For generations the OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has been monitoring elections in various countries to ensure they meet Western democratic standards. After each one it publishes a report, which sometimes bears little relation to what people on the ground have seen, and each one of these mysteriously reflects the current political position of the Western powers – if they like a country and its government, they have conducted free and fair elections, if not, the elections are declared wholly or partially invalid.
This practice has often raised criticism, but still the OSCE is being called in to monitor elections all over the globe. Why? Because it is the institution representing countries with a long democratic tradition, and those these have since chosen as their friends. That’s it. It does not have to do anything to justify the vast sums given to it to be the authority on elections, simply be there.
Theoretically the OSCE is the product of a partnership between East and West. But in effect the OSCE is run by Western democracies and those countries it now believes have adopted Western standards since the Cold War. These nations, we are told, understand democracy and can therefore recognise it when they see it.
On 19 January the Head of Russia’s Central Elections Commission, Ella Pamfilova, recommended to the OSCE’s Michael Link that it should adopt a common set of standards for election monitoring. This would enable it to compare one country’s performance with another’s and see whether countries are improving or regressing compared to previous elections. “I consider it very important that the standards of elections monitoring in all OSCE member countries be unified,” she reportedly said.
This statement opened mouths all over the world. So let’s get this straight – the OSCE has been monitoring all these elections without any set standards of what democracy is, what is free and fair, what are the acceptable and unacceptable variables, what are the irreducible minimums or what the rights and responsibilities of governments, election commissions and political parties are? It has continued being regarded as the authority on these questions in spite of this? And now the Russians – the RUSSIANS – have to call for a common set of standards to give the monitors some idea what they are supposed to be doing?
You think, therefore we are
This isn’t about elections. It is about how long you can get away with a con. Since the end of World War Two The West’s policy has been based on lies – it is supposed to believe in certain values, such as democracy and human rights, but goes round depriving the rest of the world of the same values it says are paramount.
Everyone has seen this happen, but the West is still supposed to know more about these values than anyone else. So if other countries want democracy and human rights they automatically turn to the West. If they end up with governments which claim to respect democracy and human rights but do exactly the opposite, and Western monitors telling them that rigged elections are substantially free and fair, is that their own fault or that of the Westerners they asked to prevent these things happening? But still they feel they have nowhere else to turn, because Western democracies must somehow know best, and they won’t be better off any other way.
Russia’s request makes one simple point. If you believe in democracy, you will have developed a sophisticated definition of what it is and why it is so important after such long experience of it. If you have such a definition, every observer who monitors elections will know it and be able to assess the elections against it. Of course there will be some local variations in practice between democratic countries, and some of these might raise the concern of some countries. But there will be a common set of standards already in place against which these too can be judged, and thus everyone sent as a monitor will be able to cite these to acquire credentials as a democrat, even if they’ve played little or no part in actual elections.
This is indeed perfectly logical. If it hasn’t happened, this cannot be because the conditions don’t exist. It is because no one wants to be bound by any definition of what democracy is. The West wants to use the term how it wants, when it wants, and make everything up to fit whatever broader political goals it has. The West pronouncing on whether elections are free and fair is about as credible as Australia saying it is in the northern hemisphere because the cover of the North-South report said so and that was written by Western European politicians.
Power to some other people
Does this process actually achieve anything? It enables selected people to enjoy all-expenses-paid junkets to different countries, where they go around with badges on which technically say “Election Observer” but in reality say “You can’t say anything about me, I’m the expert”. How many of these junkets they get depend on how well they fit the evidence to the pre-existing script about that election. Many observers arrive before polling day and stay afterwards: maybe this is to do with monitoring the pre- and post-election situations, or maybe it is to give them time in various places of ill repute as a payoff for going along with the official script.
Lots of historic examples of election monitoring fraud are available. When India decided it wanted to annex the independent Kingdom of Sikkim in 1975 it persuaded its parliament to abolish the monarchy and then hold a referendum on joining India. Obviously, as Sikkim was already an Indian protectorate, it monitored that referendum to ensure it was free and fair. Very few others were able to find out anything about the referendum until the results came in, which showed 97% support for joining India, despite the fact the alleged number of people could not have physically voted on the day due to the terrain, most of the voters had been imported from India and the observers were also armed troops in many cases.
Similarly, when Viktor Yanukovych was up against Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential runoff in Ukraine Mikheil Sakkashvili’s Georgia sent hundreds of observers, as a neighbouring, friendly country. The trouble was, most of these were actually martial artists, or simply thugs, with no experience of organising elections. Saakashvili openly supported Tymoshenko in these elections and had already been happy to use force on his own citizens in Georgia. It would have interesting to quiz these observers about what a “free and fair” election is supposed to mean.
Indeed, the May 2008 Georgian Parliamentary Election had already provided a classic example of vote rigging and fraud which was obvious to anyone from a democratic country. The international observers looked on and saw nothing, and the OSCE rubber stamped the results, with the existence of various spying platforms in Georgia at stake.
