( The Washington Post ) - Europe's principal elections watchdog group said it may refuse to monitor a second Russian election in a row because the authorities here have imposed "serious restrictions" on the organization's ability to scrutinize the March 2 presidential elections.
"If the conditions aren't changed, we can't observe," said Curtis Budden, a spokesman for the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, in a phone interview.
Budden said a written Russian invitation to the organization, which is an arm of the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, limited the number of observers to 70, much lower than the number allowed at the last presidential election. Moreover, Budden said, observers will not be allowed to enter Russia until three days before the vote.
Russian officials say the March poll will be well observed because they have invited about 400 foreign observers, including some from former Soviet republics and China. The numbers from the OSCE, they contend, are fully within the requirements for OSCE members.
"There will no limits placed on the activities of international election monitors so long as they act within the law," said Vladimir Churov, the head of the Central Elections Commission on Monday.
OSCE's monitoring group normally conducts both long-term and short-term missions, observing the quality of the campaign for least two months as well as the conduct of voting on the day of the poll. In the last Russian presidential election in 2004, the group had 387 long-term and short-term observers.
"We are not satisfied with their conditions because they don't allow meaningful observation," said Budden.
He said the watchdog group has written to Russia's Central Elections Commission asking it to quickly revise its conditions. Budden said a decision on whether to monitor the presidential elections will depend on the Russian response and its timeliness.
Russia angrily complains that the OSCE, which has criticized the conduct of numerous elections in the post-Soviet world, is a vehicle for the West to undermine Russia and its allies. The Kremlin has increasingly adopted a strident and dismissive stance toward Western criticism of its democratic direction under President Vladimir Putin.
Dmitry Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister and Putin's chosen successor, is widely expected to sweep to victory March 2. But the fairness of the process has already been called into question by the opposition here, which cites the disqualification of one candidate, a Putin critic, and alleged bias in favor of Medvedev on the critical national television channels where most Russians get their news.