Kremlin-backed parties that won broad control of Russia’s parliament Sunday were virtually assured power through heavy-handed election tactics used by supporters of President Vladimir Putin, according to independent poll observers, opposition candidates and U.S. officials.
Politicians unaffiliated with Kremlin-supported parties found themselves scrutinized by tax inspectors, harassed by police and portrayed negatively in state-run media — and that’s if their campaigns were covered at all.
Candidates from the Kremlin-backed parties, meanwhile, received near blanket coverage, almost all of it positive.
The election results for the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, anchor Russia firmly in an era of managed democracy, in which the Kremlin controls, through manipulation of its vast state bureaucracy and airwave supremacy, election results.
While past elections have been influenced by big money and questionable campaign and voting practices, Sunday’s vote was the unparalleled in terms of state interference, observers said.
“It’s not like, you know, winking or hinting something,” said Boris Fyodorov, an opposition candidate. “It’s meetings in official places where the top official tells lower officials, ‘If you don’t deliver, you’re out.’”
Campaign workers, not terrorists
Fyodorov, a liberal former finance minister who ran as an independent, is exasperated at what he saw during his campaign. He ticks off dozens of pressure tactics that he blames on the government.
After paying for 50 campaign billboards in Moscow, some billboard companies were audited by economic police and told their licenses would be revoked if they did business with Fyodorov.
And when Fyodorov’s campaign staff repeatedly complained to him of police harassment, he went to see it himself. With a hidden camera, he filmed law enforcement telling his volunteers they couldn’t hand out campaign flyers without permission, though the campaign rules permit leafleting. Ten volunteers were arrested, but not charged.
“These are guys [police] with guns. So they are supposed to fight terrorists, not campaign workers,” Fyodorov said in an interview.
The use of “administrative resources,” as election monitors call the Kremlin’s levers of power, was widespread and employed at local levels across Russia’s 11 time zones. In Bashkortistan, 800 miles southeast of Moscow, police subjected some voters to fingerprinting, which is not required under election rules. The campaign headquarters of the Kremlin-backed United Russia party were frequently found to be in the same buildings as local administration offices in Russia’s 89 regions.
A report compiled by 2,500 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) characterized the results of Sunday’s vote as “overwhelmingly distorted.”
The report, published Monday, said that the overwhelming media bias and the use of state apparatus prevented candidates from competing with each other “on the basis of equal treatment.”
“We don’t think it’s a fair election. We think there is a distorting influence there,” said Robert Barry, a former American diplomat in Russia and the deputy head of the OSCE’s monitoring mission.
“If you’re hearing about one party almost exclusively in negative terms, it doesn’t usually make you terribly enthusiastic about voting for that party,” Barry said.
Ahead of the elections, a survey by the independent Moscow polling agency called VTsIOM-A showed that 57 percent of Russians believe the Duma elections would be fixed.
In comments aired on Russian television, Putin called the election “another step in strengthening democracy in the Russian Federation.”
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington was “continuing to evaluate trends” in Russian politics. He continued: “The fact is that this is a country that can be described as a managed democracy is not something we’ve come across in the last few weeks.”
Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist party leader who lost big in the elections, frequently complaining of a lack of coverage by the state media, accused the Kremlin of vote fixing. “You are all participants in a revolting spectacle which for some reason is called an election,” Zyuganov said.
Although Putin heads no political party, his support for the United Russia coalition was plainly evident. His comments in recent months mirrored United Russia’s campaign platform, at a time when the president enjoys a popularity rating of around 80 percent.
In one blazon example, across from the parliament building in downtown Moscow a banner stretches the length of a city block and a height of eight stories. On the banner, Putin is quoted as if referring to United Russia. “Together we will build a united and indivisible Russia,” the banner reads.
Opposition candidates also complained that ministers and government officials used their offices to run campaigns. They included the minister of interior, to whom hundreds of thousands of police and security forces report. The minister for emergency situations, a popular figure because his rescue operations usually include a campaign-style inspection by him, also ran and won.
And Anatoly Chubais, one of the architects of Russia’s privatization program, was criticized for sending thousands of campaign letters to customers of the country’s heat and electricity monopoly, which he heads.
United Russia officials celebrated in Moscow on Monday, offering no comment on the harsh evaluation by international election monitors. Russian TV carried no mention of the OSCE report.
Preston Mendenhall is NBC’s correspondent in Moscow. NBC’s Thomas Bonifield and Judy Augsburger contributed to this report.