Monitor Declines Role in Russian Vote

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 8, 2008

MOSCOW, Feb. 7 -- Russia's relations with international bodies that monitor democratic norms and human rights soured further Thursday when Europe's leading election watchdog organization confirmed that it would not monitor the upcoming presidential vote, citing "severe restrictions" on its planned work.

"We made every effort in good faith to deploy our mission, even under the conditions imposed by the Russian authorities," Christian Strohal, the monitoring group's director, said in a statement.

Russia has accused the group, an arm of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of acting as a tool of the United States to undermine Russia and its neighboring allies. The OSCE has long been a stern critic of the conduct of elections in the post-Soviet world, where autocratic leaders are accused of settling for a democratic veneer by holding a vote but balking at allowing real competition.

Speaking shortly before the group announced its decision, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused it of issuing ultimatums. When other countries say they do not want OSCE monitors, he said, the organization "acts differently and even pleads with the country to accept at least 10 observers."

He said the group was behaving "harshly and rudely" in its efforts to come to Russia and do "God only knows what."

In the West, at least, the lack of observers will cast some shadow over the almost certain victory March 2 of Dmitry Medvedev, President Vladimir Putin's chosen successor. Medvedev, 42, is running a campaign that avoids any debate. Opposition figures and some political analysts contend that two of his three competitors are in fact Kremlin allies who merely fill out the ballot.

The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights announced its decision following unsuccessful negotiations with Russia's Central Election Commission over the terms of its mandate.

The OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, which runs its own observation missions, also said Thursday that it will not monitor the Russian vote. Spencer Oliver, the assembly's secretary general, said his organization rarely monitors presidential elections and then only where they are "important" and "competitive."

"This appears not to be competitive," he said in a telephone interview.

Russia announced earlier that it would cut by more than 80 percent the number of OSCE observers it would allow, compared with the last presidential election, and said they would be allowed into the country only three days before the vote.

The OSCE, which normally sends in some observers two months before a vote to do long-term monitoring, said three days was too little time to effectively gauge the quality of the campaign. Russian authorities then said observers could arrive Feb. 20, but that was rejected Thursday as still inadequate.

The OSCE group also refused to monitor Russia's parliamentary elections in December. A delegation from the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, joined by a delegation from the Council of Europe, a human rights monitoring body, condemned the elections as a state-managed affair designed to ensure the overwhelming victory of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

Russia has invited observers from former Soviet republics as well as China to monitor the presidential vote. Such delegations have repeatedly endorsed elections in Russia and its neighbors as free and fair -- as they did in December following Russia's parliamentary elections.

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