Russia delays inviting observers for parl't vote

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MOSCOW, Oct 22 (Reuters) International observers will be unable to monitor Russia's December 2 parliamentary vote properly because Moscow has delayed issuing them with an invitation, a Russian democracy watchdog said today.

Russia says it will invite election monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) but with just over with five weeks to polling day, the OSCE says time is running out to set up its mission.

Observers from the OSCE, Europe's main rights and security watchdog, have in the past said Russian elections failed to meet some democratic standards. That has irritated Russia, which accuses the West of meddling in its affairs.

OSCE observers monitor for vote-rigging on polling day, but also operate during the campaign to assess if parties have equal access to the media and other resources -- a key concern in the December 2 vote which a pro-Kremlin party is expected to dominate.

''The OSCE always carries out monitoring of the media. They are not going to have time to launch proper work on this at all,'' said Lilia Shibanova, Executive Director of Golos (Vote), an independent Russian election watchdog.

''We all understand that polling day is not the main component of election violations because everything arises from the inequality of political competition (during the campaign),'' she said.

CLOCK TICKING At Russia's last parliamentary vote in 2003, OSCE observers were already in place at this stage in the campaign.

A spokeswoman for the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which runs the observation missions, said the mission to Russia was a major logistical operation that would take time to put in place.

''It is getting late and every day counts,'' said spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir.

Russian Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov was to meet ODIHR chief Christian Strohal in Warsaw today.

Asked about the delay, deputy commission chairman Stanislav Vavilov told Reuters: ''It is linked purely with the enormous volume of work that is being carried out ... We are always glad to have international observers.'' The OSCE said that in the 2003 election, state broadcasters favoured the pro-Kremlin United Russia and the party benefited from state resources. ''These advantages seriously distorted the process,'' the OSCE said in its report.

This time, President Vladimir Putin will have the No. 1 spot on United Russia's candidate list, exploiting a loophole that lets officials run for parliament but not take up their seat.

Opinion polls suggest the party will win a comfortable majority because voters associate it with stability and economic growth under Putin. Opposition parties have limited support.

Putin's opponents say the dividing line between the state and United Russia is even more blurred now than in the past and the party's campaign will have unprecedented official support.

Russian officials say the vote will be fair and any violations will be punished.

Sergei Ivanenko, deputy head of the opposition Yabloko party, said officials were not keen on having international observers at any vote.

''The position of the Russian authorities is pretty clear and can be formulated in the words: ''We know better than anyone how to conduct elections,''' Ivanyenko told Reuters.

REUTERS SG VC1938

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