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Rigging other countries’ votes

OSCE monitors now deem elections 'irregular' if people vote for the 'wrong' parties.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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Recent elections in Russia (7 December), Serbia (28 December) and Georgia (4 January) indicate that elections are no longer merely about the electorate holding governments to account. Governments are also held to account by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This body is little known in the West, but it exerts a huge influence over policymaking in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The OSCE was established in 1975 under the Helsinki Accords as an informal intergovernmental forum bridging both sides of Cold War Europe, involving the states of the former Soviet Bloc and of Western Europe, Canada and the USA. This was largely a talking shop, whereby economic cooperation was used as a lever to open up East European states to Western pressure. In the 1990s, the influence of the OSCE was transformed. The informal nature of the OSCE meant that it was not tied to the Cold War framework of the UN Charter principles of sovereign equality and was much more flexible in its working arrangements. The ad hoc nature of the body meant that it could reflect the new post-Cold War relationships much more directly than multilateral institutions tied by constitutional constraints.

The OSCE made the running in the 1990s in developing the concepts and practices of ‘conditional sovereignty’ and external regulatory authority, particularly in the fields of minority rights, human rights and election ‘assistance’. The body’s ability to develop and experiment with new areas of regulatory guidance and oversight made it an ideal multilateral body for Western (particularly US) leverage in the region.

Today, the OSCE is highly involved in the political process in Eastern and Central Europe, in all areas from education policy to policing to constitutional questions. This leverage is only mentioned in the Western media on rare occasions, as for example when the OSCE passes judgement on elections. There is little that is open and transparent about the OSCE’s authority in this area. From the recent interventions in electoral contests it would appear that the OSCE’s role seems to be more about judging the policies of the incoming parties to government than any objective measure of the democratic process.

The OSCE was scathing about the Russian parliamentary elections on 7 December 2003. However, the judgement seems to have been based on the results rather than the process itself. The Putin-backed United Russia party won around 37 per cent of the vote, on a 56 per cent turnout, making it the largest in the Duma. The OSCE praised the Russian Election Commission ‘for its professional organisation of these elections’ and found little fault with the proceedings. Yet the judgement was a highly negative one. The OSCE argued that preconditions favouring the pro-state party resulted in apathy from voters who felt that the results were preordained (1). Bruce George, president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, stated that: ‘Given that procedures on election day were conducted in a technically correct way, it is even more regrettable that the main impression of the overall electoral process is of regression in the democratisation process in Russia.’ (2)

It seems that democracy can be judged by who is voted for and the level of the turnout, rather than the correct procedures. This highly subjective judgement was dismissed by the head of Russia’s central election commission, Alexander Veshnyakov, who questioned the OSCE assumption that bias had resulted in voter apathy: ‘The 56 per cent turnout does not give grounds for full satisfaction, but I would like to point out that this indicator does not much differ to that of a number of Western countries.’ (3)

‘In this election the enormous advantage of incumbency and access to state equipment, resources and buildings led to the election result being overwhelmingly distorted’, said Bruce George (4). The Russian response was that the ‘the record of the last presidential elections in the USA’ should be looked to if access to state and financial resources was an issue (5).

The OSCE then cast a ‘negative’ judgement on the 28 December 2003 parliamentary elections in Serbia. Again the problems were not with the organisation and conduct of the elections, but the results. The organisation was ‘disappointed’ with the success of nationalists and war crimes indictees in Serbia’s general elections.

Ihor Ostash, vice-president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and special coordinator, stated that: ‘We welcome the relatively high participation and that voters had a genuine choice, as contesting parties and coalitions came from across the political spectrum.’ However, this was not really what counted, apparently. Murat Mercan, head of the delegation of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, said: ‘Three candidate lists are led by indicted war criminals. This sends out a negative message. While formally not in breach of the law, it shows a lack of political responsibility and is a reminder that a number of political parties in Serbia are still caught up in the denounced legacy of the past.’

The OSCE is now attempting to restrict the choice available to Serbian voters: ‘A comprehensive review of the election legislation is long overdue’, according to Nikolai Vulchanov, the head of the OSCE Office for Democratic Elections and Human Rights’ (ODIHR) Election Observation Mission (6).

By contrast, the OSCE passed a highly favourable judgement on the elections in Georgia on 4 January 2004, where after Shevardnadze’s resignation his ex-justice minister, Mikhail Saakashvili, won over 96 per cent of the vote. Again this was to do with the results rather than the democratic process. OSCE Parliamentary Assembly president Bruce George said that while the election was not perfect, it was very ‘positive’ (7). A winning margin of that magnitude in a post-Soviet republic is usually taken as proof of a rigged election. But at a post-election news conference Bruce George stated that the election was a big improvement. ‘[Sunday] was a pretty good day for Georgians, unlike the horrible elections two months ago.’

Maybe this was because the OSCE spent $5million training election officials and helping the Georgian government draw up a new voters list (8). The OSCE mounted a variety of programmes encouraging voter registration. It is also providing funds to pay polling station workers, the first time precinct workers will have been paid in Georgia (9). George says that the election wasn’t perfect, so he’s grading it a B-minus: ‘A big improvement on last time, but still some way to go.’ (10)

This positive judgement comes despite the fact that, according to independent election monitors, there was no meaningful alternative to Saakashvili, with no clearly visible posters, banners or advertisements for any other candidates. In addition, Saakashvili even addressed the nation on the eve of polling urging people to vote even though campaigning had officially ended – a presidential prerogative exercised by his ousted predecessor in 1992, 1995 and 2000 (11). OSCE observers detected several violations including a few cases of ballot box stuffing, but on this occasion breaches were not deemed to invalidate the result (12).

The OSCE’s openly partisan view of the political process in Central and Eastern Europe makes the organisation ill equipped to judge the neutrality of the electoral process. However, the organisation has tremendous influence as the sounding board for US and Western judgements of the region. This has nothing to do with democracy. From the Western perspective the governments of the region are judged to be democratic, not on the basis of popular representation, but upon whether they follow Western policy prescriptions.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
      Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • Read on:

    The tyranny of law, by David Chandler

    ‘Revolution’ from without, by Brendan O’Neill

    ‘Responsible’ regulation, by Sandy Starr

    spiked-issue: International

    (1) OSCE condemns Russia election, Jill Dougherty and Ryan Chilcote, CNN, 8 December 2003

    (2) OSCE condemns Russia election, Jill Dougherty and Ryan Chilcote, CNN, 8 December 2003

    (3) Observers condemn Russian elections, Nick Paton Walsh, Guardian, 9 December 2003

    (4) US shares Russia poll concerns, BBC News, 8 December 2003

    (5) OSCE condemns Russia election, Jill Dougherty and Ryan Chilcote, CNN, 8 December 2003

    (6) Serbian elections well organized but changes to election law long overdue, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 29 December 2003

    (7) Georgia: OSCE says elections show commitment to democracy, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5 January, 2004

    (8) Observers say Georgian election was ‘a big improvement’, CBC News, 5 January

    (9) Georgia tests democracy with election, Jim Heintz, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 3 January 2004

    (10) Observers say Georgian election was ‘a big improvement’, CBC News, 5 January

    (11) Georgian presidential elections: preliminary statement, British Helsinki Human Rights Group, 4 January 2004

    (12) Observers say Georgian election was ‘a big improvement’, CBC News, 5 January

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics Politics

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