Monitor, observe, flinch, forget
Nov 29th 2007From Economist.com
Providing fig leaves for a sham democracy
NOBODY’S perfect. That is the short answer to the contested question of why some western observers are monitoring Russia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday and others are not. The dispute involves nuances in political jargon, and obscure outfits with bewilderingly cumbersome names.
Hands up: who knows the difference between observers and monitors? Or between the 55-country Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, based in Vienna), its Copenhagen-based Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and its Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR, pronounced Oh-Dear)? Don’t forget the 47-member Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE, in Strasbourg), which is quite different from the European Parliament, sometimes to be found in the same city. A full understanding of which of these matters in what contexts and why is probably a sign of a sad life.
One protagonist in the row is ODIHR, which, depending on your viewpoint, is either a meddlesome and amateurish American puppet, or the continent’s most expert source of thorough election monitoring. The Russian authorities take the former view, and obstructed ODIHR's efforts until it pulled out.
On the other side are the two parliamentary assemblies, OSCE PA and PACE. Their joint 110-member delegation is observing the election, to the fury of ODIHR, and also of Bruce George, a veteran British politician and election-watcher. He thinks that the Russian authorities will use the observers’ presence to claim spurious legitimacy for the result.
Furthermore, foreign politicians may know a lot about elections (at least if they come from countries where they are free and fair) but they are unlikely to be experts on Russia, or to become so during a brief visit. Nobody is saying so openly, but the willingness of some foreign politicians to accept Russian hospitality, regardless of the consequences, could be seen as a sign of how Kremlin influence is penetrating the central institutions of western democracy.
The parliamentary assemblies vehemently reject that, and decry ODIHR observers’ supposed expertise. “Most of these people appeared to be part-time consultants, unemployed academics and retired people. …. Few if any have parliamentary or political experience in their own countries” sniffs an internal OSCE PA document. Critics also say that it is unclear in some cases who pays for ODIHR’s monitors’ lengthy pre-election stays. Some observers may be spies, retired or even serving.
But the row is not really about a turf war between little-known international institutions. It is about Russia’s future and western influence on it. David Wilshire, a British MP who will be observing the elections in Vladivostok for PACE, says he makes “no apologies for trying to do my little bit to help Russians transform themselves from their totalitarian system of the past to a 21st century democratic system—keeping in mind that it took my own country many hundreds of years to make that journey.”
Spencer Oliver, the secretary-general of the OSCE PA, says “It is better to engage than to disengage.” René van der Linden, the president of PACE, says “It is always better to be part of the process and have a profound discussion afterwards.”
If things were improving in Russia, these would be strong arguments—indeed they were frequently used by most Western governments during the vote-rigging and corruption of the Yeltsin years. But Russia now is abandoning western political practice, not converging on it.
The observers will give their verdict on Monday, probably a tough one, condemning the harassment, fraud and other abuses that characterise the Kremlin’s “sovereign democracy”. That will sharpen the question further: at what point does the spectacle of sham democracy become too repulsive to merit outsiders’ attention—or, worse, their tacit collusion?
Thursday, November 29, 2007