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United Russia Election Victory Criticized, Called Undemocratic

By Steven Lee Myers

The New York Times -- MOSCOW

International observers on Monday criticized Russia’s parliamentary elections as a step backward in the country’s democratic transition, only moments after President Vladimir Putin described them as “free, honest, open and democratic.”

United Russia, the party defined almost entirely by its fealty to Putin, swept to overwhelming victory on Sunday after benefiting, the observers said, from fawning coverage on state television and official support at all levels of government. Putin’s party crushed the Communists and ousted all but a handful of liberals from Parliament, capturing the most votes of any party in any election since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Turnout was a low 56 percent.

Two groups that sent election observers, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a report that the results also reflected “the extensive use of the state apparatus and media favoritism to benefit the largest pro-presidential party.”

The report, based on the findings of 500 observers, offered some of the harshest criticism yet of Russian elections, saying the vote called “into question Russia’s willingness to move towards European standards for democratic elections.”

The president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Bruce George, said at a news conference in Moscow that the vote represented a “regression in the democratization process.” He also reported “blatant fraud” in Bashkortostan Republic, in the southern Urals, and “irregularities” in Siberia and the Far East.

The criticism is not likely to dent the exercise of Putin’s power. Russia, which is a member of the OSCE, has ignored the group’s protests over its conduct in Chechnya.

Indeed, Putin interpreted the results as a clear validation of the course he has set in the four years since he became president, despite steps viewed here and abroad as autocratic.