European Observers Will Skip Election

The OSCE's democracy watchdog on Thursday canceled its planned observer mission for the March 2 presidential election, saying Moscow had placed restrictions severely hampering its monitors.

Russia said it regretted the decision of the OSCE's Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR, but said it would not bend to the election watchdog's demands for a larger delegation of observers and more time in the country ahead of the ballot.

ODIHR will not send observers because of "severe restrictions on the composition and duration of the mission," ODIHR director Christian Strohal said in a statement.

"An election is more than what happens on election day," Strohal said in the statement.

The organization canceled its planned mission ahead of December's State Duma elections following a bitter dispute over restrictions and the timing of the invitations.

Ahead of the presidential election, the Central Elections Commission originally said observers could begin working just three days before the election and that only 70 observers could monitor the vote -- down from 400 in the 2004 presidential election. Following ODIHR protests, the commission bumped the number up to 75 observers and said they could start working Feb. 20. ODIHR rejected the offer, saying Feb. 20 was too late for their observers to do their work properly.

ODIHR had asked for 75 observers to begin working Feb. 15.

ODIHR spokesman Curtis Budden said by telephone from Warsaw that additional time in the country makes a "significant difference," allowing observers to monitor the presidential campaign as well as the vote itself.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Thursday that the Central Elections Commission informed ODIHR in writing Wednesday that it could not meet the demands.

ODIHR said in the statement that members of its advance team had been denied visas.

Commission member Igor Borisov told Ekho Moskvy radio that the canceled mission would not affect the election, which First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, backed by President Vladimir Putin, is expected to win in a landslide.

The OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly -- which sent observers to the Dec. 2 Duma elections -- also said it was canceling its mission for the presidential vote.

"We regret that circumstances prevent us from observing this election," the assembly's secretary general, Spencer Oliver, said in a statement.

Assembly spokesman Klas Bergman said by telephone from Copenhagen that the mission was canceled because an invitation from State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov limited the delegation to 30 observers.

"We don't want any restrictions," Bergman said.

He denied that the assembly had acted out of solidarity with ODIHR.

Speaking before the ODIHR announcement Thursday, Lavrov accused the election watchdog of trying to force its agenda and called Russia's counterproposal an "intelligent compromise."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said Russia "deeply regrets" the ODIHR's decision to cancel the monitoring mission, Interfax reported.

OSCE regulations dictate neither the number of monitors for observer missions, nor the amount of time the missions should operate in a given country during an election.

Kremlin-connected spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky said Thursday that the canceled observer missions were part of a U.S.-backed plan to declare the election invalid.

"This plan is aimed at undercutting the new president at the very beginning of his work," Pavlovsky said, Interfax reported.

Fyodor Lukyanov, a political analyst and editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said the dispute revealed a changing perception among the Russian elite of their country's political maturity.

"Election monitoring was initially meant as something to certify the legitimacy of elections in countries in transition," Lukyanov said. "Russian rulers believe that we are not in transition anymore, that we have arrived where we want to be."

ODIHR, whose election assessments are becoming increasingly irrelevant in former Soviet countries with authoritarian leanings, was trying to save face in the conflict by canceling its mission, Lukyanov said.

"They wanted an alibi so they could have claimed to have done something about Russia's elections if they had not been barred," Lukyanov said.