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Monday, March 5, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.

Foreign observers: serious problems in Russia vote

By JIM HEINTZ and PETER LEONARD
Associated Press

The head of the major international election observer mission in Russia says there were "serious problems" in the vote that returned Vladimir Putin to the presidency.

Tonino Picula said in a statement Monday that "there was no real competition, and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner of the election was never in doubt."

Picula headed the short-term observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

A brief synopsis of the mission's findings did not address Russian independent observers' contentions that there were widespread cases of people casting multiple ballots, but said the election "process deteriorated during the vote count, which was assessed negatively in almost one-third of polling stations observed."

The Central Elections Commission says Prime Minister Putin, who was president in 2000-2008, got more than 63 percent of the nationwide vote, but the independent Russian elections watchdog Golos says incomplete reports from its observers of individual polling station counts indicate he hovered perilously close to the 50-percent mark needed for a first-round victory.

The OSCE observers' conclusions may have significant bearing on whether Russia's opposition forces will be able to maintain the momentum of the unprecedentedly large protests they were able to marshal in the past three months.

A protest rally has been set for Monday evening on Moscow's Pushkin Square, one of the central city's most iconic locations. News reports say some 12,000 police and troops will be on duty to ensure order in the city.

The recent months' protests were the largest public show of anger in post-Soviet Russia, where opposition demonstrations previously had been severely limited by officials, and any unauthorized gatherings were harshly dispersed by police.

However, officials gave permission for the massive rallies, which attracted tens of thousands, but it was not clear if the tolerance would continue in the post-election period.

On Monday, outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Justice Ministry to present its explanation for last year's rejection of registration for the People's Freedom Party, an organization led by some of the opposition's most prominent figures. He also ordered the prosecutor-general to re-examine the legality of the conviction of imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and more than 30 others regarded by the opposition as political prisoners.

Some observers saw the move as a maneuver to vitiate continued protests.

Medvedev, "it appears, is trying in advance to break the protest wave, " political analyst Pavel Svyatenkov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.

At least one opposition figured vowed that strategy wouldn't work.

In general, this step can be welcomed. But I don't think it should stop the criticism of authorities," Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov told the state news agency RIA Novosti.

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