Thursday, September 13, 2007


Worse than useless

Sep 13th 2007

The OSCE lets Russia off the hook

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CALLING it a whitewash would be unfair. At least white looks clean and crisp. What the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has produced on Russia’s recent attack on Georgia is a greywash, a pile of slime and sludge that conceals the truth.

Georgia says that on August 6th a Russian warplane fired a missile over its territory, apparently aimed at a new NATO-compatible radar station. Georgia has produced documents that seem to show the plane entering its airspace, and the remains of the missile (which failed to explode, having apparently been launched prematurely).

Russia says the whole thing was a stunt staged by the Georgians.

An OSCE inquiry headed by Miomir Zuzul, a former foreign minister of Croatia, compared the accounts of the incident. If it had come up with convincing reasons to believe the Russian version, and ignore the Swedish, Polish and other experts brought in by Georgia, that would have been interesting. The published version of events in ex-communist countries often conceals as much as it reveals.

But it seems to have made no attempt to compare the evidence or assess the arguments. It came to the ringing conclusion that given the conflicting stories, it was “difficult to know what happened”. Russia was jubilant, saying that it had been exonerated by the report and renewing its propaganda attack on the Georgians.

The next row will be about election monitoring, a particular Russian bugbear. The Kremlin has long tried to neuter the OSCE’s Warsaw-based vote-watchers, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR, pronounced, aptly enough, “Oh, dear”).


Missile? What missile?

That body would be likely to give Russia’s upcoming parliamentary elections in December a poor scorecard: the Kremlin has tweaked the electoral rules to hamper independent candidates and “real” opposition parties; the media is likely to favour only the pro-presidential parties and the “tame” opposition; police harassment of opposition public meetings and campaigns is already a scandal; and Russia’s history of ballot-rigging long predates Vladimir Putin’s presidency.

To forestall this, Russia has asked the OSCE for details about election monitoring it has carried out in Western countries, such as the America and Turkey. As the answer will be “very little” the Kremlin can then smile broadly and say that the same treatment will suit it nicely.

That is a good debating point: the difficulties that Kurdish politicians face in Turkey are shameful, as are the shortcomings of America’s electoral system (gerrymandering, campaign finance excesses, dirty tricks, astroturfing and of course the ghastly botched presidential count in Florida in 2000).

The right response to this would be to welcome extensive monitoring of Western elections, including tough criticism of shortcomings. Russians might try to use this to make propaganda, but no matter. Good points will strengthen the case for reform. Bad ones can be discussed and rebutted.

Unlike fascist kleptocracies masquerading as parliamentary republics, true democracies do not need to fear criticism. Such a stance will be an excellent basis for insisting for vigorous monitoring of elections in the east, where the shortcomings are hugely more serious.

Though that would be the right tactic, it will not necessarily be an effective one. The sad truth is that Russia’s tactics within the OSCE have made that body almost useless. It works on the basis of unanimity, so a Kremlin veto can block its funding or other activities. In short: without Russian consent it cannot work. But Russia’s restrictions make its work useless—or worse than useless, as Georgia’s plight illustrates.

Yet Russia’s victory in hobbling the OSCE is ultimately self-defeating: the main result is to give more clout to NATO. Is that what the Kremlin really wants?


Konrad von Swalwagner said...

I think you mean the 2000 "ghastly botched presidential count in Florida," Edward. In 2004 Bush was elected without any major election problems (although Ohio and Florida had discrepancies again), especially because John Kerry conceded before the count was over.


One more thing, this photo of the missile crash site in Georgia is really interesting: does Georgia buy its police lines from the U.S., or did they print the text in English on one of those just because the international press was going to be there? I personally find absurd the theory that Georgia would throw defective missiles on its own soil, but here's a point the Russians could have explored ("see, the staging is so good it even resembles Hollywood action films!").

Edward Lucas said...

Thanks for pointing that out--i have now corrected the mistake. I don't find the English-language tape at the scene of the missile landing suspicious. Western countries are doing a lot to train Georgian police, and I can well imagine that they supplied some of this tape at some point.