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    Wrap: OSCE election watchdog to boycott Russian polls - tensions rise

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    Moscow hit out furiously on Thursday at an announcement by the OSCE's main election watchdog that it would stay away from Russia's March 2 presidential polls, calling the decision "unacceptable".

    MOSCOW, February 7 (RIA Novosti) - Moscow hit out furiously on Thursday at an announcement by the OSCE's main election watchdog that it would stay away from Russia's March 2 presidential polls, calling the decision "unacceptable".

    The move by Europe's leading poll monitoring organization, echoing its earlier decision to boycott the country's December parliamentary polls, looked set to add to existing tensions between the West and Russia.

    NO COMPROMISE

    Russia's Central Election Commission initially invited observers from the OSCE's election monitoring arm, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights [ODIHR], to arrive in Russia from February 27-28.

    After two weeks of negotiations, Russia agreed on Tuesday to increase the observer numbers for the ODIHR mission and extend the timeframe for its visit by allowing a five-member advance team to arrive on February 6, another 20-member group to come on February 8, and another 50 monitors to arrive on February 27-28.

    However, the ODIHR insisted on sending at least 50 of its observers to Russia on February 15, five days before the date proposed by Moscow, in order to more effectively monitor the election campaign. It also threatened to boycott the election if its conditions were not met.

    ELECTION MONITORS DECIDE TO STAY AWAY

    The ODIHR announced on Thursday that it would not monitor the polls due to restrictions imposed by Russian election authorities.

    "The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights regrets that restrictions imposed on its planned election observation mission will not allow it to deploy a mission to the 2 March 2008 presidential election in Russia," the ODIHR said on its website.

    Earlier on Thursday, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the ODIHR against issuing ultimatums on sending observers to the presidential polls and criticized the Warsaw-based organization for "inventing its own rules" and being "absolutely non-transparent."

    Another OSCE body, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, also said earlier on Thursday that it would not send its observers to Russia.

    Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the State Duma's international affairs committee, said he had contacted Spencer Oliver, secretary general of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, over the organization's refusal to attend the polls.

    "The main reason is that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly very rarely, and only as an exception, monitors presidential elections," Kosachyov said.

    MOSCOW'S REACTION

    Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mikhail Kamynin, said on Thursday that the ODIHR had deliberately set out to boycott Russia's presidential elections.

    "The ODIHR flatly rejected a compromise without providing any clear explanations for its position," he said. "We believe such actions are unacceptable."

    Kamynin said Moscow "deeply regretted" the refusal, also accusing the organization, which he said generally sends 10-20 experts to observe election campaigns one or two weeks ahead of polls, of political bias toward Russia.

    Kosachyov said the ODIHR's refusal to send its observers to Russia would not affect the election campaign or the legitimacy of the new head of state. He pledged that the presidential elections would be held "in strict compliance with Russian laws and international norms."

    However, he criticized the ODIHR for "seeking a pretext to create another scandal...out of nothing."

    PACE CONFIRMS PLAN TO MONITOR POLLS

    Russia's State Duma received on Thursday confirmation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) plans to send 30 observers to the presidential polls.

    The first group of PACE observers began monitoring work in Russia earlier in the day.

    President Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is widely expected to win the presidential elections. According to the state-run VTsIOM pollster, the Kremlin front-runner has the backing of 63 % of voters.

    Putin, who enjoys widespread popularity in Russia, has said he will accept the post of prime minister if Medvedev becomes president.

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