Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 224

On the eve of its year-end conference, the OSCE has suffered two serious hits to its last remaining credible function: that of Europe’s leading election-monitoring organization. Moscow and Moscow-friendly authorities administered both blows as part of Russia’s campaign to “reform” the OSCE and its Warsaw-based Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the body specializing in observing and evaluating elections.

On November 27, Moscow staged “parliamentary elections” in Chechnya — an untransparent exercise under the gun, against the backdrop of mass repression and exodus from that republic. Russian and CIS observers were on hand in an “international election observation mission.” That mission’s head, who holds the post of Deputy Executive Secretary of the CIS Executive Committee, Valery Kirichenko, pronounced those elections a success: Registration of candidates and compilation of voter lists was correct, he claimed, and “none of the thousands of observers reported any significant violations” (Interfax, November 28).

OSCE/ODIHR shied away from observing and evaluating that exercise, or for that matter the overall situation in Chechnya. The organization and Moscow reached an informal, tacit understanding whereby the OSCE declined to monitor those elections due to unsafe conditions there. This rationale suited both sides. Moscow did not have to contend with an election-monitoring mission whose assessment, if honest, would have been highly negative. And the OSCE avoided a dilemma that has plagued it throughout 2005: either contradict Moscow and provoke it into freezing the organization’s budget, or issue some ambiguous assessment that would appease Moscow but would puncture the organization’s credibility.

In the event, OSCE credibility suffered anyway through absenteeism from Chechnya and silence at headquarters and by the Chairmanship on that issue. Russia had evicted the OSCE’s Chechnya Office in 2003, to no audible reaction from the organization. Since that time, military violence and police repression in Chechnya has become a non-issue at an OSCE that feels dependent on Moscow’s goodwill for the organization’s perpetuation.

The Council of Europe is not dependent and may therefore become more credible than the OSCE on election-monitoring issues. A small team from the Council of Europe went to the field in Chechnya, issued a highly critical statement on the November 27 balloting, and was rebuffed by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Interfax, December 1).

Also on November 27, Armenia held a Soviet-style referendum on amendments to the constitution (see EDM, November 30). The Armenian government, with Moscow’s encouragement, refused to invite an OSCE/ODIHR mission to observe and evaluate the balloting. Ironically, the OSCE’s own Office chief in Yerevan, Russian diplomat Vladimir Pryakhin, repeatedly and publicly argued that Armenia need not accept OSCE monitoring. He insisted that the OSCE has authority to monitor elections, not referendums; and that Armenia in any case has a sovereign right to invite or not invite any monitors. President Robert Kocharian and other officials followed Pryakhin’s line of argument in their statements.

In Warsaw, ODIHR responded to press queries in a cautious statement that it had not received an invitation to monitor the Armenian referendum. It stopped short of acknowledging that it had intended to do its job so but was prevented by the Armenian government and Moscow. ODIHR’s silence on these points made it look especially weak because the OSCE had actually displayed serious interest in monitoring the referendum and even carried out a needs-assessment for a monitoring mission. The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Chairman, U.S. Congressman Alcee Hastings, had as recently as November 9 reconfirmed the organization’s interest in monitoring Armenia’s referendum.

In the event, Yerevan also denied accreditation to the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and other Western organizations. No Russian/CIS monitoring mission was on hand either. The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly was allowed to send only 14 observers to the referendum.

Those European observers, along with Armenia’s leading election-monitoring NGO It’s Your Choice, laid to rest the Armenian government’s claim that 65% of eligible voters cast ballots and that 93% of them voted yes. The observers reported that voter turnout was extremely low, most polling stations “eerily deserted” most of the time, according to a frequently used description. Observers reported that election authorities resorted to massive forgery by simply filling the boxes with “yes” ballots.

The Council of Europe team’s statement expressed “regret over the [government’s] decision to exclude the participation of other international observers.” But the OSCE itself failed to protest its exclusion. The U.S. State Department did so instead of the organization: “We regret the fact that the government of Armenia chose not to invite observers from the OSCE/ODIHR,” the Department said. It “share[s] the regret of the Council of Europe, whose observers called into serious question the voter turnout figures reported by the Armenian government,” and it “call[s] on the government to investigate the Council of Europe’s reports of serious abuses and fraud” (press release, November 30).

In the end-game negotiations at the OSCE, Russia demands that OSCE/ODIHR election-monitoring delegations should significantly increase the number of Russian and Russia-friendly members, use Russian as a working language of election monitoring delegations in CIS countries, harmonize OSCE/ODIHR monitoring methodology with that developed by the CIS, and monitor elections also in Western countries. Under pressure, ODIHR took the initiative of sending a team to discuss these issues at the headquarters of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission just days before the OSCE’s year-end conference. There, Moscow will try to codify its gains at the expense of the OSCE’s credibility on the democracy front, after the organization’s forfeiture of credibility on the security front.

(Interfax, Noyan-Tapan, Mediamax, PanArmenianNet, November 22-30; Opendemocracy.net, November 30; Interfax, November 25, December 1)