Doubts cast over Medvedev’s landslide triumph

The West cast doubt on Russia’s presidential election on Monday after Dmitry Medvedev won a landslide victory and vowed to follow the course set by outgoing leader Vladimir Putin.

Near complete results gave Medvedev 70,2% of Sunday’s vote, crushing his nearest rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who won 17,8% the central elections commission said.

But allegations that the landslide was stage-managed by the Kremlin raised widespread criticism of the election’s legitimacy.

The sole Western observer mission present, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace), said the poll failed to reflect Russia’s “democratic potential”.

“We think there is no freedom in this election,” Pace mission chief Andreas Gross told journalists.

Western capitals offered qualified congratulations to Medvedev. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner described the election as “conducted Russian-style, with a victory known in advance”.

Medvedev, the first deputy prime minister and head of gas monopoly Gazprom, will take over from Putin in May, when Putin will become prime minister.

The imminent prospect of an inexperienced president with his mentor as prime minister fed speculation in Russia over who will actually rule the world’s biggest energy exporter.

Medvedev (42) ruled out any weakening of the president’s role, saying after his victory that the post’s powers “flow from the Constitution and existing legislation and no one proposes to change them”.

He also laid immediate claim to one of Putin’s main responsibilities — foreign policy.

“Foreign policy, according to the Constitution, is determined by the president,” Medvedev said.

But he stressed that he would work with Putin, saying: “I’m sure our joint work and fully fledged, effective ties can bring positive results for the country.”

At a celebratory rock concert on Red Square, an unusually relaxed-looking Medvedev underlined the generational shift by appearing in a leather jacket and jeans. Putin (55) wore his usual black raincoat.

Medvedev will be the youngest Kremlin leader since Tsar Nicholas II and the first after the Bolshevik Revolution not to have risen to power through the Communist Party or, like Putin, the KGB.

Yet the simple fact that he came to his victory party accompanied not by his wife Svetlana, but the outgoing Putin, highlighted how much Medvedev will struggle to escape his current boss’s shadow.

“The most interesting time will be during the spring,” said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “I have the impression that he is more independent than he appeared at first.”

Medvedev will also have a challenge in mending fences with the West, where Putin is widely accused of damaging post-Soviet democratic gains and making Russia an unreliable, even aggressive international partner.

By coincidence, Gazprom on Monday cut shipments to neighbouring Ukraine by 25% after a debt row came to a head, adding to fears in the European Union about Russia’s reliability as a major supplier.

Although EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said he looked forward to developing a “strategic partnership” with Moscow, several major capitals were less enthusiastic.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown congratulated Medvedev, while saying he would “judge the new government on its actions and the results of those actions”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also offered congratulations with a note of caution, saying “democratic rules were not always upheld”.

The Czech government, which is at loggerheads with its former Soviet master over plans to host a United States anti-missile system, said “restrictive practices did not allow equal conditions for all candidates”.

Controversy dogged the election long before voting day, with critics attacking the heavily biased state media machine and the obstacles preventing liberal opponents from participating.

However, Russian election chief Vladimir Churov dismissed the European monitors’ criticism, saying: “I know of no document regulating the procedure for making use of democratic potential,” Interfax news agency reported.

Opposition activists led by chess great turned Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov were to hold demonstrations on Monday. Previous rallies have been violently dispersed by police. — AFP

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