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Vote observers say Russia holding up entry visas

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Europe’s main democracy watchdog said on Monday its observers cannot begin work monitoring Russia’s December 2 parliamentary election because Moscow has not issued them entry visas.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow November 9, 2007. REUTERS/RIA-Novosti/Kremlin

Russia has already come under criticism from Western governments for slashing the number of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) it will allow to monitor the vote.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is leading the dominant United Russia party into the election. The Kremlin says the vote will be fair but critics say officials will manipulate the election to ensure a huge endorsement for the Russian leader.

“We have not, so far, received any visas for those that require them,” said Urdur Gunnarsdottir, spokeswoman for the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which runs the election monitoring mission.

She said visa applications were submitted by November 5 for an advance party of 20 observers who need to be in place to monitor the campaign and prepare for polling day. The main body of 50 observers will arrive a few days before the vote.

“Every day that passes now reduces our ability to observe the campaign,” she told Reuters.

“It makes it very difficult for us to do the pre-election observation and makes it more difficult for us to prepare for the arrival of the additional 50 observers.”

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Russia’s Foreign Ministry denied there was a problem with the visas.

“All participants in observation missions who have received invitations will be issued with visas. It is just a matter of time,” a source in the ministry told Reuters.

Many Western governments view OSCE observers’ assessments on elections in ex-Soviet states as the definitive verdict on whether they meet democratic standards. The observers were critical of Russia’s last parliamentary vote in 2003.

Russian officials say they will not hinder the observers’ work, but they have expressed reservations about the West “lecturing” them about their democratic record.

Russian election chiefs delayed issuing an invitation to the OSCE observers, and when they did, they limited the mission to 70 people. In 2003, the OSCE sent more than 400 observers.

The White House said last month it was “disappointed” by the restrictions Russia imposed on the observers.

Putin is immensely popular in Russia and opinion polls point to a comfortable victory for United Russia in the ballot.

The Russian leader is to step down next year when his second term ends. Analysts say a good showing in the parliamentary vote will give him an informal mandate to retain influence after he leaves the presidency.

Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Michael Winfrey