* 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 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
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
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)