Hollowed-Out Democracy: Russian-backed Election Monitors Say It’s All Good In Belarus

This is the second in a series of guest blogs by Global Integrity’s Norah Mallaney. The first one is available here.

For election monitoring in Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) provides the fairest assessment, at least in the eyes of the West, as they chronicle the many flaws in Eastern European elections. But the former-Soviet bloc does its own election monitoring, and their results… well, they can’t seem to find any problems at all.

The OSCE analysis of elections in post-Soviet nations have continually conflicted with the results of monitoring by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Moscow-based confederation of former Soviet states. While the CIS was created as an upstart alternative to the USSR, the Commonwealth and its member states still operate in the shadow of the Kremlin, placing doubt on the “independence” that the organization’s title suggests. clip_image001

As part of an ongoing series on the influence of the Kremlin, a New York Times reporter followed an election monitor from this organization of post-Soviet states; an experience that confirmed the illegitimacy of the Commonwealth of Independent States’ assessment.

The election monitor profiled in the story is a political figure from Tajikistan, sent to Belarus for the September 2008 elections. According to the New York Times, he went from polling station to polling station asking questions like: “Everything’s OK here?” or “Issues? Violations?” with the tone of “a casual sightseer.” Despite his role in their September elections, he admitted a lack of knowledge of Belorussian politics. Even so, this election observer and his umbrella organization pronounced the elections in Belarus “fair and democratic” without mentioning any of the concerns discussed in the OSCE analysis.

In the Global Integrity Report: Belarus (due to be released in February) the scores for voting and election integrity in Belarus are beyond bad. While the September elections were not covered in the time period of our report (June 2007-July 2008), the voting integrity issues that our researcher highlights mirror those described by the New York Times: candidates have unequal access to state-run media outlets, the influence of civil society is suppressed and there is a lack of effective monitoring at the polls.

One unique concern addressed by our researcher is the trend towards early voting. In Belarus, this practice provides greater opportunity for KGB and police to influence and intimidate voters as election regulations and monitoring tend to be more lax during this early period.

Naturally, Belorussian state-controlled media outlets exalted the results of the CIS report as it verified the overwhelming victory of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko and his supporters. The New York Times article portrays Kremlin-backed monitoring as exposing the deep need from post-soviet states’ for validation by the West. However, the means by which the monitoring occurs (ignoring pre-election factors and then, monitoring on election day with uninformed and untrained representatives), as well as the strong Russian presence throughout the assessment create more skepticism than acceptance by a Western audience.

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