Russia Deliberately Delaying the Arrival of Election Observers, Critics Say

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

MOSCOW, Oct. 23 -- With parliamentary elections just weeks away, Russia has still not extended an invitation to Europe's principal election watchdog to monitor the vote. Opposition activists and Western diplomats charge that the authorities here are deliberately stalling to limit the work of an organization that Russia views as an unwelcome critic.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) assess campaigns and elections to determine whether they meet democratic standards. Reports by the group, whose 55 member states include Russia, help gauge the international legitimacy of vote results.

"At this point for Russia, the result is much more important than the legitimacy of the process," said Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy chairman of the small Yabloko party. "In the end, I think that Russia will invite international observers, but they will not be able to do much or influence the situation here."

Russia has increasingly complained that the OSCE, which has criticized the conduct of numerous elections in former Soviet states, is a vehicle for the West to undermine Russia and its allies. The Kremlin routinely organizes parallel election-monitoring missions to those states; the missions invariably endorse votes that Western observers have condemned as neither free nor fair.

Russian officials, who said they have been too busy to focus on international observers, insist that they will issue an invitation to the OSCE after they have registered all parties and their lists of candidates by the end of this week. The elections are scheduled for Dec. 2.

"After the registration stage, we'll start discussing the issue and we'll decide within two to three weeks," Andrei Davydov, head of Russia's Central Election Commission's external relations department, said in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant. "Russian law has never set any terms for inviting international observers. There are just our international liabilities, and we will fulfill them. As for when, each country determines it according to its internal procedures."

Officials at the Central Election Commission said Tuesday there was no one available to discuss the issue.

The OSCE normally works well in advance of election day, monitoring the run-up to the vote. Four years ago, during Russia's last parliamentary vote, the OSCE had been at work for five weeks at this stage in the process. By election day in 2003, there were 450 OSCE observers in Russia, according to officials with the group.

"They are constantly telling us that an invite is forthcoming, but we haven't received anything," said Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw, which organizes election monitoring. "Every day that passes makes this more difficult."

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, which has its own election monitoring missions, also has not yet been invited by Russian officials.

"The OSCE focuses a lot on the preelection period because this is not a one-day event, it is a process, and clearly they are trying to limit that work," a Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of Russian authorities. "They are stalling. There is no other explanation."

The official said there were also fears that the Russians would attempt to limit the scale of any OSCE mission by inviting only a few dozen people rather than the hundreds of observers who normally work during elections.

"In my opinion this is really a manifestation of Russia's attitude towards the OSCE," said Lilia Shibanova, head of the Golos (Vote) association, a grouping of Russian grass-roots organizations.

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