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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vote Monitors Feeling Unwelcome

Less than six weeks before the State Duma elections, international organizations remain in the dark as to whether their observers will be allowed to monitor the vote because Moscow has yet to issue a single invitation.

Even if, as a Central Elections Commission member said, the invitations will be issued soon, a source at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's headquarters in Vienna said Thursday that it was likely to send only half as many observers as it did for the last Duma vote. In 2003, the OSCE contingent numbered 450 members.

The OSCE, its parliamentary assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are all still waiting for invitations, spokespeople said Thursday.

Hardest hit by the uncertainty is the OSCE, which has traditionally sent the largest delegation. The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which is responsible for putting together the monitoring mission, said it received an invitation to monitor the 2003 vote, held on Dec. 9, in mid-September.

"Any delay makes our work difficult," Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokeswoman for the office, said Thursday by telephone from Warsaw.

Igor Borisov, a member of the Central Elections Commission, said invitations would be sent out when the party registration process is completed.

"They could be sent as early as Monday," he said, adding that observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States would also be invited.

Gunnarsdottir declined to say how many observers would be sent once the invitation was received, adding that it was possible that Moscow would limit their number. But she stressed that she hoped the mission would be effective.

"Size is not everything," she said.

Andrei Davydov, head of the Central Elections Commission's external relations department, said this week the commission wanted to lower the number of monitors. Davydov said organizations should send tens, rather than hundreds, of observers, Kommersant reported.

Moscow has proposed a significant reduction in numbers, according to a confidential draft proposal circulated last month to the OSCE. The document, published Thursday by The New York Times on its web site, calls for monitoring missions to be limited to 50 people.

Co-signed by Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the document also suggests that the monitors' official reports go through the OSCE Permanent Council before being published. Because the council works on the principle of unanimity, meaning that each of the OSCE's 56 member states, including Russia and the other authors of the document, could prevent a report from being issued.

It would also mean that the head of a monitoring mission would not be able to make public remarks about the vote before the OSCE's main body met.

For its part, Moscow denies that it wants to limit the activities of foreign observers. "The aim is to make the rules more effective and representative," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said about the proposal Thursday.

The head of the OSCE monitoring mission in 2003, Bruce George, lambasted that vote as a step backward in Russia's transition to democracy, calling the election process "fundamentally unfair."

But Borisov, the elections commission member, complained that the OSCE treated Russia like a country with no experience in holding democratic elections. "This is already the fifth cycle of democratic elections," he said, adding that Russia was a democratic country and did not need international assistance in organizing elections. In the past, he argued, countries like Bulgaria or Turkey invited observers just a month before elections, with France waiting until just 17 days before the vote.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin's senior aide on European relations, said Russia was not abandoning its obligations within the framework of the OSCE and the Council of Europe.

But he also warned that it was high time for other countries "to stop preaching" to Russia.

"We do not want to listen to any lectures," Yastrzhembsky told reporters late Wednesday.

A source in the OSCE said it was possible that the Kremlin could have ulterior motives in causing difficulties over the question of monitors.

Moscow is backing a bid by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to chair the OSCE in 2009, a suggestion that has met with reservations from major Western members, including the United States and Britain. A decision is expected at the OSCE summit in late November in Madrid.

"There are a lot of bargaining chips in the OSCE," the source said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Ivan Melnikov, first deputy chairman of the Communist Party, said he did not want to dramatize the situation, because his party was popular enough to win votes even if the elections were rigged.

"International observers will certainly be invited, if only because the authorities are seriously concerned that the vote appear legitimate," he said in e-mailed comments. "But they certainly do not want the foreign experts to be able to issue as harsh an assessment as they did of the last elections."

Leonid Gozman, who tops the Union of Right Forces party list in St. Petersburg for the Duma vote, said the country's current leadership had reacted nervously to any attempts by civil society to monitor elections.

"The authorities have already decided that they don't need elections," Gozman said. "They know the result in advance."

Central Elections Commission chief Vladimir Churov extolled Russia's electoral system in a question-and-answer session published in Wednesday's Komsomolskaya Pravda.

"Our system is the most democratic and transparent," Churov said. "That I can say for sure."

In April, Churov said in an interview with Kommersant that he thought monarchy was an eternal idea, although he conceded that it would probably be next to impossible to restore it in Russia.