Prague, 12 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The mood in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv was tense last November as monitors from the OSCE prepared to give their opinion on a second round of voting in the presidential election.
The election followed weeks of mass demonstrations across the country after a first round of voting was widely viewed as flawed. The stakes were high and there was a possibility of bloodshed.
The head of the OSCE's monitoring effort in Ukraine, Bruce George, rendered a somber evaluation. "The second round of the Ukrainian presidential elections did not meet a considerable number of OSCE commitments, Council of Europe and other European standards for democratic elections," George said.
In elections across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union -- from Russia and Chechnya to Belarus, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan -- the OSCE says one thing, the CIS the exact opposite.
But not far away on that same day, another set of observers was saying something completely different. Monitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS, were hailing the vote as "legitimate."
Former Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, who headed the CIS's monitoring group, said, "Of course there were [some] separate violations, but we do not think that these [violations] influenced the free expression of the citizens' will in the election process."
Ukraine was only the most dramatic example of what, in recent years, has become a predictable pattern. In elections across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union -- from Russia and Chechnya to Belarus, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan -- the OSCE says one thing, the CIS the exact opposite.
It's an important problem as the monitors are part of a high-stakes game. Elections have become major catalysts for change in the region. A poor assessment by election monitors can bring down a government.
Officials with the OSCE's monitoring unit maintain their methodology is more rigorous than the CIS's.
The OSCE sends three different sets of monitors into a country as far as six weeks in advance of an election. The monitors are trained to evaluate elections according to seven criteria, including transparency, equality, fairness, and accountability.
Hrair Balian is a former official with the OSCE election monitoring unit (the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) based in Warsaw. He says, "The observation [ranges] from pre-election preparation, to the campaigns, the entire legal framework of a given election, to the election day events, [to the] counting and then reporting the results at the national level."
Balian says the methods have been developed over more than a decade of observing elections.
By comparison, the CIS monitoring effort is relatively young -- formed just a few years ago based on a 2002 agreement among CIS member states.
The CIS generally employs fewer monitors per country than the OSCE and monitors spend less time in-country.
The CIS is highly sensitive to criticism it is merely a propaganda tool for Moscow. It responds by saying its observers -- drawn from Russia and other CIS member states -- are often closer culturally and linguistically to the countries they monitor.
Ahead of the recent parliamentary vote in Kyrgyzstan, the then-head of the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission, Sulaiman Imanbayev, praised the CIS monitors. He said, "It is particularly important for us, practically and politically, when international observers from CIS countries come here, for one simple reason. We share the same historical background, we have a common mentality, a common culture. And observers who come here without translators will watch, feel, assess [elections] more objectively and more realistically."
The OSCE, for its part, acknowledges that its monitors may occasionally be out of touch with the countries they monitor.
But Balian points out that superior training and preparation can narrow the gap. And anyway, he says, fraud is fraud -- regardless of the language or culture.
"Whether you [monitor a vote] through a translator or not, when you see fraud, whether you see it through a translator or hear it through a translator, I think you would recognize it, says Balian.
Many say the divide between the OSCE and the CIS cannot persist. The OSCE's observations tend to carry more weight and international prestige. The reputation of CIS monitors was badly damaged by their wrong-headed assessment of the vote in Ukraine.
Balian says the OSCE has tried in the past to incorporate the CIS monitors into a broader assessment framework, but this hasn't yet succeeded.