Russia warns foreigners off election meddling

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MOSCOW, Oct 31 (Reuters) The Kremlin warned foreign organisations today against trying to interfere in Russia's December parliamentary elections, as Moscow cut sharply the number of Western observers permitted to view the polls.

''No country will accept any attempts from abroad to try to influence it,'' Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a news conference. ''It's a matter of sovereignty of the country.'' Peskov was speaking after Europe's main democracy watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said Moscow had imposed ''unprecedented'' restrictions on its observation mission to the December 2 elections.

The vote is widely viewed as a referendum on President Vladimir Putin's almost eight years in power. Polls suggest his United Russia bloc will win an overwhelming majority of seats but the opposition has complained that Putin's backing gives the party an unfair advantage.

OSCE spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir said Russia had invited a maximum of 70 observers for a short-term mission to December's vote -- less than a quarter of the number sent for the last such elections in 2003, and for a shorter period.

''We now need to consider the implications of those restrictions, as they may seriously limit the possibility for a meaningful observation according to our standard methodology for full-scale election observation missions,'' she said.

Asked about the restrictions on observers, Peskov said the Kremlin was complying fully with its OSCE obligations but wanted to address certain unsatisfactory issues which had arisen with previous observation missions.

''So without jeopardising our obligations, of course we are free to apply a system...that would in our view fit the whole procedure of elections in Russia and in no way it leads to violations of our obligations,'' he said, speaking in English.

Asked what was unsatisfactory about previous observation missions, Peskov replied: ''Please ask the Central Elections Committee.'' The country's top electoral body, which will oversee December's polls, is headed by a former work colleague of Putin's from St Petersburg, Vladimir Churov.

December's vote comes just three months before presidential elections, in which Putin is not eligible to stand because he will have served two consecutive terms in office, the maximum permitted by the constitution.

Russia has seen a wave of rallies, public letters and appeals by loyal politicians in recent weeks begging Putin, who enjoys approval ratings of around 70 per cent, to stay on in power and change the constitution.

''I am sure the president respects those who support his course,'' Peskov said.''I am also sure that he intends to continue respecting the principle of immutability of the constitution.'' Some political experts have suggested that Putin may seek to find a way to secure another term in office without changing the constitution.

This, they say, could be done by declaring a national emergency or by letting a successor into the Kremlin for a brief period before the new president resigned or fell sick, prompting fresh elections in which Putin could stand again.

The constitution bans three consecutive presidential terms but allows incumbents to return to power after a break of unspecified duration.

An alternative scenario would be for Putin to use his expected parliamentary majority to exercise influence over whoever succeeds him as president.

REUTERS AM BD2150

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