Council of Europe to Send Observers

Authorities said Friday that the Council of Europe would send observers to monitor the March 2 presidential election that Europe's main vote watchdog has already declined to attend, accusing Moscow of unreasonable restrictions.

But the head of the observer mission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said Friday that the run-up to the March 2 presidential election shows signs of unfairness.

Andreas Gross, head of the 30-member mission, in particular cited unequal treatment of the candidates by state-controlled national television channels.

His statement followed a report Thursday by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations that said First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whom President Vladimir Putin has endorsed as his successor, has received some 50 percent of the coverage of political stories on newscasts, where none of the other candidates has received more than 6 percent.

Candidates are allowed equal access to television time for campaign statements, but Medvedev has not used his allotment, and the statements of the other three candidates generally appear at times when viewership is likely to be low.

"We have witnessed inadequacies such as appeared in the parliamentary elections in December," Gross said. Observers said the fairness of those elections was undermined by television coverage that gave extensive and favorable attention to the pro-Putin United Russia party, while giving only cursory attention to other parties.

Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin's first prime minister who later became a critic, claims that official interference has kept him out of the vote. He was thrown off the ballot after the Central Elections Commission said it found huge numbers of forged signatures on his nominating petitions.

"Elections in which candidates collide with insurmountable registration difficulties can prove to be not in accordance with the criteria of free elections," Gross said, Itar-Tass reported.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last week decided not to send monitors because of restrictions on their activities. The OSCE's election-monitoring arm also declined to send observers to the December elections, saying Russia refused to give it enough time to mount an adequate mission.

Medvedev's campaign chief Sergei Sobyanin was positive Friday about the council's decision.

"I am happy that yesterday Duma Chairman [Boris] Gryzlov received a letter from Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe saying that it would send a full-fledged mission to Moscow to monitor the Russian presidential election," Sobyanin, Putin's chief of staff, told Gross.

"It's very important to note that Russian elections will be held in full accordance with the Constitution and Russian law. We are happy to see anyone who wishes to help us in this process," he said.