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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

OSCE Body Cancels Vote Monitors

In an unprecedented move, the OSCE's democracy watchdog on Friday canceled its planned observer mission for the upcoming State Duma vote, saying Moscow had prevented election monitors from receiving visas.

The decision prompted an unusually angry reaction from the Foreign Ministry, which accused the organization of inventing an excuse to cancel the mission, in the latest rift between Russia and the West.

Diplomats said Russia's already-fraught relations with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe might deteriorate into outright crisis. President Vladimir Putin chided the OSCE in February for interfering in the internal affairs of former Soviet states.

The OSCE's Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR, said it would be unable to deliver on its mandate "due to delays and restrictions."

"Despite repeated attempts ... visas have continuously been denied," the office said in a statement posted on its web site.

Apart from ODIHR, Russia has invited the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE and of the Council of Europe to send observers.

ODIHR spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir said repeated attempts to get visas for the mission, reduced to 70 observers this year from 450 in 2003, had proved futile. "We started to send accreditation forms last week, the last ones earlier this week," she said by telephone from Warsaw on Friday.

Gunnarsdottir said she had made at least four phone calls to the Russian consulate in Warsaw to inquire about the visas. Each time a representative said they could not proceed with issuing the visas until Moscow gave the green light, which never happened, she said.

The Foreign Ministry on Friday called the OSCE's explanations a fabrication and harshly criticized ODIHR's director, Austrian diplomat Christian Strohal. The organization had "invented references to alleged difficulties in obtaining Russian visas," the ministry said in a statement posted on its web site.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had promised on Thursday that the monitors would receive their visas. His ministry has argued that the applications were received late, and in Friday's statement it blamed confusion at the ODIHR.

"If anything hindered the observers from coming to Russia, it is the muddle inside that organization and the contemptuous behavior of its leadership, which has ignored generally accepted procedures," the statement said.

The ministry also argued that Russia was only required by its OSCE agreements to invite observers, and Moscow had fulfilled that commitment.

It accused ODIHR of making up rules not set out in those agreements: "Attempts to force the organization's member states to obey rules they have never signed up to look, frankly, absurd."

The OSCE's current chairman, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, said in a statement Friday that Strohal had "clearly explained to me, and to the Russian authorities, the reasons why the ODIHR has had to decline the invitation. I regret the conditions that meant this decision had to be taken."

"Unencumbered election observation is one of the cornerstones of any democracy and the ODIHR is rightly regarded as setting the standard in this area," Moratinos said. "I think there is still time for the Russian authorities and the ODIHR to work together to overcome the present situation."

The Central Elections Commission added its voice to the controversy Friday, with a member of the commission accusing the ODIHR of not being impartial.

"The ODIHR ignored our invitation," commission member Igor Borisov said, Interfax reported. He added that such a step was logical, as the organization's judgments regularly contained "offensive political bias."

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Duma's international affairs committee, called the ODIHR's decision an "attempt to create a scandal out of nothing" and added that the organization had taken a "politicized, opportunistic, one-sided approach" in previous elections, Interfax reported.

But Gunnarsdottir was adamant that her organization was only acting according to its mandate.

"Either we monitor the elections properly or we don't monitor them at all," she said. "We really care about our credibility. We would rather not be in Russia at all than be there for one day on Dec. 2."

She also said there were "worsening signs" that conditions on the ground would also be unacceptable and that there were indications that the monitoring mission would not have been allowed to make any public statements upon arrival in the country.

Repeated calls to the Foreign Ministry seeking comment about the purported additional restrictions were not answered Friday.

Gunnarsdottir said the ODIHR had only once pulled out an observer team, from municipal elections in Albania in 1996.

The body has observed more than 150 elections. It has raised red flags about the fairness of polls in former Soviet republics, calling the 2003 Duma elections a step backward in Russia's transition toward democracy.

In 2004, it found violations in the Ukrainian presidential election where pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich came out ahead of his pro-Western opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, adding pressure on Kiev to hold a revote, in which Yushchenko ultimately triumphed.

ODIHR protocol dictates that the organization only apply for visas after receiving invitations from the country holding the elections.

Moscow had angered the organization by limiting its observers to 70 and sending invitations less than five weeks before the poll, when, ideally, a preliminary team of observers would already be in the country preparing the mission.

For the 2003 Duma elections, the ODIHR received invitations Sept. 19, more than two months before the Dec. 7 vote. The monitors, then numbering 450, received visas on Oct. 23.

Nikita Belykh, leader of the opposition Union of Right Forces party, said Friday that the authorities had compelled the organization to pull out its observers. "From the beginning, the authorities have prepared to violate the law and falsify the results of these elections," Belykh said, Interfax reported.

Western diplomats expressed alarm Friday.

"It is extremely unfortunate that the Russian government put up all these obstacles to the OSCE sending a monitoring mission to Russia," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. "I am not sure that you can find a case in the past where a member country had put up such obstacles."

"The situation is certainly very much without precedent, and it will entail a great deal of high-level concern, especially since this is taking place just before the OSCE summit," an envoy at the OSCE headquarters in Vienna said Friday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the issue.

Apart from ODIHR, the OSCE and the Council of Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Nordic Council had also been expected to send monitors.

But Western governments stressed that they ranked the ODIHR's observers the most significant by far. Both the United States and Britain said the office's work amounted to the international "gold standard" in election observation.

A Western diplomat in Moscow agreed, saying the ODIHR was authoritative. "It is they that represent the OSCE," he said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The diplomat said the office had faced a dilemma. "If they accepted, the restrictions would have set a precedent for other countries," he said, adding that there were doubts about the organization's future.

It is no secret that Moscow has been extremely unhappy with ODIHR for some time.

Earlier this fall, Russia forwarded proposals to reform the OSCE observer missions that Western experts and the current ODIHR leadership say would seriously undermine its ability to impartially observe elections. The proposals, also signed by some other former Soviet states, include a provision that observers' reports must be approved by the OSCE's governing body before publication. This would give each member state, including the host country, veto power over the reports.

The EU has prepared counterproposals, diplomats say.

The dispute is set to add to the considerable difficulties faced by the two-day OSCE summit in Madrid, which convenes Thursday.

The summit's decisions require unanimity from all member states, which comprise most European and all former Soviet states as well as the United States and Canada.

Staff Writers David Nowak and Alexander Osipovich contributed to this report.