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8/10/2004

OSCE Observers To Whitewash US Election

The Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been invited by the State Department to send an observation mission for the Nov. 2 election in the US. It's tempting to see this as a cave in to pressure from D's in Congress. Think again.

The State Dept. jumped at this because it isn't a threat. Anyone who has participated in any OSCE election observation mission (I've been on three) knows that the verdict of the mission will be written by OSCE member state ambassadors, who have political agendas to grind.

Guess who is the most important member state of the OSCE - the US. Guess who appoints the ambassador to the OSCE - GW Bush.

In January, I wrote a piece for the London Sunday Times on the impending OSCE election observation mission in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, warning of a whitewash (which happened.) It's a good primer on the OSCE's internal processes.

I pasted it here (you can't get it online unless you subscribe to the Sunday Times.)

Georgia vs. the election observers.
By Tim Russo

"You're joking," my British friend whispered to me as he came to a stop after racing into the building with urgency.

We stood at the back of an old auditorium, packed with international press, government officials, embassy staff, and observers of the 1998 presidential election in Armenia. The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) international observation mission sat at a table in the front, calmly reading the delegation's preliminary statement on the conduct of the election the previous day. I looked down at the ground in stunned silence.

"I just got back from my count," my friend said in disbelief.

"Have you even showered?" I asked.

"Haven't showered in a day and a half," he said. "We went to the OSCE office, they told us to come here," he said. "I just got out of the car after an eight hour drive," he finished, panting.
I feared what was coming.

He'd just been an observer at a late night vote count in a remote, mountainous border region where military manipulation of the election was expected, and turned out to be particularly egregious. "Where do I take these?" he said waving a stack of notes and documents in the air, his voice now frustrated. I just looked at him and shook my head, having spent the previous night at an equally farcical vote count myself until 9 a.m. that morning.

He started looking around for someone in charge. "What is going on here? Why is the statement being issued, I haven't even reported from my assignment?" I just rubbed my forehead as my friend kept charging about the back of the room with his documents, his desperation telling it all about how the election must have gone where he'd observed it.

Then we heard from the podium, "...a step forward for democracy..."

My friend lost it. He stopped in his tracks. I walked over to try and calm him down, but he just looked at me in shock, shoving my outstretched arm away. "What a fucking joke...," he said with one last wave of his notes, then he threw them to the floor angrily, turned around, and marched out of the building in disgust, as the head of the delegation calmly continued reading his verdict of approval.

Since the soviet collapse, it seems every new election in the post soviet republics deteriorates into more of a sham than the one before it, 2003 proving a banner year for post soviet electoral fraud. This year, the OSCE, post soviet international election observers of record, condemned various elections in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and even Russia, whose December 7 parliamentary election it described in its preliminary statement as `overwhelmingly distorted'.

The people of Georgia, however, finally refused to accept yet another fraudulent election. Helped along by the condemnation of election observers (OSCE as well as domestic observers), the people power in the streets of Tbilisi in November forced out the president, Edward Shevardnadze. Enough had become enough, and now there is great hope for a new era in Georgia of elections free of manipulation, beginning with the presidential election January 4.

As my British friend would agree, Georgia need look no further than its rugged southern border for guidance in the days ahead. In 1998, Armenia faced very similar circumstances. A president who relied on electoral fraud to stay in power was forced to resign. A new election was scheduled, the OSCE descended en masse to observe. And a similar hope for a future of free and fair elections was in the air. But Georgians should watch the OSCE as carefully as they watch their election processes, for the OSCE's recent boldness in the aftermath of this year's many sham elections is very recent indeed.

Run by member states, OSCE observation missions exist in a diplomatic no mans land; on the one hand dedicated to promote integrity in the democratic process, but on the other, representing the political and economic policy interests of the member states. The result is that far from being disinterested guarantors of democratic integrity, OSCE election observation missions, and especially the statements they make in the immediate aftermath of an election, are not unblinking verdicts by a referee, but more often are delicate balancing acts of high diplomacy.

