The diplomatic spat over Russia’s right to observe U.S. elections highlights the contradictions over the OSCE’s election monitoring system.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton poses for a photo following the third presidential debate with her Republican counterpart Donald Trump at UNLV in Las Vegas, October 19, 2016. Photo: AP

Ahead of the presidential election in the United States on Nov. 8, the question of whether Russian monitors would be allowed to observe it has once again brought to light the problem of election observation – one of the central functions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and a source of constant friction between Moscow and the OSCE. At the core of the friction is what Russia sees as double standards and unequal approach to election observation by Western monitors in general and the OSCE in particular.

Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission, was in Vienna last week, for the first time as Russia’s chief electoral official. The purpose of the visit was to take part in a seminar on election observation together with a group of experts and officials from some OSCE countries.

Alexander Lukashevich, Russia’s permanent representative to OSCE, told Russia Direct that such seminars have been held by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) since 2008 as part of the Russian initiative “to discuss the key problems having to do with how ODIHR is functioning, and the missions in various countries.” The problem, he stressed, is that “the methodology of ODIHR does not reflect the will of the participating states” and, specifically, Russia.

Failed expectations after the collapse of the Soviet Union

A degree of tension between the international organizations and the member states is commonplace. However, the case with Russia and the OSCE is a complicated one. On the one hand, there is a major disappointment on the part of Moscow with the fact that the OSCE has so far failed to become the dominant inclusive overarching European security structure. Yet the Western nations viewed it as an institution that should “democratize” the former Soviet countries while NATO started to expand eastwards.

Thus, the OSCE "underwent fast degradation after the Cold War to the role of an election watchdog in the post-Soviet space,” according to the recent report by two Russian foreign policy experts, Alexei Miller and Fyodor Lukyanov. They argued for the need to “detach” Russia from the West in order to prevent further confrontation. Moscow no longer accepts a role of an “apprentice” in the European workshop of liberal democracy, reads the report. 

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On the other hand, precisely the fact that the OSCE is the only European structure where Russia is an equal influential member makes it very valuable for Moscow and encourages a continued active participation, primarily in the security area as well as in the humanitarian field, with a hope to change the organization from within. Thus, the argument over the OSCE election observation methodology reveals the nature of the relationship.

Types of election monitoring missions

According to the existing rules, ODIHR sends, upon invitation, the Needs Assessment Mission (NAM) to the participating state that is about to hold elections. That mission meets not only with the political parties, government officials and election commissions, but also with civil society groups and media representatives, said Thomas Rymer, the ODIHR spokesperson, in a telephone interview to Russia Direct

Based on those interviews, it recommends the size and kind of the mission to follow. Sometimes, it is a small expert team consisting of two people who go to look at a specific problem – like a new piece of electoral legislation. That was the case, for example, with recent elections in Germany and Austria.

Sometimes, it is a Limited Election Observation Mission (LEOM). In this case, the ODIHR sends its “core team” of experts and asks the participating states to nominate and pay for long-term observers. They are dispatched to the country ahead of the election to monitor the campaign and look at specific issues prescribed by the Needs Assessment Mission. But no short-term observers for the Election Day are sent as a part of the limited mission. Most recently, the LEOM was used for the parliamentary elections in Serbia in April this year.

Full scale Election Observation Mission (EOM) includes also a usually large group of short-term observers, who arrive on the eve of the elections and are dispatched to various locations around the country to observe in the polling stations. A group of parliamentarians from the OSCE countries, who come as a part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observation group, usually joins the EOM and is supposed to coordinate with it.

The largest ever EOM of over 1,000 people was sent by the ODIHR to the presidential elections in Ukraine in 2014. The Russian State Duma elections in September this year merited a total of 480 people. Some 320 people, including parliamentarians, are presently monitoring the U.S. presidential elections, OSCE said.

The main criteria in determining the size and task of the mission appears to be the degree the country’s internal stakeholders, including political parties and civil society groups, feel confident about the country’s election system. The word “confidence” is cited in every Needs Assessment Mission report that recommends one or another observation mission.

