Activists say Russian vote will not be democratic

Fri Sep 23, 2011 7:38am EDT

* Activists say Kremlin meddling in politics

* Putin's ruling party starts congress on Friday

* Parliamentary election to be held on Dec. 4

By Thomas Grove

MOSCOW, Sept 23 (Reuters) - A parliamentary election in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling party will seek to retain its grip on power will fall short of democratic standards, prominent Russian activists have said in a letter to a European civil rights body.

In the letter, released on the eve of a meeting of Putin's United Russia party to plot strategy for the Dec. 4 vote, activists accused the state of dismantling democratic elections two decades after Russia shed Soviet-era single-party rule.

"There has been a complete destruction of the institution of democratic elections in Russia, all of which has taken place with the direct participation and approval of all levels of state authority," the activists said.

Their letter, sent to the Council of Europe, comes amid Western concerns over the fairness of the vote that will determine the makeup of the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, for the next five years.

The 47-member Strasbourg-based Council is responsible for the European Convention on Human Rights, and members including Russia are required to hold free and fair elections.

The election will set the stage for a March 2012 presidential vote in which Putin, president from 2000-2008, may return to the Kremlin. Whether he runs for president or not, analysts say Putin has made clear he intends to remain in power.

On Friday, United Russia started a two-day congress in which it was expected to name candidates for the election to the Duma, which United Russia has dominated for years. The party currently holds 315 of 450 seats.

A July survey by independent pollster Levada found that most Russians believed the December poll would be only an "imitation" of an election with the results already predetermined by authorities.

Citing a "reduced public trust in the fairness and genuineness of the electoral process," the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said earlier this month it wants to send 260 monitors to cover the Russian elections.

Among signatories of the activists' letter were veteran human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and activist Svetlana Gannushkina, respected for her work with migrants.

They petitioned the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly to recognise what they called Russia's lack of a fair electoral process.

Activists said the registration of political parties has become selective, while the mainstream media -- in many cases owned or controlled by the state -- was actively propagandising on behalf of the authorities.

"Even now at the beginning of the election campaign, the current federal elections can be called neither free nor fair," the letter said.

Earlier this year the Justice Ministry denied party registration for an opposition bloc that united several vociferous Kremlin critics. A court last month denied an appeal by the group, which has accused authorities of pressing supporters to withdraw their backing.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in June that Washington was "disappointed" and "troubled" by reports that authorities had been intimidating opposition supporters.

Russia's Central Election Commission has yet to approve the offer of election monitors from the OSCE's human rights and democracy arm. A dispute between Russia and the organisation prevented the group from sending a full-fledged monitoring mission for the last Duma election, in 2007. (Reporting by Thomas Grove)