Russia's elections 'clearly skewed' in Putin's favour
by Daniel Mason
Russia's presidential election yesterday was "clearly skewed in favour" of winner Vladimir Putin, international observers have said, while a leading member of the European Parliament has described the result as the "final nail in the coffin of Russian democracy".
Putin won yesterday's ballot with more than 63 per cent of the votes, according to preliminary results, and at a victory rally he told supporters that the election had been an "open and honest battle". He said: "I promised you we would win. We have won. Glory to Russia." But Putin's nearest challenger Gennady Zyuganov, who won 17 per cent of the votes, dismissed the election as "illegitimate, dishonest and untransparent". Mass protests were expected in Moscow today following widespread claims of electoral fraud.
Election watchdogs were also critical. In a statement, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said: "Conditions were clearly skewed in favour of one of the contestants, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin." The OSCE's Tonino Picula added: "There were serious problems from the very start of this election. The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain. 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."
Meanwhile a spokeswoman for the independent election watchdog Golos said there had been cases of forced voting, multiple ballots and a lack of competition. "Such elections cannot be called fair, just and open", she said. European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Russia should address the shortcomings identified by outside observers. "The EU looks forward to working with the incoming Russian president and the new government in full support of our shared modernisation agenda, which we see as covering both economic and political reforms," she said. "We trust the new Russian president will be ready to take these reforms forward, in dialogue with citizens and civil society." Putin previously served as president between 2000 and 2008, before taking on his current role as prime minister. He announced his intention to return to the presidency late last year.
Putin's election was the "final nail in the coffin of Russian democracy", claimed Guy Verhofstadt MEP, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament, ahead of a visit to Moscow to meet civil society groups today. "It comes as no surprise as this has been stage managed from the Kremlin over many years, all to secure the continuous grip of power by the Putin regime." Both the EU and the United States should "reflect long and hard" on their relations with Russia, he said. "There can be no business as usual with a country that disregards basic democratic principles and makes a laughing stock of the rule of law."
Estonian MEP Kristiina Ojuland, ALDE spokeswoman on Russia, added: "It is now clear that the EU does not need to provide the scene for any further photo opportunities for Mr Putin. The bi-annual EU-Russia summits should be turned into working meetings for lower officials with a pragmatic case-by-case agenda." She said Russia could not be a strategic partner or the EU "until free and fair elections are held". Yesterday, European leaders took to Twitter to voice their scepticism about the validity of the vote. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt tweeted: "Presidential election in Russia today. Well, sort of…" And Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, posted an almost identical message: "Presidential elections in Russia today. I wonder who will win."
Yet, Putin's victory would not undo the damage of months of protests since disputed parliamentary elections in December – when there were claims of vote rigging in favour of Putin's United Russia Party – according to the Henry Jackson Society think-tank. "The opposition movement represents the greatest challenge to Putin's legitimacy since he came to power in 2000," said research fellow Julia Pettengill. "Putin faces a broad-based, non-ideological protest movement which has gained strength in successive protests to become the most significant anti-government movement since the collapse of the Soviet Union."
She added: "If the opposition succeeds in staging large-scale peaceful protests this week, the government may choose to stage the type of violent crackdown it has thus far avoided. This is a dangerous tactic-one which may prove effective if it manages to remove the leadership of key components of the opposition, but which could also galvanise and radicalise public opinion against the Kremlin. On the other hand, if the government chooses a strategy of engagement and limited concessions, they may successfully co-opt enough elites to remain in power.
The EU and Russia are at a crossroads
Successful realignment of the EU's relations with Russia is a contemporary question of Europe's ability to act with a single voice, write Iris Kempe and Cornelius Ochmann