| MOSCOW, Dec. 8 — International observers on Monday
criticized Russia's parliamentary elections as a step backward in the country's
democratic transition, only moments after President Vladimir V. Putin described
them as "free, honest, open and democratic."
United Russia, the party defined almost entirely by its fealty to Mr.
Putin, swept to overwhelming victory on Sunday after benefiting, the observers
said, from fawning coverage on state television and official support at
all levels of government. Mr. Putin's party crushed the Communists and
ousted all but a handful of liberal democrats from Parliament, capturing
the most votes of any party in any election since the collapse of the
Soviet Union in 1991.
Two groups that sent election observers, the Council of Europe and the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a report
that the results also reflected "the extensive use of the state apparatus
and media favoritism to benefit the largest pro-presidential party."
The report, based on the findings of 500 observers, offered some of
the harshest criticism yet of Russian elections, saying the vote called
"into question Russia's willingness to move towards European standards
for democratic elections."
The president of the O.S.C.E. Parliamentary Assembly, Bruce George,
said at a news conference in Moscow that the vote represented a "regression
in the democratization process." He also reported "blatant fraud"
in Bashkortostan Republic, in the southern Urals, and "irregularities"
in Siberia and the Far East.
The criticism is not likely to dent the exercise of President Putin's
power. Russia, which is a member of the Organization for Security and
Cooperation, has ignored the group's protests over its conduct in Chechnya.
Indeed, Mr. Putin interpreted the results as a clear validation of the
course he has set in the four years since he became president, despite
steps viewed here and abroad as autocratic, including the war in Chechnya,
the stifling of dissent and, most recently, a prosecutorial assault on
the country's richest man and a potential rival, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky.
"It is absolutely clear that these results reflect the real sympathies
of the population," Mr. Putin said in his first public remarks on
the returns. "They reflect what the people of Russia think. They
reflect the realities of our political life."
For the first time since the first parliamentary elections in 1993,
a democratic party failed to win a bloc. It is not clear whether the two
liberal parties that had represented a small but vocal coalition of reformist,
pro-Western deputies will survive, as the leader of one of them, Grigory
A. Yavlinsky, acknowledged in an interview in a hotel cafe across
the Moscow River from the Kremlin.
"We now have, again, a one-party Parliament," said Mr. Yavlinsky,
who leads Yabloko and has been the public face of Russia's democrats for
the last decade. "Russia has had no such Parliament since Brezhnev."
Even as the European observers and losing candidates criticized the
elections, Mr. Putin received congratulatory telephone calls from Chancellor
Gerhard Schroder of Germany and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.
The Bush administration reacted cautiously. The State Department spokesman,
Richard A. Boucher, said American officials shared the concerns of the
international observers, "about things like state media systematically
reporting favorably on pro-Kremlin parties and reporting negatively on
"It's clear to us that administrative resources were widely used
to assist pro-Kremlin parties," Mr. Boucher said.
There was agreement across the political spectrum that the election
on Sunday heralded a new era, but there was profound disagreement over
what kind of era it would be.
With the support of two nationalist parties, the Liberal Democratic
Party and Motherland, deputies loyal to the Kremlin are projected to hold
nearly two-thirds of Parliament's 450 seats, cementing Mr. Putin's political
dominance as he approaches his own campaign for a second term in elections
Half the seats are apportioned based on overall party votes, while the
rest are chosen in individual districts. The results of all the district
races are not yet complete. So far Yabloko has won three of those races,
and the other liberal party, the Union of Right Forces, just one.
Vladislav Y. Surkov, an influential adviser to Mr. Putin who orchestrated
the Kremlin's political strategy, said in a rare interview on Monday that
the results signaled the demise of "the old political system, which
is based on Marxist dogmas of the right and left flanks."
"A new political era is coming," he told the Interfax news
agency, "and the parties that have not gotten into the Duma should
be calm about it and realize that their historical mission has been completed."
With 98 percent of the vote counted, United Russia won 37 percent. While
the final composition of Parliament will not be settled until next week,
the party was projected to control around half the seats outright.
The Communist Party, led by Gennady A. Zhuganov, received only 12.7
percent of the vote, nearly half its showing in 1999, when it won the
largest bloc of seats. The Communists still managed to eke out a victory
over the Liberal Democratic Party, led by Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, which
received 11.6 percent.
Motherland, a new party formed only months before the election, received
9 percent. One of the party's leaders, Dmitri O. Rogozin, who campaigned
on a nationalistic message, dismissed the criticism of the election, saying
the observers were "directly interfering in Russia's internal affairs."
Mr. Putin seemed to anticipate criticism of the elections. He said Russia
would work to overcome "all shortcomings" in the voting, but
called the election "one more step for the strengthening of democracy"
in Russia. He noted that the low turnout, while a disappointing 56 percent
of eligible voters, was close to those in Britain and Canada.
Elections to the State Duma,