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Election observation credibility protected, but what action should be taken against Russia?

Article by Alex Folkes

August 16, 2021

Election observation credibility protected, but what action should be taken against Russia?

The decision of OSCE’s election observation wing (known by the acronym ODIHR) to withdraw from observation of the forthcoming Russian Duma elections has been made to protect the credibility of the organisation and of neutral election observation in general.[1] But it will have been far from easy. Over the past 18 months there have been some very difficult choices made as elections have been postponed and countries have been imposing significant barriers to travel, both international and internal. Many missions have been cut back or cancelled altogether, but always for reasons of the pandemic rather than a dispute with the host country. I have been involved in a couple of virtual missions trying to assess the campaign, media and election administrative preparations via Zoom. These have worked pretty well, but they are not a complete substitute for feet on the ground. Whilst the pandemic is still a significant factor, observer groups have largely developed methodologies to cope, ensuring they can still do a reasonable job whilst protecting their own staff and the nationals of the countries they are observing.


The ostensible issue in Russia is over the number of observers who would be allowed into the country. ODIHR wanted 80 long term observers (LTOs), a core team of 13 or so and 420 short term observers in addition to a parliamentary delegation. Russia countered by saying they would allow 50 observers from ODIHR and no more than ten parliamentarians because of COVID-19.


The decision as to how many observers to put into a mission is a combination of three factors. First and foremost the number they think is needed to do the job. The mission wants to cover the whole country and be able to have some sort of reach into every corner. But this is tempered by geography – in the case of Russia the territory is so huge that you could have 300 long term observers and still not reach everywhere. So they will try to strike a balance. In the Russian Presidential election of 2018, I was a long term observer based with my work partner in St Petersburg – one of 40 teams across the country. As well as the city itself, we were deputed to cover the surrounding oblast as well as three other territories stretching all the way up to Murmansk on the northern Arctic coast. There was no feasible way that we could meet everyone we would like to have across this vast area and so we had to make reasonable decisions as to our priorities. The mission knew this from the start and planned accordingly. Compare that with a tiny country such as Montenegro where a small pool of eight to ten teams can see almost everything.


Second is budget. Although seconding states pay the costs of the LTOs themselves, the mission is picking up the costs of drivers and assistants and all the other associated costs from their central budget.


Third is the number of secondees they think they will get. If they ask for 100 and only get 50 then that is embarrassing and also likely to leave the mission over-dominated by one or two countries and this threatens the methodology which asks for a wide spread of nations represented.


However, OSCE’s withdrawal (barring an unlikely last minute change of heart from the Russian authorities) does not mean that there will not be international observers present. There are a number of other groups who have been invited but they do not have much of a history of providing credible assessments. Organisations such as the CIS and Shanghai Co-operation Organisation have traditionally sent a few parliamentarians from friendly states who can be relied upon to declare the election perfect in every way within minutes of the polls closing. These ‘reports’ will be trumpeted across state-controlled news to show to Russian nationals that the world thinks their elections are the real deal.


There will likely be some western observers too. Russia, and some other states, have a history of inviting the supportive and the gullible to all-expenses paid trips. The European Parliament recently issued sanctions against a number of its members from both the far left and right who had participated in fake election observation missions of this kind in countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Venezuela. But it is not only fellow travellers who do this. Well-meaning academics and journalists will sometimes be invited and provided with local staff who will ensure they meet top government people and see a few Potemkin polling stations before a microphone is thrust in their face for them to proclaim they have seen nothing wrong.


Sadly, in many countries you can no longer rely on domestic observers to plug the gap. Russia has banned independent groups from monitoring and now requires all domestic observation to be done by local civic councils. The reports are written by the heads of these state controlled organisations.


Democracy in Russia is under threat to a greater degree than it has been for many years. It has never been perfect and the history of Soviet-era manipulations still linger. But there are positive aspects of the process and, until recently, international observers were able to conduct their work freely and in accordance with established methodology.


