Election watchdog claims it is being muzzled ahead of Putin's bid for presidency
The Kremlin has been accused of muzzling Russia's only independent election watchdog three days before a parliamentary vote in an attempt to stem a slew of fraud allegations against Vladimir Putin's political party.
State prosecutors paid a surprise visit last Thursday to the Moscow office of Golos, or 'Voice', a Western-sponsored but operationally independent election watchdog, and served it with legal papers accusing it of breaking the country's election law.
Demanding that its representatives appear in a Moscow courtroom last Friday, prosecutors accused the group of consistently painting a negative picture of an unnamed political party, an overt reference to Mr Putin's United Russia party.
"It is obvious the people who organised this campaign against us are the same people who are committing electoral fraud across the country," Grigory Melkonyants, Golos's executive director, said.
"It is a special operation designed to destroy the only independent election watchdog in Russia."
The United Russia party is expected to win yesterday's vote comfortably, albeit with a reduced majority reflecting the fact that some voters have tired of its dominance and been put off by a string of corruption scandals and a lack of real change.
The Kremlin has almost total control of state TV and Golos has been one of the few organisations able to publicise its attempts at fraud and intimidation.
"These elections are neither free nor fair," said Mr Melkonyants. "There have been a significant number of violations. We have had mayors of entire towns forcing public sector workers to vote for United Russia on pain of dismissal."
Mr Putin remains Russia's most popular politician by a big margin and is expected to easily win a presidential election in March, even though his own ratings have slipped somewhat.
But his opponents say it is a popularity artificially maintained by the Kremlin's total control over political life.
State TV has consistently provided fawning coverage of him and President Dmitry Medvedev, opposition party TV advertisements have been halted and the only other three parties likely to get in the Duma are either Kremlin-friendly or soft on the Kremlin. (© Daily Telegraph, London)