Russia's upcoming presidential polls are rekindling the ongoing dispute between Moscow and the election-monitoring body of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) on January 30 threatened not to monitor the March 2 election unless Moscow eases restrictions on the number of monitors it can send and the duration of their stay.
The move came following the decision this week by Russia's Central Election Commission to restrict the ODIHR mission to 70 observers, who will not be allowed to enter the country until three days before the election.
That number pales considerably in comparison to the 387 short- and long-term observers ODIHR sent to monitor the 2004 presidential election.
The European Union on January 31 issued a statement urging Russia to remove what it called the "significant restrictions" on the election-monitoring effort. Brussels expressed its hope that "all practical arrangements such as the issuing of visas will be facilitated expeditiously and that observers will be given unfettered access to the remaining electoral process."
The row between Moscow and the OSCE's election-monitoring arm heated up ahead of Russia's parliamentary elections in December, when ODIHR decided not to send observers after encountering difficulties in obtaining visas for them. Russia subsequently claimed that the U.S. State Department was behind the decision, and in December Moscow reduced its payments to the OSCE -- saying the organization was biased toward certain member states.
At a news conference in Moscow on February 1, Sergei Ryabkov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's European cooperation department, accused the OSCE and ODIHR of playing "political games."
"For us it is obvious that our election practice is in full compliance with all international norms, including those laid down by the OSCE and the norms that have been or are being worked out in the Council of Europe, where the Russian Federation, by the way, insists that a unified legal convention be adopted that defines standards for international election monitoring," Ryabkov said. "We're in the forefront of that effort and we hope ODIHR will recognize this fact."
'A Completely Meaningless Exercise'
But ODIHR acting spokesman Curtis Budden stressed to RFE/RL that the organization works under a mandate agreed upon by all 56 OSCE countries, including Russia -- and that Russia had been cooperative until recently.
"There are existing criteria, there is existing practice," Budden said. "This practice is something that Russia has agreed to, as I've said before, for more than a decade -- and it works.
Budden said that Russia's current efforts to apply new standards would effectively undermine future election-monitoring efforts.
"In fact, what they have proposed is that ODIHR missions be predefined and limited to a certain number of observers, and a certain time frame for every country, regardless of conditions, and that the reports that those missions create, they have to be first approved by the permanent council, which works on a consensus basis," he said. "Which means that every single country would in fact have a veto over ODIHR's report on its elections. So, if there was any criticism that they did not like, they would simply veto the report. Russia's efforts would mean that, in fact, election observation would become a completely meaningless exercise."
Budden added that "something will have to happen soon" to remedy the situation, as ODIHR would like to have its core observer mission on the ground in Russia as soon as next week.
Moscow, however, appears to be girding for an extended battle over the issue of election monitoring.
In his final meeting as Russian president with representatives of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Vladimir Putin on January 30 called on the FSB to heighten its efforts to prevent foreign interference in Russian affairs.
"It is essential to increase work, to achieve timely obtaining of information about attempts to interfere with our internal affairs," Putin said. "This is particularly important in the period when Russia's presidential elections are being held. Our country is a sovereign state, and we will not let the election campaign to be affected by anyone from the outside."
First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is Putin's chosen successor as president, also attended the meeting.