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ODIHR Director Christian Strohal (OSCE)
Citing what it described as unacceptable restrictions from Moscow, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) main election watchdog has canceled plans to monitor Russia's upcoming presidential vote.
In a statement released on February 7, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) announced that it will not send a monitoring mission for the March 2 election, which President Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is expected to win handily.
Authorities in Moscow said the ODIHR's observers would be allowed to come to Russia no sooner than February 20, less than two weeks before the election. But the organization says it needs its teams in place by February 15 at the latest if it is to conduct a meaningful assessment of the vote.
"Well, I certainly regret these circumstances," ODIHR Director Christian Strohal told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview shortly after the decision was announced. "We have made every effort to come to an understanding for allowing us to do our professional job."
Western governments view ODIHR's evaluations as the key yardstick of whether elections it monitors in Russia and the former Soviet republics are free and fair. Russian officials, on the other hand, allege that the group is biased and is being used as a tool by Western governments to attack Russia and its neighbors.
The decision to cancel the observer mission is the latest development in an ongoing dispute between the ODIHR and the Kremlin over election monitoring. ODIHR also canceled plans to monitor Russia's parliamentary elections in December due to similar restrictions imposed by Russian authorities.
Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on February 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov harshly criticized ODIHR's move, and accused the organization of trying to change the rules for election monitoring.
"The ODIHR has invented its own rules," Lavrov said. "The main problem [with these rules] is that they are totally nontransparent. We cannot understand why they are insisting so harshly and rudely on sending their mission here a month before [the election]. And in general, it is not clear what they are going to do."
Strohal rejected this, saying that in the 2004 Russian presidential election, the organization was allowed to send monitors who were on the ground early and were able to work without restrictions.
"Four years ago, we had none of these limitations and restrictions. We had full cooperation for the whole observation with a core team, with long-term observers who came more than a month ahead of elections, several hundred short-term observers, and so on," Strohal said. "And so I would very much hope that Russia finds a way back to that sort of full cooperation with the organization."
ODIHR officials say it is customary for the organization to have teams of analysts on the ground throughout the country for one to two months prior to an election. This group evaluates the work of election officials, the media environment, the legislative framework, and whether basic rights are being honored.
ODIHR officials say the Russian timetable has already prevented them from observing important parts of the election process, including the registration of candidates and the work of the media.
Kremlin critics have complained that they have been frozen out of the state-controlled media and that key opposition figures like former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov have been prevented from running in the election.
Strohal told RFE/RL the current situation in Russia contrasts sharply with that in other former Soviet states, where the ODIHR has not experienced similar problems monitoring elections.
"We have been on the ground with election-observation missions in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. We are on the ground at the moment in Armenia and, of course, we are on the ground, we have been on the ground also in Georgia," he said. "So, in none of these circumstance have we encountered any difficulties, restrictions or limitations for the deployment of our election observation."
Separately, the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly has also abandoned plans to send observers to the Russian election. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the sole remaining Western body that had originally planned to send observers, has declined to comment on whether it would proceed with a monitoring mission.
(with agency reports)