Observing Russia’s elections

Whatever the electoral outcome, Putin wins. But this time, the manner of the Russian strongman?s victory will undermine not only Russian democracy; but the credibility of Europe?s democracy-promotion.

The Russian parliamentary elections seem like a good opportunity to remember a Russian joke about elections. In 2000, when the US presidential elections resulted in a vote recount, the head of Russian Central Electoral Commission was invited to count the votes as a neutral party. After counting the votes for a whole night he came out and announced to a nervous and tired audience – George W. Bush and Al Gore among them – the following results: ‘We have counted the votes and we would like to announce that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has been elected President of the United States'.

As with the joke, so in real life: whatever the electoral outcome, Putin wins. But this time, the manner of the Russian strongman's victory will undermine not only Russian democracy; but the credibility of Europe's democracy-promotion by OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) and the Council of Europe (CoE).

Throughout their existence these institutions have played an important role in improving electoral practices in Central and Eastern Europe, but also exposing many of the electoral shenanigans through which post soviet authoritarian leaders have tried (and mostly managed) to stay in power. They have sent election observation missions which issued reports often de-legitimising internally and externally false election results and the authoritarian regimes behind them. These missions operate in two ways. First, there are long-term observation missions run by ODIHR who monitor not only the election day but are deployed 1-2 months before election day to observe the fairness of the electoral campaign (when most elections are hijacked through biased media reporting, unequal campaign conditions, and pressures on opposition parties). Second, OSCE PA, Council of Europe and ODIHR send short term observers for a few days before and after the polling day to monitor the vote and counting, not the campaign itself. In other words long-term missions observe if elections are fair, while short-term ones observe if they are free. And both are indispensable, because elections are not a one-day event.    

In the aftermath of the “coloured revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, and with growing centralization of power in Russia, Moscow has actively pushed for a reform of the OSCE (see a study on OSCE Democracy Promotion: Grinding to a Halt?). The aim was clear: to reduce OSCE's focus on democracy promotion and election observation by undermining the independence and effectiveness of ODIHR – a subordinate body widely seen as Europe's most significant election-observation institution. Russia tried to increase the influence of OSCE member states' governments on the independent ODIHR, and promoted Russian controlled election monitoring missions in the post-soviet region such as CIS-EMO. As the December 2007 Duma elections advanced, Russia began challenging the right of any outsiders to judge the democratic quality of its elections, as it engaged in developing a 'sovereign democracy' of its own.

Throughout 2007, EU leaders sought to persuade the Russian authorities to invite international observers not only to the Duma elections but also the presidential elections in March 2008. After stonewalling, a few days after the EU-Russia summit in Mafra, Portugal, on 26 October President Putin acquiesced to observers from ODIHR. But they would have to work on Russian terms.

Russia first tried to limit the number of observers by saying it would accept only 70 (while 400 observed the 2003 Duma elections in Russia). Second, it delayed the issuance of visas to the observers. After two weeks of Russian foot-dragging on visas, ODIHR said it would not send observers to monitor the election campaign because “entry visas have continuously been denied”. (Also see Kommersant and the Economist). Eventually, ODIHR pulled out of monitoring the elections entirely, because it could not follow standard practice of observing the elections in Russia for one or two months as happened even in the more authoritarian Uzbeksitan (2004), Tajikistan (2006) and Kazakhstan (2007).  

But other election monitoring institutions showed decidedly less mettle. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) decided to send 70 short-term observers. Part of the explanation is an institutional turf war between the OSCE PA and ODIHR. Squeezed between PACE and ODIHR, the OSCE PA's value added is less than clear. PACE is a more respected and high profile assembly of parliamentarians, while ODIHR is a more respected and specialised elections observation institution. But the logic of bureaucratic wars made the OSCE PA gradually become more concerned with fighting ODIHR with the help of some OSCE member states, than anything else.  

As these organization squabble on a common line, no wonder authoritarian consolidation is more than ever the dominant trend in the post-soviet space. This trend risks pushing into irrelevance many of those principles which are supposed to be the raison d'être of the OSCE PA, PACE and ODIHR. These three institutions should speak with one voice and send observers together or not send any at all to the Russian presidential campaign and elections in March 2008. Legitimising fake elections should not be the way for these institutions to retain political relevance.



The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Distinguished policy fellow

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