International observers monitoring Russia's parliamentary election say the vote was free, but failed to meet many democratic standards. Western observers say the balloting calls into question Russia's real commitment to reform.
The head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Bruce George, says western observers agree that Sunday's parliamentary election was commendable from an organizational stance, but failed to meet international standards.
Mr. George said it is "regrettable" that the observers' main impression of the overall electoral process is one of "regression" in Russia's democratization. He said there are positives to note, such as the creation of a comprehensive legal framework for genuine, democratic elections. But he said this election process was not without fault.
"Our delegations assessed that extensive administrative use of the state apparatus and media favoritism to the benefit of [the] United Russia [party] created an unfair environment for the other parties and candidates," said Mr. George. "The fundamental principle that candidates and parties should be able to compete with each other on the basis of equal treatment was thus undermined."
Mr. George says this, in turn, contributed to a sense of disillusionment among Russian voters as was indicated, he said, by the relatively low country-wide turnout of less than 50 percent.
Mr. George says these and other violations - most notably in Siberia and the Russian Far East - call into question Moscow's willingness to move toward European and international standards of democratic elections.
President Putin's United Russia Party and its allies will dominate the new parliament, following the elections.
The head of the Observer Mission of the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe, David Atkinson, agreed the election fell short of international standards.
"I look forward to Russia achieving the same standards of democracy and human rights enjoyed by the other citizens of member states of the Council of Europe," Mr. Atkinson siad. "But in light of the conduct of this election, Russia still has some way to go."
Mr. Atkinson and Mr. George say the Council of Europe and the OSCE hope to see significant improvements by the time Russia holds presidential elections next March.
Mr. George acknowledged that, in every democratic nation, there is a traditional advantage for the incumbency. But he says that same tradition is guided by what he called an invisible line of propriety that must not be crossed.
Was that line crossed in Russia this weekend? Mr. George and the other observers say "Yes."