February 27, 2008 / 3:44 PM / 12 years ago

Amnesty says no opposition or debate in Russia election

BERLIN (Reuters) - Russia’s presidential election campaign is taking place without a real political debate or viable opposition because of President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on the media and critics, Amnesty International said.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and First Deputy Prime Minister and presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev listen to the state anthem during a celebration on the eve of Defender of the Fatherland Day in the Kremlin palace in Moscow February 22, 2008. Civil rights in Russia have been eroded under Putin, Amnesty International said on Tuesday, five days before a presidential election widely criticized in the West. REUTERS/Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool

Putin’s preferred successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, is expected to win easily in Sunday’s election — a vote that opposition groups say will be unfair.

“Television broadcasts naturally give a very one-sided view as they are controlled by the state,” Friederike Behr, Russia researcher for the London-based rights group, told a news conference in Berlin.

She said only citizens of Russia’s biggest cities, such as Moscow and St Petersburg, had access to opposition newspapers and the views of Putin’s political opponents.

“There is no real opposition ahead of the election. There is no real electoral campaign battle,” she added.

In a report published on Tuesday, Amnesty said new laws restricting non-government organizations (NGOs), police breaking up anti-Kremlin demonstrations, and complaints of harassment from critics of the Kremlin were all part of a systematic destruction of civil liberties in Russia.

“The space for critical views, and for independent media and independent organizations to operate, is shrinking,” the report said.

Europe’s main election watchdog, from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has pulled out of monitoring the vote, citing the restrictions being imposed on its work. The Council of Europe’s chief observer has said he fears the election will not be sufficiently free or fair.

However, opinion polls show that most Russians back Medvedev, endorsed by the popular Putin, whom many voters credit for overseeing the strongest economic boom in a generation.

The Kremlin says it is committed to human rights and democracy, but accuses Western governments of using rights as a political weapon to try to limit Russia’s resurgence on the world stage.

Last year police quashed street protests by an anti-Kremlin coalition, and several murders or mysterious deaths of journalists critical of the Russian authorities remain unsolved.

Behr was non-committal about the prospect of change under Medvedev. “As a human rights Organization, we always work with the hope that things will get better,” she said.

Additional reporting by James Kilner in Moscow; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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