A court on Friday found Russia's only independent election watchdog guilty of violations, casting doubt on its ability to monitor Sunday's parliamentary election as voters complain of record violations by the Kremlin party.
The Kremlin is determined to see the dominant United Russia maintain its majority in parliament. President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin both made final appeals for the party on Friday, warning that a parliament made up of diverse political camps would be incapable of making decisions.
The respected independent watchdog Golos, which compiles complaints of election law violations across the country and posts them on online, has recorded more than 4,700 complaints, most involving United Russia.
The court agreed with prosecutors that the Golos website violates a law forbidding the publication of public opinion research within five days of an election. Golos was fined 30,000 rubles (just under $1,000).
"They are afraid that Golos will tell the truth. They are concerned that they cannot control us," Golos deputy director Grigory Melkonyants said. "They might silence Golos, but they will not silence those people who witness these violations every day."
He insisted that the group would be able to continue its operations, saying that Russians have a constitutional right to report violations. Golos said it plans to send out 3,000 activists to observe Sunday's election.
Golos' lawyer, Ramil Akhmetgaliev, was less optimistic. "There could be a case to close down the organization," he said. "It depends on how they want to use the law."
The group has come under growing pressure since Sunday, when Putin accused Western governments of trying to influence the election through their funding of unidentified Russian non-governmental organizations. Golos, whose name means "vote," is supported by grants from the United States and Europe.
Kremlin-controlled NTV television showed a half-hour program on Friday evening that attacked Golos directly. The program included shots of suitcases full of U.S. dollars and claimed that Golos was openly supporting opposition parties and trying to discredit the elections.
But the Obama administration expressed concern about the court ruling "as well as what appears to be a pattern of harassment directed against this organization," said White House national security council spokesman Tommy Vietor. He said the U.S. has expressed its concerns to Russia's government and its embassy in Washington.
"We are proud of our support of Golos, which is intended to strengthen democratic institutions and processes _ not influence elections _ and we believe that citizens everywhere should have a right to report concerns about their electoral processes," said Vietor. "The United States has supported and will continue to support those citizens and non-governmental organizations working for free and fair elections in Russia, as we do globally."
United Russia dominates Russia's political life and has received overwhelmingly favorable coverage during the campaign, mostly from Kremlin-controlled national television. But the party is increasingly disliked, seen as representing a corrupt bureaucracy and often called "the party of crooks and thieves."
Putin leads the party and he needs it to do well in the parliamentary election to pave the way for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away.
On Friday, the final day of campaigning, Putin warned that parliament would be unable to work effectively if members "are punching one another, fighting, pulling one another's hair, as occurs in certain neighboring countries," a clear reference to Ukraine's fractious politics.
"If someone wants to see a show, then they should go to the circus, the cinema or the theater," Putin said during a televised visit to a shipbuilding plant.
Medvedev, in a formal televised address, also warned about the dangers of a parliament "torn by irreconcilable conflicts, incapable of making a decision."
The independent Levada Center released a poll last week that predicted United Russia would receive 53 percent of the vote. While still a majority, this would deprive the party of the two-thirds majority that has allowed it to amend the constitution.
Golos said this week that about a third of the complaints it has received come from voters who say they are being pressured to vote for United Russia, mostly by their bosses at work or their professors at universities. Fears that the vote count will be rigged also were running high.
Lilia Shevtsova, a political scientist at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said most Russians are under no illusions that the election will be fair.
"Everybody understands in Russia that this election is without any kind of choice," she said. "More than 55 percent of Russians consider that the forthcoming elections will be fraudulent and will be manipulated."
Six other Kremlin-approved parties have been allowed to field candidates, while the most vocal opposition groups have been barred.
The Levada poll indicates that the Communist Party may benefit from the protest vote, with its share of the vote predicted to rise to 20 percent from less than 12 percent in 2007. The poll also shows an uptick for the two other parties in parliament: the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Just Russia, a party established with Kremlin support to lure votes from the Communists.
Associated Press writers Mansur Mirovalev, Sofia Javed and Romain Goguelin in Moscow and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.