 90,000 polling stations, followed by the Communist Party, with 65 percent, and A Just Russia and the Union of Right Forces, with about 35 percent, Golos said in a preliminary report from seven regions that was released at midday.

 

(The Moscow Times 3.xii.07)

 
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