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OSCE Begins Monitoring Russia's Election Campaign - 2003-11-14

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has begun monitoring Russia's parliamentary election campaign ahead of the December 7 election. A senior OSCE official told reporters in Moscow, there are already some concerns about voter registration lists and the independence of Russia's media.

The OSCE has observers fanned out from Vladivostok in Russia's far east to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea to assess Russia's pre-election campaign for parliament.

Over 3,400 candidates from 23 political parties and blocs have registered to take part in the nationwide election, in which voters will cast ballots for parties competing for 225 of the State Duma's 450 seats. A five percent threshold is needed to win representation in Russia's lower house. Two thousand other candidates are running in single-seat local district races.

Latest opinion polls give the pro-Kremlin United Party group the lead in the federal poll, with an estimated 20 percent of the vote.

Ambassador Robert Barry is the deputy head of mission overseeing the OSCE's observer mission in Russia. The OSCE released an interim report on Friday expressing multiple concerns about the Russian electoral campaign, which officially began on November 7.

Mr. Barry says the biggest concern revolves around Russia's media and, specifically, the government's recent attempt to restrict coverage of the elections.

Although Russia's Constitutional Court has blocked the government's move, Mr. Barry says, the Kremlin's interference with mass media may have a chilling effect on the electoral coverage.

"Of course, what we are going to be observing in the next few weeks is how this has affected the behavior of journalists," he said. "Will journalists still be reluctant, or be afraid of stepping over a line that was drawn earlier in the sand, and may have been erased? Or will they now feel free to follow the new decision of the Constitutional Court and provide information about the campaign, without editorializing?"

The OSCE official says that, in monitoring electronic media of the campaign in Russia thus far, analysts have found a strong slant toward parties already in power. They also note a fair amount of political mud-slinging and propaganda.

Mr. Barry says there are also problems with voter registration lists.

"Clearly, the voter lists are in much better condition here than they are, for example, in Georgia or Azerbaijan," said Robert Barry. "But that does not mean they are perfect. Parties have questioned the number of dead souls who remain on the lists, and the question of the number of people who have turned 18 since the last election. There is a contradiction between the growth of the voter lists and the declining population."

In addition, Mr. Barry says, many opposition political parties have complained about what they see as misuse of administrative resources by those candidates and parties favored by the incumbents.

In one such case now under examination by the Central Election Commission, Mr. Barry says, the utility company, the Unified Energy Systems, sent a letter to its 30 million customers alluding to the electoral campaign. The head of Unified Energy Systems is Anatoly Chubais, a candidate for one of Russia's two main liberal opposition parties - the Union of Right Forces, or SPS.

If the letter is found to be a violation of election law, SPS may be barred from the ballot.

On Thursday, SPS failed in its effort to form an alliance with the other leading liberal opposition party, Yabloko, in order to boost its single-digit ratings. Mr. Chubais has said he will continue to seek ways to increase his parties' chances against President Vladimir Putin's allies in the election.