OSCE’s Human Rights Office Finds Itself In Crossfire Over Election M

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Feb 27 2008

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

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

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

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.

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