'Dirtiest' poll a setback for Russia: activists

4th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

Polls in which opposition websites crashed and monitors complained of intimidation were the dirtiest of strongman Vladimir Putin's decade in power and a setback for democracy in Russia, activists said.

Independent vote monitor Golos was subjected to a campaign of harassment that saw its head detained for 12 hours and the group smeared on television. Another half a dozen anti-Kremlin sites fell victim to hacking attacks.

Golos and other activists also said election day itself was marred by a string of violations ranging from the failure of poll officials to allow ballot boxes to be checked to the bussing-in of voters.

"These are not elections due to the numerous and systematic organisational violations," human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov told AFP. "These are not elections. The authorities are just reappointing themselves."

"It is better not to use that word," added the Soviet-era veteran of the human rights struggle and himself a former political prisoner.

The vote for the State Duma lower house of parliament is especially sensitive for former president Putin because it so closely trails his decision to return to the Kremlin in elections in March next year.

Exit polls showed Putin's United Russia winning 48.5 percent of the vote.

Some commentators view Sunday's results as a verdict on his decision amid falling opinion poll ratings and an unprecedented recent public booing incident involving the current Russian premier.

"The pressure they put on Golos is a clear indication of fear," Kovalyov noted. "The authorities are very afraid."

Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin -- another prominent campaigner of clean elections in Russia -- described the polls as "the most scandal-plagued in our history".

Oreshkin said the authorities were "more scared than they really ought to be" of opposition. "After all, our citizens are not going to go out and man the barricades."

Yet they did take to the Internet to report violations in numbers never before seen in a country that was only learning about websites when the last Duma elections rolled around four years ago.

The Twitter feed of the www.antikarusel.ru website -- itself unavailable for spells Sunday -- for example was awash with video and picture posts hiding under messages with titles such as "Elections in Perm. Voters being bused in."

"The last elections were nothing like this," said project member and The New Times independent weekly reporter Zoya Svetova. "The authorities are very nervous and are acting like fools."

None of the controversy made state news programmes that rebroadcast comments from a Polish election observer noting no violations at all and showed endless live transmissions from the central election commission touting the turnout.

This left some leading opposition lawmakers fuming.

"There are four or five or even six violations at every polling station. And that is Moscow. I can only imagine what is going on in our provinces," said Gennady Gudkov of the populist A Just Russia party.

The prominent Duma deputy said his own team of monitors saw the Moscow transportation authority "bus in 1,600 employees so that they could all vote in under the watchful eye of their management."

One YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezEFUGcdShE) even showed a Moscow polling station using erasable-ink pens.

Andrei Sakharov Foundation member Sergei Lukashevsky said he felt these were particularly dangerous times for the Russian opposition because "the authorities are sensing that they are losing trust."

US President Barack Obama's administration has issued a stern condemnation of what it witnessed with Golos despite a campaign to "reset" relations with Russia that suffered while Putin was in power in 2000-2008.

© 2011 AFP

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