The OSCE’s Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) laid the blame for the decision squarely on the Kremlin, saying Moscow had repeatedly denied visa requests for ODIHR’s observers and delayed extending invitations.
"We were constantly receiving assurances that the [invitation from Russia] was forthcoming. It took two months to come," Urdur Gunnarsdottir, ODIHR’s chief spokeswoman, told RFE/RL from Warsaw. "And since the [invitation] arrived two weeks ago, we have not received any visas. We have not been able to deploy any observers, not even our team of logistical people."
This is only the second time that the organization has called off an election observer mission. The last time was in 1996, in Albania.
Today’s announcement by Europe’s main election watchdog caps weeks of tensions between ODIHR and Moscow.
Four years ago -- during the last State Duma elections -- ODIHR dispatched 450 observers to monitor the poll. This year, Russia’s Election Commission said only 70 monitors from the OSCE would be allowed.
But Gunnarsdottir said visas for those 70 people were never made available. "Our observers, when arriving at [Russian] embassies all over Europe, were simply told that [the embassies] had not received any instructions from Moscow and would therefore not be able to issue visas," she said.
Gunnarsdottir said that despite Moscow’s obstructions, ODIHR had made every effort to try to resolve the situation, even dispatching a last-minute negotiating team to Russia. "We managed to send a team of three people from our office to Moscow this week to try to resolve this situation. One was a diplomat and therefore didn't need a visa and one was from a CIS country. They tried everything they could to resolve the situation but were unable to," Gunnarsdottir said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin dismissed ODIHR’s announcement today, saying the monitoring body "has the right to take any decision."
On November 14, the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, said the observers only had themselves to blame, saying they had failed to fill in the necessary forms.
ODIHR is generally considered to be the most authoritative election monitoring body in Europe.
But Russia has long pursued efforts to re-orient the OSCE and its agencies toward security issues and away from the democracy agenda, which it calls “politicized.”
Last month, Russia and six other CIS countries -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- circulated a draft proposal calling for the number of ODIHR monitors sent to cover any future election to be limited to 50.
The European Commission today voiced regret over the cancellation of the ODIHR mission and urged President Vladimir Putin to ensure that the polls respect international standards.