European watchdog says may pull out of Russia vote

MOSCOW – Europe’s main election watchdog warned Russia on Wednesday it would not monitor a presidential vote next month unless Moscow eased restrictions on its work.

Russia’s electoral commission has invited 70 observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) monitoring body to Russia three days before the March 2 election.

The OSCE’s long-term monitoring body says that it is too few people for too short a time. It has asked Moscow to expand the mission and allow its staff in next week to monitor election campaigning, or its observers will not turn up at all.

“We have a mandate to do long-term observation. An election is not just what happens on election day,” said Curtis Budden, spokesman for the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

“It’s absolutely impossible to observe that if we can only arrive three days before the election.”

ODIHR cancelled plans to monitor the Russian parliamentary election in December because it said the Kremlin had placed too many restrictions on its mission, also by limiting the number of observers to 70.

Russia’s election chief said he had not hindered the ODIHR monitors ahead of next month’s election.

“In my opinion there is nothing complicated,” Vladimir Churov Interfax quoted him as saying. “We have done everything to ease the work of the mission if they want to come to Russia.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, barred by Russia’s constitution from serving a third consecutive term, has already named his preferred successor as First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Medvedev is expected to win the vote, which the Kremlin’s opponents call unfair. He receives blanket support in the media and has refused to join other candidates for televised debates.

In December Moscow said the ODIHR had been pressured by the United States into refusing to monitor the parliamentary vote.

European politicians from the OSCE’s parliamentary arm and the Council of Europe did monitor December’s vote, and judged it unfair. Those bodies concentrate on polling day itself unlike ODIHR experts who scrutinize the entire build-up to an election.

Budden said the ODIHR told the Russians on Tuesday that unless 20 monitors were allowed into Russia next week to monitor campaigning then it would cancel the mission altogether.

“Yes, we are going to pull out unless the invitation is extended,” he said. “If we’re not let in we can’t effectively observe and we can’t fulfill our mandate”.

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