What OSCE monitors do has nothing to do with the welfare of the people whose country they are pronouncing upon. It is about exerting control. If the outcome of an election is what the West desires, it is free and fair, and no one can complain because they have no other set of standards to refer to. They can’t call on some other organisation to review the OSCE’s judgment because, although such organisations exist and can act independently, their credibility can be easily exploded.
If someone disagrees with the conclusions of the mighty OSCE, however farcical those conclusions may be, they must have some political motive or be unaware of the full facts. This sort of common thinking, however baseless, is what has enabled the West to get away with this for so long. How it responds to Russia’s request for it to adopt standards it can be held to, which it should have done itself long ago, remains to be seen.
Velvet fist in an iron glove
This sort of control is familiar to anyone who has worked with aid agencies, which, like democratic systems, are designed to help people. Whether these are international or internal to a specific country, the principle is the same: we know everything; you know nothing, so you have to accept whatever we say so we can prevent you ever achieving what you want to achieve.
Eastern Europe is full of aid agencies from Western countries, regardless of the political orientation of that country. Each one brings money to conduct programmes which are supposed to bring greater democracy, rule of law, industrial or agricultural efficiency, human rights etcetera. The process is supposedly simple: benchmarks are set, and if prospective beneficiaries achieve these benchmarks they get the funding to take part in the programme, which involves meeting further benchmarks as they go along.
This results in situations such as the National Democratic Institute in Georgia insisting that the principles of democracy and fairness are “very clear” because it says so, without explaining what these principles actually are, why it therefore produces wildly inaccurate opinion polls at each election for pay and why it never says a word about a president who was democratically elected with 87% of the vote being overthrown in a coup and the state being built ever since on supporting that coup. It results in situations where people who’ve never set foot in a country before try to tell local farmers, with all their accumulated experience, that they have to do things differently, rather than better, to enter shiny Western markets whilst also supporting the rigging of those markets against them to suit other clients elsewhere, who pay better or are more politically reliable.
But the worst aspect is that the pump soon runs dry. The further people get involved in these programmes the more paperwork they have to do. That in itself is onerous, but it comes with strings attached. To keep receiving support they have to become increasingly politically acceptable to the donor, as the aid is not designed to improve the situation on the ground but to serve the broader political objectives of the donor governments. Georgia provides another disgusting example of this: during Saakashvili’s time even staff of the International Red Cross, most of who didn’t support him, had to be seen canvassing for him and his party, flags waving, trumpeting Western progress, when that same government wouldn’t let them rescue people stranded in South Ossetia during the 2008 war.
Internal aid organisations are no different. They also tell prospective clients, which are usually local welfare organisations with their own remit, which they have to adopt all kinds of quality standards to be eligible for any funding, because everyone else has trustworthy quality standards and they don’t. These standards are usually drawn up by people who have never worked in a similar organisation, and the standards themselves are often irrelevant to the organisations which are told to get them.
But the more money they get as a result, the more games they have to play to retain those funds and keep providing services, even though what they do has increasingly less to do with the welfare of their clients. Who is creating the problems their clients face? The same government whose various arms are telling them they have to adopt these systems to function. It is therefoe rather obvious which such systems are invented, by whom, and what they are ultimately designed to achieve.
It’s not going to go away
It would be a positive thing if a country like Russia, which has always been told it has to learn from the West because it is deficient, was able to make Western countries adopt better standards. People in Eastern Europe know perfectly well what democracy actually means, which is why they cry out for it and object when they don’t get it. At every election in every Western country there are some offences committed, and no one has ever been able to demonstrate that people, who were originally from “young democracies” or no democracy at all, commit more of these than anyone else.
However it is likely that “Missionary Syndrome” will still hold sway. Whatever fine words the OSCE might come out with about listening to experts; it all depends on where those experts come from. In the 1980s there was a craze for Protestant countries which had formerly been British or German colonies to send missionaries to “the Old Country” to try and get local people going to church again. The common response was, “we sent our missionaries to you, what do you have to teach us?” Even those who agreed with every point being made wouldn’t accept it coming from the mouth of an ex-colonial, because natives of the former imperial power must automatically know more.
Nevertheless, this latest move is yet another example of Russia taking on the mantle the US used to have – Russia is increasingly the power of legality and international agreements, the US increasingly the rogue operator. Everything Russia does which the West objects to was done by the West long before, in defiance of its professed principles, and that is exactly why Russia is doing it. The way to change the game is for all sides to behave legally and properly, but it is Russia, not the US, which is seeking to bring that about.
All this is very alarming to the millions of people brought up with the opposite assumption, which at one time really was justified. Realising this is what is happening is like suddenly discovering you’re the opposite of what you thought you were.
Now Donald Trump, allegedly a Russian stooge, has taken power in the US there is much cry over the threat Russia poses. That “threat” exists because Western hypocrisy and criminality put it there – and only by doing what it was always supposed to do, with or without Russian prompting, is that “threat” ever going to go away.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.