Wednesday, February 27, 2008
OSCE’s Human Rights Office Finds Itself in Crossfire over Election Monitoring
By Jean-Christophe Peuch: 02/27/08

A controversial election-monitoring mission in Armenia has plunged the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights into a full-blown credibility crisis. Already under attack from member states that are hostile to ODIHR’s democratization mandate, the Warsaw-based office is now facing harsh criticism from civil society advocates.

Christian Strohal, the Austrian diplomat in charge of the ODIHR, is due to step down next May after five years in office. His successor will inherit an institution whose impartiality is questioned by some of the least democratic post-Soviet nations. Alleging that ODIHR is an instrument of regime change in the hands of the West, Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) want to put the OSCE’s human rights office under their effective control, and limit the scope and size of its future election-monitoring activities.

Yet, this will only constitute part of the challenge awaiting Strohal’s successor. ODIHR is also coming under attack from opposition groupings in former Soviet states, which condemn the Warsaw office for failing to publicly expose election fraud, thus contributing to the consolidation of what they describe as authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. In addition, recent monitoring reports that have glossed over instances of blatant fraud have also stoked a sense of chagrin among international civil society activists.

Recent elections in the Southern Caucasus region encapsulate ODIHR’s problems.

On January 5, Georgia’s incumbent leader Mikheil Saakashvili won a second five-year term with 53.5 percent of the vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On February 19, Armenia’s Prime Minister and government candidate Serzh Sarkisian was elected president with nearly 53 percent of the vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. By obtaining just over 50 percent of the vote, Saakashvili and Sarkisian both avoided presidential run-offs against the second-place finishers in the respective elections.

Election observers from ODIHR, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament concluded in a joint statement that both ballots were “mostly in line with international commitments” made by the respective governments of Georgia and Armenia, but that “significant challenges” needed to be urgently addressed.

Opposition candidates in both countries denounced the elections results were fraudulent and called upon their supporters to take to the streets. Thousands of antigovernment protesters have been demonstrating in Yerevan over the past week, while in Georgia, a lackluster popular response prompted the opposition to temporarily shelve plans for a nationwide hunger strike. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

On February 20, Armenia’s leading opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian said he was holding international observers partially responsible for the falsification he claimed took place on Election Day. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Recounts of selected electoral districts in Armenia found some cases of gross instances of fraud that either election monitors missed, or, for whatever reason, did not report on. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva, who currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE, held talks with Armenian officials in Yerevan on February 26. An OSCE statement issued after the meetings quoted Kanerva as calling upon the government and the opposition to solve their dispute through dialog, but made no mention of the arrests of political figures who have declared their support for Ter-Petrosian. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In the wake of the Georgian polls, Conservative Party leader Zviad Dzidziguri accused the international election monitoring mission of “cheating” those nearly one million voters that he claimed had cast their ballot for opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze. Dzidziguri had particular harsh words for OSCE observers, “most of whom” he alleged had appeared at polling stations under the influence of alcohol.

Other opposition leaders in Georgia, while also scornful of the monitoring mission’s performance, were more restrained in venting criticism. Some distributed the blame by criticizing the United States, whom they accused of turning a blind eye on election fraud for the sake of Georgia’s political continuity.

Kanerva visited the Armenian and Georgian capitals on February 26-27 for meetings with officials and opposition politicians. At a news briefing in Tbilisi, the chairman-in-office tacitly acknowledged the shortcomings of monitoring mission evaluations, explaining that initial conclusions must be drawn in haste. “It takes time to give a highly reliable report on the elections … and it’s always a little bit complicated situation,” Kanerva said, adding that he expected the final election reports to be more thorough.

Kanerva expressed particular concern about the situation in Yerevan, where protests calling for the annulment of the February 19 election results were in the eighth day. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. “After discussions with [Armenian] politicians … I’m not totally convinced about the future,” Kanerva said. “The most important thing is for peace and that there will be no violence.”

In addition to the recent Armenian and Georgian ballots, ODIHR last year monitored local, parliamentary, and presidential polls in half-a-dozen former Soviet republics. With two exceptions, OSCE missions concluded that despite more or less serious shortcomings those elections generally represented a step forward in the democracy-building process -- including in Kazakhstan, where the Nur Otan ruling party grabbed all seats in the lower chamber of parliament on August 18. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

To critics who wonder why their office is not taking a firmer stance against governments suspected of manipulating votes, ODIHR officials respond that the purpose of their election observation missions is not to praise or criticize countries, but to help them democratize their electoral processes through dialog and legal assistance.

“We are observers. We are not participating in political processes,” Strohal told the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s winter meeting that took place in Vienna in mid-February. He also reiterated that ODIHR’s decision to not observe Russia’s December 2 legislative polls and upcoming March 2 presidential ballot had not been motivated by political considerations, but by the impossibility for election observers to perform their duties because of what he said were unprecedented logistical restrictions imposed by the Kremlin.

The general misperception about ODIHR’s election monitoring activities may partly stem from assessments given by the Parliamentary Assembly.

Unlike ODIHR’s technical statements, those made by OSCE parliamentarians can at times be overtly political.

US Congressman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Emeritus Alcee L. Hastings told reporters in Tbilisi on January 6 that he believed the “demonstrative competitiveness” of the Georgian election campaign had made it possible for democracy to take “a triumphant step.” The joint statement subsequently issued by the international election observation mission contained no political judgment on the outcome of the ballot.

It is precisely to avoid that kind of situation that ODIHR and the Parliamentary Assembly in 1997 signed a cooperation agreement under which they agreed to work together to avoid issuing final election reports containing contradictions, while preserving “the integrity of their independent observations and conclusions.”

Both organizations say they are satisfied with the level of cooperation they have reached over the past decade. But those coordination efforts have their limits.

Parliamentarians in December sent an election team to observe the Russian Duma elections, raising concerns among OSCE diplomats who feared the Kremlin might try to set one group of OSCE monitors against another. Parliamentary Assembly President Goran Lennmarker earlier in February notified Moscow that due to unspecified “circumstances” parliamentarians would not monitor the upcoming Russian presidential ballot.

The mid-February Vienna meeting showed that OSCE parliamentarians remain divided over ODIHR’s decision to boycott the Russian ballot.

British lawmaker Bruce George said he believed ODIHR was “right,” and that the Parliamentary Assembly “was wrong in going [to Russia] to try to dignify an election which was not to remotely meet international standards.”

Countering George’s arguments, Portuguese representative Joao Soares said he viewed ODIHR’s decision as “a mistake” He further argued that any international election observation mission, even performed in a non-democratic environment, is meaningful.

Such opposite statements are yet another indication that when it comes to election monitoring the OSCE no longer speaks in one voice.

Editor's Note: Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments. Elizabeth Owen, EurasiaNet’s Caucasus news editor, added reporting to this story.