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Russia Parliamentary Elections

Europe has joined the United States in urging Russia to probe numerous complaints of undemocratic practices in the landslide victory of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. United Russia won 64 percent of the parliamentary vote. The Communist Party came in a distant second with 12 percent, while two pro-Kremlin parties – the Liberal Democratic party and Fair Russia – claimed 8 and 7 percent, respectively, enough to win seats in the State Duma. But critics point to reports of opposition harassment, detentions, threats to voters of job loss, and ballot irregularities.

However, Igor Zevelev, Washington bureau chief of RIA Novesti (Russian News and Information Agency), says that while reactions may differ on whether the elections were “free and fair,” there is general agreement that they were a referendum on President Putin’s policies. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Zevelev says they were free in the sense that “nobody forced the voters to cast ballots for this or that party in most cases.” But they were “not quite fair” in the sense that there was no “level playing field.” That is, not all parties and candidates had an adequate chance to communicate with the voters and win their support, including “reasonably equitable access to the media.” But Mr. Zevelev says he believes there was no major fraud because all the opinion polls had accurately predicted the extent of United Russia’s victory in Sunday’s elections.

But Western governments are strongly criticizing the elections as having failed to meet international democratic standards. Matthias Rueb, Washington correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, notes that the European media generally regard them as neither free nor fair. Mr. Rueb says that they represent a “huge step back for Russia.” Furthermore, he says, there is no such thing as a “stable civil society” in Russia. And he notes that there will be no opposition party in the new Duma except for the Communists.

The Communist Party and the pro-Western Union of Right Forces Party plan to challenge the election results. Much of the criticism has centered on the role played by President Putin. However, Igor Zevelev notes that Mr. Putin has said that he would not run for a third presidential term, which would be counter to the Russian constitution. He has also said he would like to play a significant rule in Russia’s political arena. And for that, Mr. Zevelev says, President Putin needs “overwhelming popular support.”

Russian journalist Masha Lipman, editor of Pro and Contra published by the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that judgments in Russia about the integrity of Sunday’s elections “depend on whom you ask.” She notes that President Putin said prior to the elections that he might interpret a major victory for United Russia in the Duma as what he called a “moral right for himself.” Ms. Lipman said just how that would be expressed will depend on the “offices that he will carve out for himself.” She says that would mean a “different political system in Russia” because – instead of one center of power, the presidency – Russia seems “to be geared toward two center of major political power.” According to Masha Lipman, speculations vary on what that office might be – prime minister, leader of United Russia, speaker of the Parliament, and perhaps chief of the Security Council with “expanded authority redistributed from the presidency.”