Advance OSCE Team Arrives for Elections

Representatives from OSCE's election-monitoring arm arrived in Moscow on Wednesday despite the organization's complaints that Russia has placed restrictions severely hampering monitors for the March 2 presidential election.

The four-person logistical team from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights will be joined in Moscow by another representative from the Warsaw-based organization, ODIHR spokesman Curtis Budden said.

Eighteen more representatives are to arrive Friday, if they are issued visas, Budden said.

But there appeared to be little progress Wednesday in the standoff over the number of observers Russia is allowing to monitor the vote and when their mission will formally open.

Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov said he regretted the rejection of Russia's offer to let the mission begin fully operating Feb. 20.

"One can only express regret," Denisov said, Interfax reported. "We hope to continue the negotiations."

The Central Elections Commission had 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 to late for their observers to do their work properly.

ODIHR wants 75 observers to begin working Feb. 15.

"We would need at the latest to have our observers [there] next week," Budden said. "This is a minimum condition." Observers need a minimum of three weeks to monitor the election, he said.

"We were not able to observe the registration of candidates because we were not allowed into the country," Buden said.

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

A boycott by the organization now would bolster concerns about the legitimacy of the presidential vote, where a victory for First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is generally viewed as a foregone conclusion.

Medvedev, whose popularity has soared to around 70 percent since President Vladimir Putin announced that he was supporting his candidacy in December, enjoys blanket state television coverage at government meetings and during regional visits. He has said he is too busy to campaign.

Opposition activists have accused the Kremlin of running a crooked election, providing uneven media coverage and preventing opposition candidates from running.

Russia accused the United States of putting pressure on ODHIR to pull out of the Dec. 2 elections and has said it is trying to sabotage monitoring plans for the presidential vote as well.

International observers criticized the Dec. 2 Duma elections as unfair and undemocratic, accusing the authorities of abusing their powers to ensure an overwhelming victory for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.