It is a balance the OSCE has often gotten exactly wrong at precisely the wrong moment. As the new democracies of the former Soviet Union were finding their feet, and member states of the OSCE were assessing the new geopolitical realities, OSCE election observation missions found ever more creative ways to gloss over the ever more fraudulent elections. Whatever the competing interest, the commitment to helping these new democracies create fair electoral processes regularly took a back seat, with the perverse result that messy elections were not only ignored, but made even messier by the OSCE and the increasing caricature of their increasingly predictable whitewashes.

Armenia's presidential election in 1998 was a prime example. As an observer within the OSCE mission at the time, I had a front row seat to not only observe the pervasive electoral fraud, but also the OSCE's delicate balancing act between the compelling observations the observers kept reporting, and the member states' interest in ignoring them. The resulting OSCE verdict, a masterfully acrobatic navigation of statements and reports that managed the least amount of honesty when it was most needed, rubber stamped an election widely described by experienced observer delegates at the time as perhaps the most sophisticated electoral fraud they'd ever witnessed.

The timing of the OSCE's abdication of its responsibility in Armenia in 1998 could not have been worse. After years of preceding electoral manipulation, as a chance arose for democracy to change the course of a troubled country, the OSCE hailed a thorough fraud as a `step forward' for democracy, writing off the blatant joke of precincts reporting 300% turnout as not causing them `to question the result'. The result in the years since has been the rapidly accelerating rot of Armenia's democracy.

The OSCE should be applauded for its honesty in 2003, but perhaps with a slow hand clap rather than a standing ovation. Its talk this year is quite cheap. For when it mattered most, when a credible international organization's verdict on the conduct of an election could have affected democratic processes for the better, the OSCE too often has blinked. Elections in Armenia, Russia, Georgia, or the other former soviet republics, did not suddenly become `overwhelmingly distorted' overnight and in secret; they've been deteriorating predictably and in full view for more than a decade. The OSCE's sudden, too little, and far too late honesty about electoral processes which are rotten to the core - processes the OSCE itself has had a hand in perpetuating - might actually be comic if it weren't so tragic.

Georgia in 2004 may be different. The OSCE did have an effect on the November election. And if they are willing and able to stay as honest about the next one, Georgia may finally find the courage to not only refuse their legacy of electoral fraud, but work to eradicate it.It is likely, however, that the OSCE balancing act is in full swing already. The likely next president, Mikhail Saakashvilli, is a friendly protégé of the OSCE member states. He will likely win in a landslide, whether or not there is any fraud, and the OSCE will want nothing to taint his victory. Clean reporting of electoral manipulation may already be taking a back seat to the rise of a friendly new ally in a difficult and unstable region.

Fraud there will certainly be. It is tempting to think that the people power in Georgia that refused the latest fraud can herald a new interest in fair and clean processes, that somehow the disappearance of a corrupt figurehead will result in the disappearance of the deep rooted structure of electoral manipulation that kept him there.

But the practices of looking the other way while a ballot box is stuffed, or taking advantage of miserably inaccurate voter lists, forging a signature here or a vote total there, bribing or blackmailing voters with meager amounts of money that are many times their monthly salaries, have a way of sticking around and metastasizing into a permanent cancer if ignored for too long.

The OSCE will then have a choice between issuing a statement, the first draft of which is likely already written, that reports what actually happens, or one that will predictably refer to these practices as not having `affected the outcome', that despite these shortcomings, the result will have `reflected the will of the people'. It is a crucial moment for the OSCE, an organization that appears to be attempting to rehabilitate its credibility. Perhaps the OSCE will finally get the timing right.

For Georgia, though, much more is at stake than institutional credibility. It will soon have a new president who will likely bring hope for a new future. Whether or not his election will herald a new, freer democracy, is an open question.

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