The Associated Press reports:
Russia announced Monday it is slashing the number of foreign election observers for upcoming parliamentary polls in a move likely to fuel claims that the authorities will prevent a fair vote. Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission, told journalists that between 300 and 400 observers would be allowed into Russia for the December 2 polls -- a quarter of the number who watched Russia's last legislative elections in 2003. Churov said the invitations would be sent Tuesday. He did not specify how many of the observers would be from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is the most authoritative election body in eastern Europe and has previously slammed Russia and other ex-Soviet countries for their conduct.
The ceiling of 400 observers suggested there would be a sharply reduced number of OSCE monitors, given that Churov said the total number would also include representatives from a string of other international bodies and countries. In the December 2003 elections -- which the OSCE said "failed to meet many... commitments for democratic elections" -- a total of about 1,200 observers fanned across the world's biggest country. Of those, some 400 were from the OSCE's election monitoring arm, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Many others were from Moscow-friendly organisations such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, which groups 12 ex-Soviet republics and systematically welcomes elections in countries accused by the West of being headed by authoritarian regimes. Moscow is stepping up a long-running diplomatic offensive against the 56-member state OSCE, of which it is a member but which it accuses of bias against Russian policies.
Russia last week said that it wants sharply to reduce the scope of OSCE observer missions, leading to accusations that the Kremlin is afraid of outside scrutiny in what critics say is a rigged election process. One aspect under attack, diplomatic sources say, is the OSCE's tradition of issuing a preliminary report at a press conference the day after elections -- a high profile occasion when journalists are given the organisation's broad-brush findings. Backing Russia's bid to change OSCE monitoring work are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, all countries that to different extents have seen criticized over recent elections.
OSCE officials have already complained that they are not being given enough time to prepare a monitoring mission ahead of Russia's parliamentary election in which President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party is expected to win a crushing victory. The election is followed on March 2 by a presidential poll to choose a successor to Putin, who has ruled since 2000. Although Putin, 55, says he will step down in line with the constitution, there is growing speculation that he will retain power in some other position. No heavyweight figure has yet declared a bid to for the Kremlin