Russian President Defends Recent Elections Amid Fraud Allegations

Russia's president on Saturday defended recent local elections that drew fraud allegations, inspired an opposition walkout of parliament and strengthened the Kremlin's grip on power

Dmitry Medvedev said during a meeting with parliamentary opposition leaders that the election was "overall well-organized." In broadcast comments he seemed to dismiss allegations of vote-rigging while noting there were legal mechanisms for challenging election results.

Nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky later said Medvedev had told the opposition privately that the Oct. 11 election results would not be changed. But Zhirinovsky said opposition leaders agreed not to provoke a political crisis.

Zhirinovsky led the Oct. 14 walkout.

The protest in Russia's Duma, or parliament, was the first of its kind in nearly a decade.

The Kremlin-backed United Russia party swept more than 7,000 local elections in 75 of Russia's 83 regions on Oct. 11. Prominent opposition leaders have charged the vote was rigged.

In an interview published Monday, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev denounced the election as a mockery of democracy and said the vote had discredited Russia's political system.

On Thursday about 1,500 supporters of the Communists and other parties staged a protest in Moscow against alleged vote-rigging.

Medvedev on Saturday grimly joked that he had worn black to his meeting with opposition leaders because he feared his guests expected "a burial of democracy."

"I agreed to meet with you and discuss the outcomes of the elections to local legislatures and local self-government bodies so that this all should not turn into a burial of democracy and the electoral system here," Medvedev told opposition leaders in his televised comments.

"Overall, the election was organized well enough," he said. "There are different assessments (of the outcome) among parliamentary parties, but that's easily understood, because, as a rule, those who win treat the results as positive" while the losers have a different opinion.

Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov said after the meeting that he had urged Medvedev to push for strengthening Russian democracy in the president's upcoming address to parliament.

"It's a key point, which would cool off the heads of those who have been stealing votes and who have been recording fake votes and breaking the law on elections," Zyuganov told Russian media.

The level of protest is unusual. The Communists and other opposition parties in parliament generally vote with the government, support its major initiatives and offer only muted criticism of the Kremlin.

By contrast leaders of Russia's Western-style liberal democrats have complained of being frozen out of elective office entirely in recent years. They charge that the Kremlin has excluded them from most ballots through restrictive rules, election commission decisions and court rulings.

When they have been allowed to campaign, they say, they face official pressure and negative or non-existent coverage by the state-controlled media.

Despite the walkout and criticism, the fraud allegations have not so far inspired general public anger.