It’s not only the Kremlin

By Mark Almond, a history lecturer at Oriel College, Oxford, and has observed elections across OSCE member states (THE GUARDIAN, 28/11/07):

Russia goes to the polls on Sunday under a shadow. Although many foreign observers will be scattered across the vast country, the west’s preferred agency for election observing, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, claims it was blocked from sending monitors to Moscow.The Kremlin sees the OSCE as a western battering ram which uses charges of election fraud to destabilise regimes disliked by Washington. When the Labour MP Bruce George, who is big in election observing for the OSCE, said in October that “there is no way that it will find that Russia’s elections meet international standards”, Putin saw red.

Even if the Kremlin has something to hide, election observers are neither mere calculating machines nor Olympian observers. If they were called by their day jobs – politicians, diplomats, even the odd spy – would we believe them implicitly? If both the Kremlin and the west are playing politics, what matters is whether Russians are getting the government they want, or at least deserve.

Many Russians want democracy as defined by Max Weber: “The people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, ‘Now shut up and obey me.'” To be fair, like Weber, most Russians also like to “sit in judgment” on the ruler every few years, but they are not much interested in western-style separation of powers.

Russians despised Boris Yeltsin for the corrupt chaos of the 1990s. Putin is admired for putting his house in order. Looking back to the katastroika under Yeltsin – applauded in the west – few Russians worry about how Putin got results. When they look at the opposition types embraced by western embassies and NGOs, Russians fear we want to reverse Putin’s economic improvements and bring back chaos.

Westerners think of opposition leader Garry Kasparov as a chess champion, but Russians also remember him as the proponent of the “robber baron” model of capitalism. Worse still, Kasparov links arms at demonstrations with Eddie Limonov of the National Bolsheviks, who is so extreme he makes Vladimir Zhirinovsky seem liberal. Since the Russian opposition is hopelessly unpopular, perhaps Putin should have gerrymandered the electoral system to give his opponents a handful of seats. Any worthwhile parliament has its awkward squad.

Let’s remember that many European election experts used to criticise Russia’s single-member constituencies. They argued that local mafia bosses could manipulate the results; but the system also allowed liberal mavericks to get elected against the national tide. Sadly, concerns about the electoral hurdles in Russia denying legitimate candidates and minority parties a chance have been swamped by the row over election observers. Who remembers – as many Russians do – how the OSCE’s predecessors in 1993 ignored blatant fraud to get Yeltsin’s constitution approved by over 50%? It isn’t only the Kremlin that has a dodgy election record in Russia.

When it comes to admitting independent monitors, only Britain has a worse record in the OSCE than the US, so Putin’s charge of double standards carries weight. Belatedly, in 2005, Whitehall permitted a number of observers to “learn” from our elections. Diplomats were escorted around a few polling stations but not allowed to observe the count, let alone pass judgment. The FCO would protest if its observers were controlled that way.

As for American efforts to foster “democracy education” in Russia, the natives spit back one word: “Florida”. After the shenanigans in Jeb’s state in 2000 came Ohio in 2004. The election hung on the outcome in Cleveland, where the chairman of the campaign to re-elect George Bush was also in charge of counting the votes. Russians resent that the OSCE made no great issue out of the flaws in either.

When it comes to election fraud, there is enough hypocrisy to go round east and west. Even in well-established democracies politics is about power, and democrats will bend the rules to come out on top. It is better that they play dirty with the ballot box than play rough in the streets, but it is not nice.

What makes democracy work is not foreign observers hovering over an election but the political culture of the voting society. Vigilant publics ensure democracy, not international observers. Russians may still have a long way to go, but should westerners be so certain that our elections are beyond reproach?