Was the 2018 Russian election a victory for international election commitments?


Picture of Rick Fawn
Rick Fawn

Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, United Kingdom

Rick Fawn is Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, United Kingdom

The results of the Russian presidential election of March 2018 were known to everyone, and they are neither surprising nor likely to reverse deteriorating Western-Russian relations.

What receives far less attention than it should, however, was the use of international election observation practices during this particular presidential process. Russia, alongside several aligned post-Soviet states, has been in a 15-year ideological battle against the specialists of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), a principal institution of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Despite its long title, ODIHR is best-known internationally for only one of its essential endeavours: mounting international election observation missions (IEOMs).

For Western countries, ODIHR offers the world’s gold standard for running observation missions and has gained prestige for having developed the most sophisticated, all-encompassing means of determining whether elections across the organisation’s 57 participating states are free and fair. ODIHR also allows countries to improve their electoral practices through the advice they provide.

The current regime was confident both of its outcomes on the day and of procedures it took to ensure the regime would seal another term in office

Meanwhile, the rigorous and evidence-based ODIHR reports disgruntle post-Soviet states, perhaps Russia the most. Many of these states have developed alternative IEOMs to dilute ODIHR’s influence and to confuse domestic and international audiences.

Unsurprisingly, Moscow has waged its own battles against ODIHR to obstruct or limit its work in Russian elections since 2004. Among the most serious cases was denying visas in 2007 to many short-term observers: those trained to record systematic evidence of appropriate electoral procedures on voting days.

But the election of 2018 was successful, at least in terms of cooperation with ODIHR. The current regime was confident both of its outcomes on the day ‒ despite recorded violations ‒ and of procedures it took to ensure the regime would seal another term in office. Some positive engagement with a pan-European institution may be in Moscow’s interests, however, especially considering deteriorating relations with the West. Moscow does continue to cooperate with the OSCE for its Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.

But Russian engagement with ODIHR serves other purposes and the interests of Moscow in particular. ODIHR’s findings are routinely used by the Russian government to demonstrate Western and American electoral failures. As a result, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova referred to ODIHR’s reports on the US elections on 28 December 2017, claiming that ODIHR’s work “proves that US elections are not direct, universal and equal, and that they do not guarantee the secret-ballot vote principle.” She continued by saying, “It would be nice if the US side analysed its own system, before saying anything about the Russian system.”

In March 2018, Moscow undertook what has become standard for it and many post-Soviet states: recognise, even exalt, the importance of IEOMs. However, they do so by deploying their own IEOMs which produce content-appropriate reports; and which flood out ODHIR’s negative, but evidence-based, findings.

For the March 2018 elections, the Russian Central Electoral Commission accredited 1,513 international observers. One third would have been ODIHR approved; others came from Moscow-friendly inter-regional state formations, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Union of Belarus, or were seemingly independent parliamentarians from third countries.

The good news is that Russia cooperated with ODIHR

Their alternative, yet very selective, findings are unwaveringly positive, and they are used in domestic media to reiterate the legitimacy of both the electoral process and the results. In an environment of limited free media, such statements risk being even more effective. Additionally, Russian international media campaigns make the best use of the presence of the international observers, which give a sense of a very pluralistic and free observation environment, while in reality, much observation is selective and conducted with limited methodology.

However, despite these set-backs, the good news is that Russia cooperated with ODIHR in March 2018 – a clear improvement over previous elections. But, like in the past, Moscow could extract benefits from the use of ‘international election observation’ and benefit from the OSCE system while avoiding certain key commitments set by the ODIHR.

IEOMs continue to play an important role in elections, to regimes and democracy advocates alike. Any misappropriation of this powerful international tool must be resisted.

For now, the Russian Federation has stayed within the OSCE system. Far from producing ‘revolution’, genuinely-conducted and comprehensive IEOMs and their systematic findings of fraudulence and unfairness still give essential support to beleaguered activists and may help engender positive change – even if that is only in the long-run.

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