Letter From Moscow: By C. J. Chivers
The New York Times, NY, NY, Wednesday, December 14, 2005

MOSCOW, Dec. 13 — Early this year, as President Bush began his new
term, he declared a vision with allure for many people living within the
stunted democracies or autocratic governments in the former Soviet Union.

“The policy of the United States,” Mr. Bush said, “is to seek and support
the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and
culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Eleven months on, Mr. Bush’s inaugural challenge is facing an oblique but
determined attack in territory once under Moscow’s sway. The battlegrounds
are elections, which offer a glimpse into an emerging nation’s political
health. At issue are perceptions. What exactly is democratic progress? And
who gets to define it?

In much of the former Soviet Union, a patchwork of corrupt and
semi-functional states where authoritarianism has proven durable and
political liberalization has been uneven or thwarted, elections are
routinely flawed or stolen, making rigged polls as sure a feature of the
political landscape as the remaining statues of Lenin.

From eerily empty polling places in Chechnya to the rubber-stamp victories
President Islam A. Karimov of Uzbekistan, post-Communist governments
often manipulate electoral outcomes, ostensibly lending a patina of popular
legitimacy even to plainly undemocratic men.

Now, alarmed by popular uprisings that followed rigged elections in Georgia,
Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, Russia is leading many former Soviet states in an
effort to undermine honest discussion about lingering patterns of electoral
misconduct. A precise attack is under way.

The target is the election monitoring arm of the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe, a group representing 55 nations, including the
United States, which is the principal monitor of elections behind the former
Iron Curtain.

Although attacking observers is not a direct affront to Mr. Bush’s stated
policy, it might as well be. The United States makes clear that it relies on
the European group to inform its view of an election. And as the United
States has applauded the observation missions, the Kremlin and many of its
former charges have chosen an opposite course.

The goals are clear: Weaken credible Western observers, while creating
alternate observations for public consumption.

The European group’s election-monitoring arm, known as the Office for
Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or O.D.I.H.R., sends long-term

and short-term observer teams to countries holding elections.

The teams analyze each campaign period and election day, including voter

and candidate registration, safeguards against multiple voting, ballot counting,
use of state resources, media coverage, police conduct and more. As they
work, they publish, producing assessments that have become prominent
report cards of an election’s conduct.

Since 1996 the observers have covered 146 elections or referenda in
countries once under Communist rule. Many reports have been unsparing,
detailing government shortfalls and abuse.

In recent years, as assessments have documented abuses in countries whose
leaders then fell amid popular uprisings, and after the observers were
critical of the election last year of President Vladimir V. Putin, Russia
has begun to treat the reports as highly provocative.

“Autonomy of the O.D.I.H.R. has turned into a complete absence of control,
and decent governments cannot accept this,” Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian
foreign minister, said at the annual meeting of the European group last week
in Ljubljana, Slovenia. “It is also necessary to introduce order in the
publications of assessments.”

The observers’ leadership, while not seeking confrontation with the Kremlin,
has firmly defended their work. “We are holding a mirror up,” said Christian
Strohal, director of the monitoring office. “Maybe there are some people who
do not like the picture in the mirror. But if they smash the mirror, the
picture is not going to change.”

Mr. Lavrov’s speech was only part of the attack. Working with Belarus,
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Russia also sought to introduce rules that would
have weakened the monitoring group and delayed publication of its reports.
The United States and other government rebuffed the proposal, and for now
the observation mission seems secure.

But the observers themselves say they expect more problems. “Because we

have gone into their territories and pronounced bad elections bad, they want
to see O.D.I.H.R. emasculated,” said Bruce George, a member of British
Parliament who led a mission this month monitoring the presidential election
in Kazakhstan.

Challenges to the observers’ position have also been multiplying. As
elections have become freighted with the potential to discredit the status
quo, the Commonwealth of Independent States, or C.I.S., an alliance of 11
former Soviet states, has begun deploying observer missions of its own.

These missions release reports that faintly resemble the European group’s
reports but lack detail and underlying data. They invariably reach
conclusions the opposite of the Western monitoring effort, which are then
funneled into state television for domestic and regional consumption,
assuring citizens in the former Soviet sphere that democratic change is
indeed afoot.

Mr. George said he regards such tactics with suspicion and contempt. “In my
view their methodology is simple,” he said. “Be really nice to your friends.
You would think we were observing on different planets.”

Vladimir Karpechenko, a supervisor of the C.I.S. observation missions,
refused requests for interviews, and declined to provide explanations of
their methodology. But a comparison of reports shows differing approaches.

In Azerbaijan, the European group provided an analysis of television news
coverage, showing how coverage favored the state. It also documented

“bad” or “very bad” ballot counting 43 percent of polls observed.

The C.I.S. observers said the news coverage was balanced, but provided no
evidence of how it reached its conclusions. One concern it did note was a
suggestion that the indelible ink used for marking voters’ hands, a program
encouraged by the West to discourage multiple voting, might carry health

Daniel Fried, an assistant secretary of state who overseas American
diplomacy in the region, said efforts to blunt the European group’s
observation are creating “a bizarre alternative universe,” which he expects
to grow. “We’re going to see more of this parallel world, the alternative
world, which is kind a mockery of the democratic world,” he said.

In the future, he said, some post-Soviet countries may forbid the European
group from observing their elections. In that case, he said, the United
States will send a clear signal that countries that do not allow the
observers to work will not enjoy as much respect in the West as those

that do. “Respectability goes to countries that let O.D.I.H.R. in,” he said.

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