The move followed an increasingly acrimonious row between the Kremlin and the Organization for Security Cooperation (OSCE) over what the latter described as unprecedented restrictions on foreign observers monitoring the December 2 vote. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), an arm of the OSCE that runs election monitoring missions, said attempts to get entry visas for its experts and observers had repeatedly been denied. “It is with regret that … it will be unable to deliver its mandate under these circumstances,” the ODIHR said.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesman told Russia’s Interfax news agency that it was every country’s right to decide whether or not to invite observers. The decision to cancel the monitoring mission came one day after Russia said it would grant visas to ODIHR monitors in time for the election, after blaming the OSCE for delays in obtaining them. Russia invited only 70 monitors for this year’s parliamentary election, in contrast to 400 in 2003. Western governments criticized Russia for limiting the number of foreign monitors and said it was creating bureaucratic obstacles – a charge Russia denied.

Relations between Russia and the OSCE are strained because the OSCE criticized the 2003 elections. An OSCE report concluded that they were “free, but not fair”, with the local media showing a “clear bias” in favor of United Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s party. Moscow argues the OSCE has a strong pro-western bias and strives to produce “forced democratization” in former Soviet states. In February, Putin complained that it was being transformed into “a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries”. In the December election, United Russia is expected to win an overwhelming majority of seats in the lower house of parliament, or Duma, next month, according to a poll by the independent Levada centre, published today.

Levada’s nationwide poll ahead of the December 2 elections gave United Russia 67% of the vote, down one percentage point on last month. “United Russia’s lead is so great that these elections are reminiscent of Soviet elections, where there was no alternative and as far as the electorate was concerned, the polls are pre-ordained,” Lev Gudkov of Levada told a news conference. The biggest opposition party, the Communists, scored 14% in the poll. No other party is likely to pass the 7% threshold required for representation, according to Levada. (