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“We, like anybody else, have limited resources, human and financial, so we have to pick our spots,” Rymer said.

According to him, ODIHR deploys its resources according to where it is being told by local stakeholders that the observations and recommendations based on them can make the biggest difference. Contrary to widely held perception, rendering international legitimacy to elections is not one of the organization’s goals, ODIHR spokesman said. Improvement of electoral systems is among the goals. Legitimacy is a question “for political philosophers,” he said.

Diplomacy or PR?

The controversy over observing the American elections is another example of the frustration with the observation of elections. Of course, it has been exacerbated by the allegations of Russian meddling in U.S. elections, which became a theme of this electoral campaign. In mid-October, U.S. authorities had reportedly declined a request from the Central Electoral Commission to send a delegation of observers to the United States, recommending instead that it should send its monitors as a part of the ODIHR mission. However, the Kremlin refused to take part in it.

"This decision was made at the political level," Pamfilova said last week in Vienna while commenting on Russia's decision not to participate in the ODIHR mission. "Probably, as a result of the constantly sounding accusations that Russia is somehow attempting to influence the elections, our non-participation is a proof that we absolutely don’t want to influence even through observation.”

Nevertheless, a chain of heated statements followed on the both sides, in which the State Department accused Russia of a “PR stunt” and the Russian Embassy in Washington said it was “disappointed” with the U.S. Administration’s reaction to the monitoring request. Russian diplomats in the United States also applied to states of Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, asking for access to the polling stations on election days – and were predictably turned down, because these states don’t have provisions for international observers.

In response to this refusal, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the RIA Novosti news agency that he wanted  “to remind those who are trying to teach us, in an arrogant and snotty manner,” that for a long time the United States refused to invite any international observers and it took major efforts for this practice to begin changing.

“If, for political motives, we are deprived of it, we will draw our own conclusions,” Ryabkov said. “And American colleagues should not count on us simply forgetting this in the future, when they would suddenly want to observe something in our country and think that we will not remember how they had behaved in this situation."

Double standards

Russian political consultant Evgeny Minchenko, who is presently in the United States privately observing the elections, said in an email interview that the spat over the U.S. refusal to invite independent Russian observers and the Russian refusal to include its observers to the ODIHR/OSCE mission should not be exaggerated. According to him, the real motive behind this move is the Kremlin's firm conviction that Washington and ODIHR follow double standards.

“Double standards are obvious, and not only as far as the world’s only superpower is concerned, but its satellites as well," he told Russia Direct. "In particular, numerous violations at recent elections in Ukraine and Moldova are being ignored.”

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According to ODIHR, election access in the United States, where there is no federal electoral authority, is determined by the state or country. Eight states explicitly allow for international election observation while 13 states explicitly forbid it, which is not in line with the country’s OSCE commitments. But the rules are the same for any international observers, whether they come as part of the OSCE mission or from individual foreign states.

In fact, for the first time the OSCE is sending a full-scale Election Observation Mission to the United States, which includes short-term observers at polling stations. In previous years it was either limited missions with long-term observers only or small election assessment missions. According to Rymer, in 2008 Russia sent long-term observers to the U.S. elections, with some of them included into the ODIHR missions. But it is always a sovereign decision of a country.

“It is totally their prerogative, so it is not a problem of the ODIHR,” Rymer said.

At the same time the OSCE observers themselves argue that the ODIHR treats each country equally but the same does not apply to the parliamentary delegations.

"Many parliamentary observers issue personal and often political statements in the hope that this will get them publicity back home. If this means criticizing the country under observation even before the election has taken place they are prepared to do so in order to get mentioned in their home media,” said a former observer, who refused to be identified.

“There are also problems created by host countries that prevent countries from being treated equally," he added. "Some countries give greater freedom to observers than others so it would be impossible, for example, to treat Serbia, which allows wide freedom, in the same way as Uzbekistan, where observers have been severely restricted.”