Thursday, 1 November 2007

Opening up

Russia is to invite a at most 400 foreign experts, with just 70 from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's election monitoring arm, to observe the forthcoming State Duma elections. As well as thus slashing by 2/3rds the 1,165 observers present at the previous parliamentary poll of 2003, Russia will also itself define the "monitoring modalities" prescribing what the observers can and cannot do. This is major a set-back for those hoping for at least the semblance of an open contest as Russia goes to the polls first on December 2 and then again to elect a new President on March 2 next year.

Clearly, circumscribing election observation is a tactic in need of justification if Vladimir Putin is still to profess himself a "true democrat". According to Alexei Borodavkin, the Russian Permanent Representative to the OSCE, Russia's gripes are threefold. Firstly,
"instead of giving technical assessments of how the elections were held, ODIHR observers often issue political assessments, which sometimes adversely affect the internal political stability of the countries where monitoring is being conducted."
"the monitoring of elections is held mainly in countries east of Vienna. That is, the focus is on post-Soviet countries. Although there are plenty of violations of election rules in countries west of Vienna as well."
"the selection of heads of observer missions is absolutely nontransparent. This is being done behind closed doors by ODIHR itself. Never once throughout the whole history of ODIHR has its observer mission been led by a representative, say, of a CIS country."

The first allegation only has substance in contexts where the idea of the "open" society itself is contested, precisely those locations where external monitoring is at its most neccesary. To get "closed" societies (Russia itself remains "not free" in Freedom House's annual report of global rights and liberties) to at least continue to sign up to ODIHR's ideals, it is vital for the same standards to be applied to all, namely by firmly addressing allegations two and three.

Thankfully, ODHIR already are. Contrary to Borodavkin's assertion, observation missions can indeed be led by CIS nationals, such as Vadim Zhdanovich of the Russian Federation who currently heads the heads the monitoring team of the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Croatia. While election monitoring in the 1990s concentrated wholly on transistion countries, ODHIR has broadened its horizons over the past few years, sending observers to elections in America in 2004 and 2006 and this year to Belgium and Switzerland, to name but a few.

Nevertheless, more could be done, particularly by the member states. The UK, for example, has still to implement Paragraph 8 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document and fully throw open its electoral processes to foreign and non-partisan observation, with current legislation restricting access to polling stations on election day. Resources are obviously short, with monitor expenses met by the sending state. But with painful choices to make in other areas of the open world's relationship with Russia, an issue soluble in part by simply throwing money at it is surely one to be embraced.

The challenge is for supposedly open societies to positively embrace foreign scrutiny. The benefits, like Borodavkin's criticisms, are threefold. Firstly, open societies are of course not above election shenanigans themselves, with, for example, proven electoral fraud in Birmingham, England, in 2004. Secondly, they are nevertheless the standard against which closed societies must be assessed. Finally, and most importantly, the demanding the highest standards from all countries denies closed societies cover when the spotlight of election monitoring is cast upon them. Russia's grounds for limiting foreign observance of its forthcoming elections are weak, but that doesn't mean the open world wouldn't benefit from a more even application of its own rules.