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Free and Fair Elections?

DW staff (nda)February 1, 2008

With presidential elections in just over a month, the EU is taking a cautious approach to the state of Russian democracy despite restrictions on European election observers and the Kremlin's apparent abuse of power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ( L), Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (2-L), President of the European Union, Jose Manuel Barroso (2-R) and EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana (R)
The EU and Russia: The silence is deafeningImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Confusion surrounds the planned deployment of European Union election observers to Russia for the upcoming presidential election on March 2 as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's ODIHR election watchdog revealed that it may have to pull out of its monitoring mission.

The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights reported to the OCSE that it had considerable doubts about being able to conduct long-term election observation in Russia due to restrictions imposed on international observers.

"The EU appeals to the Russian Federation to remove the restrictions on ODIHR's observation mission for the presidential elections," said a statement released in Vienna in the name of EU President Slovenia. "We 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."

Russian citizens queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in the Russian embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2007
Only a small team of Council of Europe and OSCE members observed the Duma electionsImage: AP

The ODIHR, which boycotted December parliamentary elections in Russia after a visa row, said it would consider cancelling its mission if the restrictions were not lifted.

"It's absolutely impossible to observe that if we can only arrive three days before the election," said Curtis Budden, an ODIHR spokesman. "We have a mandate to do long-term observation. An election is not just what happens on election day."

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, after speaking to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, later confirmed that the ODIHR's invitation to attend the elections had been delayed and when it arrived it included a number of significant restrictions.

Ferrero-Waldner said she hoped that the Russian authorities would be "flexible enough" to allow the ODIHR to monitor the poll under the original conditions, which would allow the observers to be present in Russia longer than period included in the invitation. Russia was reported to have invited the monitors to the country just three days ahead of the elections, ODIHR said.

Fragile state of relations promote caution

There are doubts that the European Union will significantly increase its pressure on Russia in the coming days. The EU is having to choose its words carefully in the run-up to the election in an attempt to avoid antagonizing Russia.

European Union Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero Waldner
Ferrero-Waldner: "Can the rest of you please speak up"Image: AP

In recent days Europe's leaders have been strikingly silent, with only Ferrero-Waldner and NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer making cautious statements that they hoped the election could be observed according to usual rules.

"There is a sense that whatever we say it will not make any difference," Katinka Barysch of the London-based Centre for European Reform think tank told Reuters. "We need to have a functioning relationship with the leadership, old or new ... We don't want to antagonize them too much."

Meanwhile, in Russia, activities which would normally cause harsh criticism if they were happening anywhere else in the world have gone largely uncommented on.

State control of media continues

President Vladimir Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is far ahead of rivals and assisted by blanket coverage from state media and his refusal to hold television debates with rivals. In addition, former prime minister and Kremlin critic Mikhail Kasyanov has been barred from running in the election.

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gestures as he gives a speech during a Kremlin-organized forum of civil society organizations in the Manezh exhibition center in Moscow, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2008
Putin's chosen successor, Medvedev hasn't had problems getting media coverageImage: AP

Some critics of Europe's handling of Russia in the run-up to the elections have noted that the EU has recently adopted a policy based on mutual interests in place of its previous values-based approach.

As a result, Russia holds many of the cards when it comes to dealing with the EU, a situation which has forced the bloc to avoid harsh words on Russia's democracy record at recent bilateral meetings.

"It seems European governments will accept even the most dubious election so long as the 'victor' is a strategic or commercial ally," said Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch Thursday as the watchdog released its annual report.