By Will Englund, Monday, March 5, 9:18 AM
MOSCOW — A day after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won Russia’s presidential elections with 63 percent of the vote, international observers called the campaign process and balloting skewed, and outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev made conciliatory gestures toward protesters.
Medvedev promised a government review of the conviction of former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has become a political prisoner of sorts, and of the decision that prevented a liberal political party from fielding candidates in Sunday’s election.
That decision — which effectively handed control of the elective process to Putin’s party — was a main theme of complaints about the voting by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain,” said Tonino Picula, one of the leaders of the OSCE mission. “This was not the case in Russia. There was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt.”
“These elections,” Picula said, “were unfair.”
An example of what Picula was talking about was the decision last June to bar a new liberal party called Parnas from the ballot, on the grounds that it had presented organizing petitions with invalid signatures. Parnas included some of the leading liberal opponents of Putin. One of them, former state Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov, met with Medvedev in February, along with other opposition leaders.
On Monday, Medvedev said he was asking the Justice Ministry to report on why Parnas was denied the registration that would have allowed it to become a recognized political organization with permission to participate in elections.
The international monitors focused their criticisms on the context of Sunday’s election, rather than the conduct of the voting itself. Sunday’s balloting went more smoothly than in last December’s parliamentary elections, they said, thanks mostly to the involvement of thousands of citizen volunteers who had made clear they didn’t trust the authorities.
But the campaign beforehand was “skewed” in favor of Putin, said Tiny Kox, head of a delegation from the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly. It was difficult for challengers to get on the ballot — not only was Parnas rejected, but also regionally based candidates and the liberal Yabloko party.
“Without an impartial referee in an election, you cannot play the game we call democracy,” he said.
In addition, Putin had far greater media exposure than any other candidates, and government resources were put to use to back his effort, Kox said. The process also “deteriorated” after the voting ended, during the counting, he added.
OSCE observers rated the vote-counting procedures at one-third of the polling places they monitored as “bad or very bad,” said Heidi Tagliani, a co-leader of the OSCE mission.
Observers agreed that some steps taken by the government had improved the process since December, including the use of Web cameras at polling places and transparent ballot boxes. Nevertheless, Picula said, “these elections did not meet important democratic commitments.”