Van Bommel: Russia still has a long way to go before it can be called a democracy

3 December 2007

Van Bommel: Russia still has a long way to go before it can be called a democracy

SP Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel, in Russia as an election observer for the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), spoke this weekend to a number of Russian citizens who voted, against their better judgement, only because they feared that they would be punished should they register an abstention by staying at home. At the same time, while visiting a polling station he was told by local election observers that in a number of cases ballot slips had been photographed. Other OSCE observers also came across clear abuses. "These parliamentary elections have made it clear that a considerable amount remains to be done if Russia wants to be seen as a real democracy," Van Bommel concluded.

The OSCE noted a range of irregularities in Sunday's elections in Russia. According to Van Bommel, these were discussed in the briefing which he attended this morning along with observers who had been present in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Rostov and Vladivostok. In a number of places people were able to vote outside their own electoral districts without producing the documents supposedly required before this is allowed, the so-called 'absence cards'. In Moscow the secret ballot was not properly enforced, as voters were required to bring their ballot slip folded open, so that their choice was clearly visible, from the voting booth to a computer terminal. In numerous polling stations police officers and members of the security forces were present. While the presence of police officers at – or, most commonly, just outside - polling stations is normal in many western parliamentary elections, Van Bommel observed that in Russia they often stood immediately next to the ballot box. In his view, this behaviour "was not compatible with a free and democratic climate. Its effects were intimidating, especially to supporters of the opposition."

The foreign observers did not always meet with full cooperation. In St. Petersburg the addresses of polling stations in the centre of the city were available, but those of others were not. When the observers nevertheless located them, they often did not feel at all welcome.

Events leading up to the elections also failed to meet European democratic norms. The opposition had extremely limited access to the media, while President Putin was able to put out unlimited propaganda via television broadcasters controlled by the Kremlin. "This goes to show that long-term observation, for several weeks before the elections, is of the utmost importance," Van Bommel said, noting that on this occasion any chance of performing such observation thoroughly had been frustrated by the Russian authorities.

For many the result was a foregone conclusion. The only question concerned the turnout, which seemed to be reasonably high, at more than 60%. In Putin's view, this represents a broad mandate. "The question is what he is going to do now, what he will do when his second and final term as President comes to an end," Van Bommel said. "Will he hand over power, or will he just shuffle a few names around while he remains as the real strong man, the one who truly pulls the strings? On 20th December his party, United Russia, holds its national congress. Probably Putin will use this to announce his plans for the future. This will be another litmus test for the quality of Russian democracy."

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