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Europe urges Russia election probe

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe joined the United States on Monday in demanding Russia investigate alleged abuses in an election won overwhelmingly by President Vladimir Putin’s party, and Germany denounced the poll as undemocratic.

European states expressed alarm over the outcome of Sunday’s parliamentary poll after rights watchdogs said the campaign had been marred by biased media coverage and abuse of government resources in favor of Putin’s United Russia.

But analysts said many European states now acknowledged that Moscow, whose cooperation the West wants over disputes from Iran to Kosovo, was increasingly impervious to outside criticism.

With almost all votes counted in the State Duma (lower house) election, Putin’s United Russia had won 64.1 percent of votes -- nearly six times as many as his nearest rival.

“It is vital that the Russian Central Election Commission urgently investigates all allegations of electoral abuses,” Britain’s foreign ministry said, echoing a similar call from Washington on Sunday.

It expressed disappointment that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe had not been able to observe the election. The OSCE cancelled plans to monitor the poll after a row with Moscow over delays in issuing visas.

France expressed the hope that Moscow would “shed light” on the allegations of voting irregularities.

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Sharper reaction came from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, seen as less close to Putin than that of her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder.

“Measured by our standards, it was neither a free, fair nor democratic election,” said spokesman Thomas Steg. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged Russia to probe abuses.

The Kremlin said the vote provided a ringing endorsement of Putin, who is now expected to try and hold onto the reins of power after his term ends next year. Critics accused authorities of ensuring victory was never in doubt.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer added his voice to concerns, but a spokesman for the 26-nation Western military alliance said NATO would continue a policy of post-Cold War engagement with Russia which has seen patchy results so far.


Russian assets traded flat to weaker on Western markets as analysts said the extent of the victory was enough to ensure Putin manages a smooth political transition but not so strong as to alienate the West.

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“The story is: it’s business as usual in Russia. The key thing is Putin has the mandate he was looking for, a validation of any future role he may have,” said Chris Green, senior economist at Russian bank VTB-Europe in London.

There was no immediate reaction from the European Union Presidency, but the EU commissioner responsible for ties between Brussels and Moscow said there had been clear abuses.

“We saw some violations of basic rights, notably free speech and assembly rights,” EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told reporters in Berlin.

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The 27-member EU wants to negotiate a new “strategic partnership” with Russia but is struggling to get to grips with an energy giant enjoying the fruits of high prices for oil and showing increasing assertiveness on the world stage.

Graham Watson, leader of the European Parliament’s liberal faction, said the election showed Putin was “a populist with the trappings of a dictator”. “He is the same category as Hugo Chavez, only he is more dangerous,” he added, likening Putin to the left-wing leader of oil-rich Venezuela.

Analysts said the landslide victory for Putin’s party would likely mean the EU having to deal with an even more self-confident Kremlin that would pursue a policy of “divide-and-rule” over Europe’s national governments.

“EU countries ... must carefully work together in their relations with Russia so that the image of weak division is not the one that prevails,” said Michael Emerson at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies.

Katinka Barysch of the Centre for European Reform said the EU had shown it had little ability to influence Russian internal developments, but Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch said Brussels and Washington had to redouble their efforts.

“Europe needs Russian gas, but Russia needs the European market,” she said. “Europe and the Americans need to be talking to the Russians about what is everybody’s common interest. A stable Russia is in everybody’s common interest and that’s not what the Kremlin is building.”

Additional Reporting by Berlin, Paris, London, Stockholm and Moscow bureaux; Editing by Richard Balmforth