The change came at the time of the national vote which took place last year to approve constitutional changes which included allowing President Putin to stand again beyond 2024. This was not officially a referendum and did not have international observation. But COVID-19 was used as an excuse to introduce changes which allowed for widespread cheating. Voting took place over a period of a week and voters were able to cast their ballot from the precincts of the polling station rather than in the polling room itself. A form of internet voting was also trialled in a few regions. Add these together and it became almost impossible for opposition party poll watchers or observers to effectively monitor malfeasance. The authorities declared that these provisions (albeit with a few tweaks) would continue in the upcoming Duma elections.


In reality, ODIHR was left with little choice but to withdraw. Whilst the official line is that there is never any negotiation on the make-up of an observation mission, in reality there might be some tweaks made at the behest of the host country. These might be for legitimate COVID-related reasons or there might be force majeure type diktats of domestic policy. Ukraine, for example, has banned almost all Russian citizens from its territory and this meant that the ODIHR missions to the Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 2019 were conducted without Russian team members. ODIHR protested but without hope of changing the policy. But there are limits. And insisting that a total of 60 observers – both long and short term – was all that would be allowed was clearly too far short of what would be needed for a credible mission that adhered to accepted standard methodology. And agreeing to host country limits would be a slippery slope that would be seized on by other states. This sort of limitation demand has happened before in Russia – in the early 2000s they sought to limit the overall size of the mission, including national staff, but have returned to accepted practice in recent years.


But although it is the right decision it is still disappointing. Observer missions, even where they produce highly critical reports, are able to provide a benchmark for the future and to show the state and its citizens that the outside world is watching, giving some degree of succour to opposition and serve as a warning to authorities.


This outcome presents a step change in the relationship between Russia and an important international institution. Even when the Salisbury poisonings happened midway through the 2018 Presidential Election and relations soured between Russia and many Western European nations, the observation mission was able to continue with UK citizens among its members.


But by sticking to their guns, ODIHR has, on behalf of all observer groups, drawn a line in the sand.


The decision now is to how to get out of this mess. The honour of international election observation might have been maintained, but Russia cannot be allowed to get away with what is a blatant disregard of the requirements of their membership of OSCE. Whilst they might not be expelled from that group, their membership of the Council of Europe (one of the bodies likely to have sent observers as part of the parliamentary delegations) should be reviewed. And it will do nothing to bring forward a lessening of the current sanctions regime. It has been suggested that other countries might refuse to recognise the winners of the elections. In practical terms the impact would be small. Duma members might be denied places on inter-parliamentary conferences and events, but there are only a limited number of contacts with Russian Duma members anyway. Such a decision would therefore have more effect as a warning for other countries than for the practical impact on Russia.


As for other countries, how can the liberal democracies of the world stop them from taking similar steps for their elections? Belarus may have secured their pariah status for the foreseeable future, but countries like Uzbekistan, who have elections this autumn, need encouragement to continue the slow progress they have been making towards more democratic values. They may have a long way to go, but incentives and support are needed. That means two things. The first is an invitation to be round the table when President Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ eventually happens. A manifesto commitment from the President, this forum has the potential to carve nascent democracies and those wishing to improve away from non-democracies such as China who will not be invited. It may be that Russia has now sealed its exclusion from the summit too – albeit they were never really likely to attend. The question is whether the Kremlin seeks to persuade others to boycott.


Second, the West needs to stop allowing security and economic considerations to trump everything else. A country which ignores its democratic commitments cannot continue to be lauded simply because it allows Western companies to exploit natural resources or provides occasional support in the fight against terrorism. I am not naive enough to think these factors do not matter, but they should be considered alongside membership of an international rules based order.


Image by Manfred Werner (Tsui) under (CC).


[1] OSCE, No OSCE observers for Russian parliamentary elections following major limitation, August 2021,

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