WARSAW, Poland – An international security organization said Friday its election observers would be unable to monitor next month's Russian parliamentary balloting because Moscow had refused to issue them visas on time.
The development underscores the tensions with the West about the state of democracy under President Vladimir Putin. The standoff threatens to deepen Western doubts about the legitimacy of the Dec. 2 elections and harden Russia's insistence that the West lacks the right to criticize how they are carried out.
Russia has already come under criticism because it had said it would allow the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to send only 70 observers — far fewer than in previous Russian elections — for the vote.
"We have not received a single visa for the 70 observers," OSCE spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir said. "We have tried everything. ... But we sadly now have to conclude that it is not possible."
Russia's top election official, Vladimir Churov, denied it has refused the visas and said they were waiting in Warsaw at the headquarters of the election monitoring office, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
But Gunnarsdottir said that the visas were certainly not ready by late Thursday, when the OSCE made the "difficult" decision to abandon plans to monitor the elections.
"Even if the visas are there now, it's too late. We would have needed them last night," she said.
Churov insisted that Russia was "certainly ready to receive" any and all monitors, adding that "if one of the missions makes such a decision (not to attend), then that is their decision."
In Washington, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that Russia had deliberately hindered the OSCE.
"It is extremely unfortunate that the Russian government put up all these obstacles to the OSCE sending a monitoring mission to Russia," he said. "I am not sure that you can find a case in the past where a member country had put up such obstacles."
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, insisted that Russia was complying with its obligations as a member of the OSCE.
All 56 OSCE member countries — including Russia — agreed in 1990 to invite international observers to monitor their elections. The organization then decides whether to send observers based on scheduling and need.
The organization has monitored elections in countries including the United States, Britain, France and Poland.
Peskov also denied that the absence of foreign observers might raise questions about the fairness of the balloting. There cannot be "the slightest doubts of the legality of the electoral process in Russia," he told The Associated Press. "It's a purely democratic process."
Russia and several other ex-Soviet countries that have bristled at Western criticism of their votes and accusations of authoritarian rule would like new limits on the number of observers and their ability to criticize elections.
OSCE observers described Russia's last parliamentary elections in 2003 as a step backward for democracy, saying the state had used the media and other levers to favor the main Kremlin-backed party.
Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion who is an opposition leader and one of Putin's fiercest critics, said: "Putin's regime has no interest in revealing its dark side."
Kasparov told the AP the upcoming elections were "a mockery used by the Kremlin as a decoration to cover up the true colors of the regime."
In another sign of Russia's defiance of the West, its upper house of parliament voted Friday to suspend participation the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which limits the deployment of tanks, aircraft and other heavy weapons across the continent.
Putin has called for Russia's temporary withdrawal from the treaty amid mounting anger in the Kremlin over U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in eastern Europe. He justified what he called a suspension of Russia's participation in the agreement by pointing to NATO's own failure to ratify an amended version.
Under the moratorium, Russia will halt inspections and verifications of its military sites by NATO countries and will no longer be obligated to limit the number of conventional weapons deployed west of the Urals.