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OSCE Stands by Putin's Election Win
By Yevgenia Borisova

Responding to documentation of rampant fraud in this year's presidential elections, a spokesman for European observers who monitored the March vote said this week that unless a court proves otherwise, his organization will stand by its original assessment that the elections were carried out in full accordance with the law.

"I stick to what we said in our preliminary statement and report," said Hrair Balian, head of the election section of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which together with the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights organized the observers.

The OSCE statement reads that the March 26 presidential election "marks further progress for the consolidation of democratic elections."

The organization's subsequent report also described the elections as "a benchmark in the ongoing evolution of the Russian Federation's emergence as a representative democracy."

Balian's remarks came in response to a report published Sept. 9 in The Moscow Times documenting extensive vote falsification in the March elections.

The report presents evidence of ballot-box stuffing, creation of "ghost" voters, burning ballots supporting opposition candidates and pressure from federal administrators. Collectively, the documents suggest that the fraud was sufficient to conclusively sway the elections in Vladimir Putin's favor.

"We do not have the capacity to investigate the kind of allegations published in [The Moscow Times]," Balian said.

Should Russian courts begin to rule in favor of the complainants in election-fraud cases, he added, "we will be very happy to change our view at that point."

Russian observers, meanwhile, have said that elections commissions are in most cases refusing to accept complaints about violations during the March vote.

Vitaly Konstantinov, legal adviser for the Communist Party, said about 200 lawsuits have been filed with district, city, and regional or republican courts over presidential election violations.

An additional 1,000 complaints were filed with prosecutor's offices and police departments, and more than 2,000 complaints were filed with elections committees of varying levels, he said.

To date, Konstantinov said, prosecutor's offices have admitted election law violations in only about 10 percent of the complaints. They have denied them in an additional 50 percent and given no answer in 15 percent. The remainder are still being investigated, he said.

"The time of the courts' ruling is yet to come," he said.

The impact of international observers like the OSCE monitors on the elections may be somewhat insignificant. According to Balian, only about 400 observers, traveling in two-person teams, were present on election day.

Each team was tasked with visiting 10 to 15 polling stations, with no more than an hour spent in any one place. In total, just 3 percent of the 95,000 stations scattered throughout Russia received brief visits from OSCE officials.

What were the visits like?

"The OSCE observers only spent about five minutes in our polling station," said Ramai Yuldashev, head of the Azatlyk youth movement in Tatarstan and a member of the No. 418 election commission in Kazan. "They took a quick look around and said that yes, we had desks for the commission, voting booths with curtains where the voters could fill in ballots and a sealed ballot box. So they said everything was fine at our precinct. Then they left."

Yuldashev said he expected the observers to stay for a while and watch how the elections were going, or at least to talk to the Russian monitors about their concerns, but they did not.

Later that day, Yuldashev said, he caught another member of his election commission adding ghost voters to a registration form. He tried to intercede, but the police were called in and he was ultimately fined 50 rubles for disorderly behavior.

Putin won 68.76 percent of the vote in Tatarstan.

"With the exception of a very few violations reported to us by our teams throughout the country, and with the exception of some of the regions that we didn't observe, including Chechnya and Dagestan, we observed absolutely nothing serious that undermined the electoral process," Balian said.

Election violations appear to be the worst in those two republics, where the OSCE declined to send observers for security reasons. According to Balian, only the decision not to send observers to Chechnya was made public in advance - meaning the Central Elections Commission knew there would be no international monitors there.

In the end, the CEC claimed about 190,000 people, or roughly half the population in Chechnya, voted for Putin - a staggering figure for a republic devastated by an ongoing conflict with Russia.

Documents from Dagestan, meanwhile, indicate that 551,643 of the 877,853 votes officially won by Putin were created out of thin air. This number alone accounts for a quarter of the 2.2 million-vote margin that ultimately allowed Putin to win in the first round of the presidential elections.

Could Western observers have detected the violations? Perhaps not, given their timeframe and limited numbers.

Still, one British OSCE observer said he personally witnessed a number of procedural violations as the votes were being counted.

Jeff Gleisner, a visiting professor at the Institute of Political and International Studies at the University of Leeds, was an exception to most short-term observers - he spent an entire night at the Privolzhsk territorial commission in Kazan.

An experienced observer who speaks Russian, Gleisner said that during his time at the commission - from 9 p.m. March 26 to midday March 27 - he witnessed behavior that runs contrary to the OSCE's report statement that "at locations where input of protocols was observed, the data entered accurately reflected the results from protocols."

"My conclusion was that the whole thing was pretty chaotic," said Gleisner.

At the beginning of the evening, Gleisner noticed that protocols being brought to the territorial commission from the precinct commissions were being corrected manually if mathematical inconsistencies were found. According to election law, such protocols are supposed to be sent back to their precincts for a recount with the original observers.

Instead, Gleisner said, "They Tippexed [whited] out some figures, while you are not supposed to use Tippex on protocols.

"When I looked at the protocols that they corrected, I did see the Tippexed figures. They also filled out new protocols, completely new blanks," he added.

Gleisner did not interfere.

According to election section head Balian, OSCE observers are permitted only to report violations, not to get involved in the actual procedure. Balian said he couldn't recall any serious violations being reported in Tatarstan.

Gleisner said the elections commission representatives became visibly agitated when he began watching a precinct head dictating to a typist figures off a corrected protocol.

According to Gleisner, the head of the territorial commission quickly shooed all the precinct heads out of the room, whispering under his breath, "What do you think you're doing? We've got an OSCE observer here!"

"Perhaps he thought it was a bad or incorrect procedure, I don't know," Gleisner said.

He said the premises were swarming with people. Some were bringing in protocols placed in their shopping bags. Others - including the Privolzhsk district police chief and the head of the district administration - were there for no apparent reason. The police chief spent most of his time in the room where the protocol figures were being dictated to the typist and was holding a number of polling station protocols rolled up in his hands, Gleisner said.

When the calculations were completed, the computer entries were checked against the original protocols and inconsistent data were corrected, Gleisner said.

The territorial commission head then began correcting his computer printout of the entries against the other corrected printouts. Gleisner described this move as "quite curious."

"And then the final protocol for the district commission was produced, but that was not entered into the computer. Why? Because by the time it was produced, at about 10:30 in the morning, the computer had been taken away to the district administration."

Gleisner said that the commission's secretary then went to enter the figures on the computer belonging to the district administration.

"This is in my view a very illegitimate procedure," he said, adding that it appeared officials were trying to reach some predetermined number of votes for their candidate.

But he said his observations were not sufficient to cancel election results.

"My view is that procedural irregularities, unsupported by direct evidence of falsification, cannot also be adduced to support allegations of falsification.

"My own observations at the Privolzhsk [territorial elections commission], while worrying, do not lead me to think there was anything dishonest going on."

Election section head Balian said he was not aware that there had been an OSCE observer in Tatarstan.

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