MOSCOW (Reuters) - Europe’s main election watchdog cancelled plans on Thursday to monitor Russia’s presidential election, citing unacceptable restrictions imposed by Moscow.
Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of outgoing president Vladimir Putin, is overwhelming favorite to win the March 2 contest, which opponents of the Kremlin say is slanted in his favor.
“We made every effort in good faith to deploy our mission,” said ODIHR director Christian Strohal in a statement. “The Russian Federation has created limitations that are not conducive to undertaking election observation.”
A verdict from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is regarded by Western states as the best yardstick of whether a vote is fair, and the group’s withdrawal is likely to damage further Russia’s democratic credentials.
The pullout follows weeks of argument. Russia said the monitors could arrive only 11 days before the vote but the watchdog, described by Russian officials as a tool of Western states, said they needed longer.
Russia said the ODIHR decision was unacceptable.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) parliamentary assembly also said it would not monitor the vote. The assembly monitors elections jointly with the ODIHR, but usually plays a junior role.
“Unless there is a miracle and the foreign minister comes and says take as many (observers) as you want into Russia, the mission is off,” Strohal told Reuters.
“We are a small group that stands around politely and looks at the (election) process. If the big Russian Federation is afraid of that, well, I can’t believe that,” he said in Vienna.
The only official Western observer group that has not pulled out is a team from the Council of Europe, which does not usually take the lead in monitoring major elections.
In a statement, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said ODIHR had displayed “contempt for basic ethical norms ... which, it seems, indicates that ODIHR from the start was not even trying to agree on mutually acceptable conditions for monitoring”.
Last year the ODIHR pulled out of monitoring Russia’s parliamentary election over similar issues, though the OSCE’s parliamentary assembly did send a team. Putin’s United Russia party won a landslide victory.
The European Union said it attached great importance to credible international election observation and that it regretted the ODIHR would not be going to Russia.
“Once again I urge the Russian authorities to make sure that these elections will be conducted in accordance with Russia’s commitments as a member of the OSCE,” said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said:
“We think Russia and all countries should feel open enough to allow observers into their country to keep an eye on elections.”
Russia is showing increasing assertiveness in its dealings with the West and has said it will no longer tolerate Western governments lecturing it about democracy.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking before the ODIHR announced its pullout, said the watchdog had been trying to dictate terms to Russia. “A country that respects itself accepts no ultimatums,” he told a news briefing.
Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank, said the OSCE pullout would “add to the sense that something is deeply wrong with Russian democracy”.
“Of course this is a blow to Russia’s image, but this is one more message to the Russian constituency that Russia stands up to the West.”
Opinion polls indicate Medvedev enjoys over 70 percent support. The 42-year-old first deputy prime minister emerged as front-runner after receiving Putin’s endorsement.
Putin is constitutionally barred from serving a third consecutive term. Most analysts predict that he will be the power behind the throne under a Medvedev presidency.
Opposition parties have called the election a farce, pointing to blanket coverage of Medvedev’s campaign on state-controlled television and the lack of strong rivals.
The SPS, a small opposition party, said on Thursday the election process was “obviously unconstitutional and false”.
The SPS is a small party but has influence over Russia’s marginalized intelligentsia. It has already said it will not field a presidential candidate.
Additional reporting by James Kilner, Mark Heinrich in Vienna and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Writing by Michael Stott and Christian Lowe; Editing by Kevin Liffey