By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
MOSCOW, Jan. 29 -- Europe's principal elections watchdog group said Tuesday it may refuse to monitor a second Russian election in a row because the authorities here have imposed "serious restrictions" on the organization's ability to scrutinize March 2 presidential voting.
"If the conditions aren't changed, we can't observe," Curtis Budden, a spokesman for the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said in a telephone interview.
Budden said a written Russian invitation to the organization, which is an arm of the 56-state Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), limited the number of observers to 70, much lower than the number allowed at the last presidential election. Moreover, Budden said, observers will not be allowed to enter Russia until three days before the vote.
Russian officials say the March voting will be well observed because they have invited a total of about 400 foreign observers, from countries including former Soviet republics and China. The numbers from the OSCE group, they contend, are fully within the requirements for OSCE members.
"There will be no limits placed on the activities of international election monitors so long as they act within the law," Vladimir Churov, head of Russia's Central Election Commission, said Monday.
The OSCE's monitoring group normally conducts both long-term and short-term missions, observing the quality of the campaign for at least two months as well as the conduct of voting on the day of the election. In the last Russian presidential election, in 2004, the group had 387 long-term and short-term observers.
"We are not satisfied with their conditions because they don't allow meaningful observation," Budden said.
He said the watchdog group has written to the Central Election Commission asking it to quickly revise its conditions. Budden said a decision on whether to monitor the presidential election will depend on the Russian response and its timeliness.
Russia angrily complains that the OSCE, which has criticized the conduct of numerous elections in the post-Soviet world, is a vehicle for the West to undermine Russia and its allies. The Kremlin has increasingly adopted a strident and dismissive stance toward Western criticism of its anti-democratic direction under President Vladimir Putin.
Dmitry Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister and Putin's chosen successor, is widely expected to sweep to victory March 2. But the fairness of the process has already been called into question by the opposition here, which cites the disqualification of one candidate, a Putin critic, and alleged bias in favor of Medvedev on the critical national television channels where most Russians get their news.
Last month, the OSCE monitoring organization refused to observe Russia's parliamentary elections, complaining of visa delays and restrictions on the part of the Central Election Commission. Russia charged that the United States had strong-armed the OSCE not to observe -- an allegation denied by the Bush administration and the international group.
The December elections were criticized by the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE and the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights group, as unfair.