The two-day meeting, which ends today, comes after bitter complaints from Moscow about the group's monitoring of votes in Belarus, Ukraine, and other postcommunist countries. The OSCE has repeatedly questioned the fairness of such elections.
However, Russia accuses the group of meddling, and is calling for a change in the monitoring system. Moscow's demand is one of its key conditions for lifting a veto on this year's OSCE budget. Experts are due to deliver recommendations for possible reforms by June.
Aleksandr Veshnyakov, the chairman of Russia's Central Election Commission, did not mince words in outlining his complaints about the OSCE.
Speaking in Vienna at yesterday's opening session, Veshnyakov said helping citizens participate in the electoral process was not the OSCE's primary mission. He said the body was far more interested in helping some countries interfere in the internal political affairs of others.
The Russian election official did not mention any countries by name. But it is likely he is referring to Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Harsh OSCE criticism of elections in those countries led to greater Western support for the political uprisings that followed.
Veshnyakov repeated the argument at a press briefing later that day. Some of the OSCE's 55 member-governments, he said, had goals other than fostering democracy.
"Unfortunately, the institution of international monitoring [of elections] today is changing from an instrument assisting countries in implementing the principles of democracy into an instrument of legitimizing political decisions which concern the state of international relations with a given country," Veshnyakov said. "We see in this a departure from the goal of ensuring the citizens' rights to participate in the electoral process. Instead, the emphasis is being placed on the political participation [by other countries] in the internal affairs [of the monitored state]."
The Vienna conference is part of a process initiated by the OSCE to address Russian dissatisfaction with the monitoring missions, and to persuade Moscow to drop its veto on this year’s budget. That veto has severely limited some OSCE activities.
Other participants included Vladimir Lysenko, also a member of the Russian Central Election Commission; Ukrainian Central Election Commission chairman Yaroslav Davydovych; the secretary of Kazakhstan’s Central Electoral Commission Vladimir Foss; and the deputy chairman of the Executive Committee of the CIS, Assan Kozhakov.
Among the Western delegates are electoral experts from the United States, Canada, the European Commission, and Britain.
"Unfortunately, the institution of international monitoring [of elections] today is changing from an instrument assisting countries in implementing the principles of democracy into an instrument of legitimizing political decisions which concern the state of international relations with a given country." -- Veshnyakov
Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have long been dissatisfied with OSCE criticism of elections in some postcommunist states.
In July 2004 they expressed their dissatisfaction in a statement which accused the OSCE of not respecting the national sovereignty and internal affairs of the countries in which it operates.
Russia was angered again when the OSCE publicly questioned the fairness and honesty of the October parliamentary elections in Belarus. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by sending his own team of observers, who declared the elections to be free, fair, and legitimate.
Veshnyakov said Russia does not want to lower existing OSCE standards but to add to them.
Veshnyakov told the press briefing that Russia wants both OSCE and CIS standards to be used in assessing elections.
The OSCE and CIS have emerged as strong monitoring rivals. Both regularly send out observer teams, but the two groups rarely agree. The OSCE has sought greater cooperation with the CIS on monitoring missions, but has so far had little success.
OSCE’s original mandate to observe elections was approved in Copenhagen in 1990 and augmented at later OSCE conferences. Veshnyakov said Moscow’s goal is a new document that supplements and adds to that agreement.
"We would like the new Copenhagen-plus document to remove these concerns and give a new meaning, in accordance with the spirit of the times, to democratization across the OSCE's area of responsibility," Veshnyakov said.
The director of OSCE’s office for democratic institutions, Christian Strohal, said the OSCE’s methods for monitoring elections are the same in the West as in postcommunist countries.
The OSCE will monitor May elections in Britain, and also monitored last year’s presidential election in the United States -- and found the vote "mostly met" international standards.