Russia has invited only 400 international monitors to observe the key presidential election in March, the country's election chief said Monday — half the number that participated four years ago.
The announcement by Central Elections Commission chief Vladimir Churov mirrors a decision officials took for the December parliamentary vote that elicited widespread criticism in the West and prompted an authoritative vote-monitoring group to refuse to send observers.
President Vladimir Putin — who is barred from seeking a third, consecutive term in the March election — has named First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his preferred successor.
His backing of Medvedev, plus the Kremlin's domination of most nationwide media, makes Medvedev all but a shoe-in for the presidency.
Churov told reporters that the number was adequate to judge whether the vote is free and fair. His announcement confirmed comments by election authorities in recent weeks that the number of observers participating in the March vote would be lower than in 2004.
Around 70 representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — whose reports are considered authoritative in the West — have been invited, Churov said. Other observers will come from the European Parliament, the OSCE's parliamentary assembly and the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose grouping of ex-Soviet states dominated by Russia.
Observers urged to 'act within the law'
"There will no limits placed on the activities of international election monitors so long as they act within the law," he said.
An official from the Warsaw headquarters of the OSCE's election monitoring group, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR, said the office would not comment on the matter until Tuesday.
The issue of international election observers marred the run-up to the December parliamentary vote.
The ODIHR complained that they received too few invitations to monitor the vote and ultimately refused to send any observers, saying Russia delayed granting visas for so long there was not enough time to meaningfully assess election preparations.
Russia rejected the criticism, saying the number of invitations it had issued was adequate and that the ODIHR was pressured by the U.S. not to send observers.
Churov said all observers would have sufficient time to receive travel authorization by the end of February.
Other candidates running in the March 2 vote are Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and little-known independent candidate Andrei Bogdanov. None are expected to mount a serious challenge.
Putin critic taken off ballot
On Sunday, election authorities denied opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov a spot on the ballot, claiming that tens of thousands of signatures on his nominating petitions were forged. Kasyanov, who served as Putin's prime minister from 2000 to 2004, has become an outspoken critic of the Kremlin.
Churov denied Kasyanov was barred from the race on Kremlin orders.
Zyuganov, meanwhile, denied speculation that he might drop out of the presidential race, but complained that Medvedev was receiving lavish coverage on state-run television while the other candidates were getting virtually none.
"This is not discussion; this isn't competition," Zyuganov said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "This is a sign of disrespect toward the electorate."
Also Monday, Medvedev cast further doubt on the openness of the race by announcing that he would not take part in any televised debates with the other candidates.
Some observers say the small number of candidates — the lowest since the Soviet collapse — could adversely affect voter turnout, an assertion Churov rejected.
"I have no concerns about apathy among the electorate," he said. "We have well-educated voters that have specific reasons to go and cast their ballots."