The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has rejected what Russia describes as new concessions in the quarrel over conditions for monitoring Russia's presidential poll.
The OSCE says the Kremlin continues to impose too many restrictions to make any monitoring of the March 2 vote meaningful. The organization did not send observers for Russia's December 2 parliamentary elections because of similar problems.
Curtis Budden, a spokesman for the OSCE's election-monitoring arm, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), says that Moscow's latest offer still does not give monitors the time they need to monitor the full presidential election process.
"The original invitation from Russia said that we could send 70 observers on February 28, which is three days before the election. And what they have offered now is 75 observers on February 20," Budden says.
"And the perception that I am getting from reading the Russian media is that these are great concessions on Russia's part and that the OSCE is unwilling to compromise," he continues. "And I think it is necessary to raise a number of issues in response to that perception; the first is that everything in this process began much later than standard practice."
Budden says that the new Russian offer appears aimed at continuing to limit monitoring to the actual day of the presidential election.
He says that monitors require more than just a week to deploy, procure drivers and interpreters, and set up their observing operations. With a country the size of Russia, the start time offered by Moscow assures that monitors will only be in place as voters actually head to the polling stations.
But, Budden says, to judge an election, monitors must also be able to see what happens in the days ahead of the actual voting.
"As we all know, an election is more than what happens on election day," he says. "The electoral process is very important through all stages of it. Ordinarily, we would observe registration of candidates, [but] we weren't permitted to this time. Ordinarily we would observe the entire campaign, [but] that has already started. We still don't have any observers on the ground and they are saying that we can come three weeks after the campaign starts, which is also, I believe, almost a full week after early voting starts. So there are tremendous limitations being placed on us."
The OSCE says the conditions violate Russia's own commitments as a member of the international organization. Moscow disputes that, and both sides have become embroiled in a negotiating process that shows no signs of ending in an agreement.
A 'Farcical' Vote
The quarrel has already increased Western doubts about the legitimacy of the Russian vote.
Russian opposition leaders have accused the Kremlin of keeping them off the ballot for the election. Due to the weakness of the other candidates, the poll now looks much like a simple referendum on President Vladimir Putin's endorsed candidate, Dmitry Medvedev.
The three other candidates running in the election are Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Democratic Party head Andrei Bogdanov.
Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky are both polling at less than 10 percent, while Bogdanov is forecast to win less than 1 percent.
On January 27, Russian election officials barred opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov from running, saying there were too many invalid and suspect entries on his signature lists of supporters. Kasyanov, who served as prime minister under Putin from 2000 to 2004, called on voters to boycott what he called a "farce" election.
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov intended to contest the election as a liberal opposition figure. His supporters, however, were not allowed to rent halls for a required nomination gathering.
Some opposition candidates have called on the OSCE to send observers to the presidential poll, despite the quarrel over monitoring conditions. ITAR-TASS quoted Zyuganov as saying the election monitors "should get off their high horse and at least come to see what is happening here."
But Budden says principles are important. "We really do have to keep in mind our mandate, we have to keep in mind the commitments [OSCE members make], we have to keep in mind our responsibility to the [OSCE] states," he says. "If we feel that conditions aren't conducive to effective monitoring, if we are being prevented from doing that, there really isn't any sense in just showing up."
Throughout the dispute, Russian officials have accused ODIHR of refusing to work with Moscow to find solutions.
Foreign Ministry official Sergei Ryabkov said on February 1 that "there is a continuing, open sabotage in the OSCE of our proposals on adopting a collective, consensus-based agreement on election monitoring."
In describing Moscow's latest offer, Russian Central Election Commission member Igor Borisov said it had met ODIHR's own demands.
"We are not withdrawing from our proposal to host the OSCE's ODIHR mission. Even more, we have made some concessions, including the number [of observers], which in accordance with the OSCE's ODIHR request we have increased to 75 people," Borisov said. "This is the number [ODIHR] suggested."
But with time now running out for monitors to do their work, Moscow's bargaining position seems only certain to assure the OSCE's election observers stay home.