Friday 16 March 2018

Why are we sending election monitors to Russia?

By the time you read this the election for President will have happened in Russia. Writing in the middle of February we can all say exactly what will happen in the election and what the result will be. The election during the election period will be entirely free and fair – it will comply with domestic laws and international standards for elections (the latter is the phrasing that professional international observers actually use) and Vladimir Putin will be elected with an overwhelming majority over ‘rival’ candidates who mostly take care to praise the President during the election as well as after the result is declared. Those candidates include Grigory Yavlinsky leader of the Liberal ‘Yabloko’ party (apple) who is a genuine opponent. Alexei Navalny, outside of Russia the most well known Kremlin critic, is barred from standing by a dubious conviction.

On the 18 March Vladimir Putin could be rewarding himself with a glass of Imperial Russian stout, rather than Arthur Guinness’ black stuff.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is the main international organisation doing election observation (election monitoring) in the ex Communist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as on a much smaller scale in Western Europe and North America. Britain is contributing 4 Long Term Observers (like regional coordinators who observe before and during the whole election period) and up to 40 Short Term Observers (who cover what actually happens on the ground in the days immediately before, during and after the election).

Why. What on earth is the point? The OSCE was set up at the end of the Cold War to facilitate relations between the former Cold War rivals and includes all of the former USSR, Europe, the USA and Canada. It came out of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, part of the Helsinki process during the period of détente in the mid-1970s. The OSCE works on political-military, economic and environmental and human rights issues (the human dimension). It is now best known for providing monitors of the war in south east Ukraine but does much work at intergovernmental level and European and national conferences and seminars and with political missions in places such as Macedonia, Georgia and Kosovo (and Central Asia). That work includes promoting professional policing, justice, anti-discrimination and protection of minorities, good governance and media freedom. Russia, as the most important former Soviet state is a core part of OSCE. Here you see the problem.

Whatever the faults of British, French, American foreign policy outside of Europe they have not directly engaged in the brutality that Russia has in Syria or its own former empire territory of Chechnya, nor have they or any other European countries engaged in war in Europe (Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia / Yugoslavia the exception). Russia has changed the de facto borders of a European state by force for the first time by a European state since World War 2, and is engaged in a nasty vicious entirely pointless bloody war in south East Ukraine where Russian soldiers kill their fellow slavs and ‘orthodox’ Christians. This by a country that pretends to stand for European (‘White’) Christian values. Yes, the clear majority of people in Crimea want to be part of Russia. Yes it was Russian territory longer than Ukrainian, as part of the Russian empire then USSR when taken from the Ottoman Empire. This is no excuse for military occupation. This is the illness of Putin, he could no doubt have achieved his aims peacefully but for a swaggering bully like that peace would not befit his macho image. Hence ten thousand people have been killed and two million people have been displaced by the war in Ukraine. (In 5% of the country). The economic damage has caused misery to millions more in Russia and Ukraine (and producers in countries affected by the sanctions and Russia’s retaliatory boycotts). All on the altar of Putin’s image and keeping his people inside the bubble with the spectacle of Russophobia and Russia standing against barbarians – this kleptocrat state’s version of bread and circuses.

At any stage Putin could have chosen peace, he has chosen brutal violence. London’s 2012 Olympics was a celebration of the UK with the World. Putin’s 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics could have been a bridge to the civilised world but was a display to Russia and the World before Putin’s regime’s military occupation and invasion of Ukraine.

The politics of OSCE election observation.

Several of my good friends are observers and they will do an excellent, professional, independent and impartial job. But it is a huge waste of public money and a huge waste of credibility for the OSCE to send an election mission. Russia is a leading member of the OSCE and its democracy and society development wing, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). ODIHR, headquartered in Warsaw, organises the election observation missions (EOMs). Where they go is based on a Needs Assessment Mission by experts, which makes recommendations. The 21 December report for Russia concluded “Most of the OSCE/ODIHR NAM interlocutors emphasized the value of an OSCE/ODIHR election observation activity for the presidential election. Many of them also stressed the importance of a long-term and regional presence to cover all aspects of the process.” All the work is subject to the fact that the OSCE is a diplomatic intergovernmental organisation, (yes of course nothing to do with the EU, though I erroneously thought it is related to the Council of Europe) that has its own Parliamentary Assembly of elected representatives of the member states.

Other international election monitor organisations include the Carter Center of former US President Jimmy Carter, and the American NDI (National Democratic Institute) and IRI (International Republican Institute) as well as African, Asian and other regional bodies. My experience of the former is that they operate in a highly professional independent manner, I haven’t worked outside of Europe so have no experience of the other bodies.

In actual monetary terms the cost of Britain contributing to a large EOM like Russia is relatively low – flights, and fairly generous expenses but no payment for STOs and a token payment only for LTOs. British contingents on missions have reduced compared with a few years ago. Then the UK commonly contributed 10% of observers, now it is often half the former number. (The UK also continues to send a small number of observers on the smaller European Union election observation missions that support democratic elections in Africa, Asia and Central and Latin America). Where Britain sends observers now seems to be clearly dependent on internal Foreign Office politics, determined by the priorities of each Embassy and affected by budget. Entirely understandable but not necessarily consistent or principled, unless the principles on which observers are deployed is made clear. The UK, however, contributes to many missions, Russia now sends observers only when it appears strategically of use for Russia. Montenegrin elections when Russia hoped and failed to get a more favourable government; Moldova where it fared better, and Ukraine when it elected President Petro Poroshenko who proved a far less compliant leader than Viktor Yanukovych. These are among the recent examples. Obviously Russian monitors might be shy in the neighbouring countries it has gone to war with, and its money (reduced with oil prices) is being spent on wars. It is telling though that Russia sends monitors only in its geo-strategic interests. Usually, not always, directly from the Foreign Ministry (as with many European countries, not the UK) and often ex-FSB.

Isn’t it time to call a spade a spade and to call Russia out. You can’t be a member of club promoting Enlightenment progressive human values if your State activity in and outside of Europe is entirely turned to destroying and subverting those values. Russia’s military supplied the missile launcher used to murder the 300 European and Asian passengers and crew of MH17. The rest of Europe should have acted decisively then. It must be time for this dancing around the issue to end. It is a shame for the hard work done in the OSCE by all the people who work hard to make the World a better place. If the structure falls apart because Russia is thrown out (and perhaps the dictators of the former Russian empire may walk as well) then it may make reconciliation in the future more difficult. Putin, the dictators and his far right fans like Orban thrive on never having consequences, on the double standards of ‘the West’, by dividing Europe, by exploiting hypocrisy (like the words of Boris Johnson versus his actions which have fundamentally undermined security and stability in Europe, same for Liam Fox). Britain should not be wasting taxpayers money in Russia and nor should we let the cosy pretence continue that Russia can remain a member of a club for civilised nations.

The writer. Kiron Reid has been an OSCE LTO election observer in Ukraine, Georgia and Macedonia. He is an honorary volunteer professor at Zaporizhzhia National University in south east Ukraine (visiting Ukraine five times since 2014) and a member of the Liberator collective.

March 16 note. The poisoning in Salisbury of Sergei Skripal in March 2018 makes no difference, whether Russia is blamed (the UK Government line) or we should await for the outcome of a full investigation to establish the facts (the Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition, Labour Party, line). The Russian State had passed beyond the pale a long time ago. The only thing the poisoning and outrage might do, along with the impact of fact based drama like ‘McMafia’ is lead to the British Government finally tightening up on Russian (and other dodgy) money stashed in London.