27th May 2019


Russia is undermining the OSCE

The decision by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation's democracy office not to deploy an election observation mission for the Duma elections on 2 December marks the culmination of a struggle between Russia and the OSCE, which began after the organisation criticised the 2003/2004 Duma and Presidential elections.

Ever since, Russia has questioned the OSCE's mandate to comprehensively observe elections.

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Ahead of the upcoming elections, the Russian election commission invited only 70 OSCE observers, instead of letting the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) decide how many observers are needed, as has been the practice for the past decade.

In 2003, the ODIHR sent 450 observers, in order to achieve some coverage of Russia's vast territory. The ODIHR has pulled the plug now that even the deployment of the limited number of observers was being delayed.

The Russian intention appears to have been to keep the ODIHR mission small, in order to portray it as one among other invited observer missions, including those by the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Shanghai Co-operation (Russia, China and Central Asian States); organisations with no track-record of credible election observation.

By seriously restricting the time observers could be on the ground, the Russian authorities probably also hoped that the mission would not be able to gather the facts necessary to make a comprehensive and credible statement.

The Russian authorities will therefore welcome that some members of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly will nevertheless go to the Russian elections, because such short-term observers cannot produce crucial information, e.g. on media coverage, or in-depth review of the election laws.

In some ways, Russia's concern about the ODIHR is a compliment for an institution which over the last 10 years has established itself as Europe's primary election watchdog.

In the early 1990s, election observation was a largely diplomatic activity with little methodology or impact, so it came as a surprise when ODIHR observers issued a detailed, critical assessment of the Albanian parliamentary elections in 1996.

Ever since, the ODIHR has fine-tuned a quasi-scientific observation methodology, involving media monitoring, legal analysis, the presence of long-term observers across the country and a statistically significant number of short-term observers in polling stations on election day.

Numerous assessments, both positive and negative have been issued. As a result, the organisation has become the most quoted and trusted source on the quality of elections in Europe and the former Soviet Union and its methodology has been copied by others, e.g. the EU.

Until the Russian elections in 2003/2004 the OSCE's role in election observation was largely unchallenged, but things have become rockier since. The Russian government not only resented the critical OSCE reports on Russia, but has become wary of any democracy promotion activity after the orange and rose 'revolutions' in Ukraine and Georgia.

A triumphalist tone in some Western media on those elections contributed to a perception that support for elections is a way to change regimes, rather than promoting the opportunity for citizens to freely choose their government.

The Russian position sets a negative precedent that other OSCE members may be happy to follow. Already Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus and Armenia have signed up for a Russian policy proposal to greatly limit independent OSCE election observation.

Reportedly, even some EU member states wonder if the ODIHR's position is too inflexible, which is surprising, because the EU rightly insists on the same approach when it observes elections abroad.

The crisis is another sign that the pan-European consensus on democracy and human rights, which made the OSCE effective, is disappearing.

This undermines an organisation which already struggles to maintain a role in the context of EU enlargement and increased Russian confidence. This is bad news for citizens in a number of OSCE states, who are struggling for their political rights and bad news for the EU, which relies on the OSCE's expert work in its policies towards Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The author is the co-ordinator of Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based group promoting democracy.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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