The election-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has recently come under criticism for what was described as growing timidity and caution in assessing elections in some countries in the ex-Soviet space.
The Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) came under fire in particular after the April 5 elections in Moldova, which gave the ruling Communists a landslide victory but was marred by bitter accusations of violations from the opposition and triggered violent demonstrations.
RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc talked to the ODIHR's director, Ambassador Janez Lenarcic of Slovenia, about the Moldovan election and the criticism that ODIHR may have been intimidated or subjected to pressure by Russia.
RFE/RL: ODIHR has come under some criticism for its assessment of the recent election in Moldova. ODIHR's postelection press release was seen as too lenient toward the ruling Communists, despite mentioning several shortcomings of the voting process. Opposition parties, some observers and watchdogs, and a consistent part of the Moldovan public said that the violations mentioned in the press release were serious enough to alter the results decisively. Given the gravity of some of the violations, wasn't the ODIHR's conclusion somewhat rushed?
Janez Lenarcic: We've noted with some concern some media reports about our supposedly too-positive assessment and I have to say that most of these reports somewhat overlooked our assessment, which is pretty clear. It was a statement on preliminary conclusions and findings which was issued a day after the election and it contains both positive and negative aspects of the election process. It was never said by our office that these elections were great or that they were totally positive.
RFE/RL: The press release contains a statement by Petros Efthymiou, head of the delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, who says: "I am delighted with the progress of democracy in Moldova. These elections were very good and they gave me great confidence in the future of this country." Doesn't this statement fit the definition of a positive assessment?
Lenarcic: This quote appears in the press release but it is a quote attributed not to our office, but to one of our partner organizations, in this case the Parliamentary Assembly.
But, you see, it should not be taken out of context. The press release, which is, as a whole, quite balanced and in our view reflects what was happening, and it should also not be taken out of the context defined by the preliminary statement, which I have to note here, was agreed by all partners -- parliamentary assemblies and our [ODIHR] office.
RFE/RL: I agree with you, but the point is that such a statement gives to the international media, the international community, or even the parties involved in the election process a general feeling that it was a stamp of approval for how the poll was conducted, in spite of pretty serious allegations of fraud, multiple voting, intimidation, and inaccuracies in the voter lists.
Lenarcic: I do take your point. However, one should not take from the press release or the preliminary statement only the positive things. If you look at the title of our press release, it says, "Moldova's elections met many international standards, but further improvements are needed."
You see, apparently some people were looking for some sentences that would justify their claim that our assessment was too positive, but I believe that claim is false. Our assessment was balanced, in my view.
Now the cardinal question that some people asked was how did these shortcomings that we identified before the demonstrations, how did they affect the result? That is difficult to say on every occasion. While it is difficult to quantify fraud, if detected, it is more difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the impact of issues like media coverage, like deficiencies in voter lists, intimidation, misuse of administrative resources, and many other shortcomings and problems that we did identify. However, our assessment continues to stand.
RFE/RL: When will the final statement on the elections be published, and if you could anticipate, are the conclusions going to differ from those of the preliminary statement?
Lenarcic: We could expect our final report to be ready by the end of this month or early next month. The question whether its conclusions would significantly differ -- well, that depends on the additional information that we may receive or may have received after the election day. But what we have so far is already reflected in the postelection interim report.
Let me just say that certainly the demonstrations and violence after the elections shed quite a negative light on the whole process. In a way they are a reflection of the lack of trust, of public confidence to a certain extent, at least in some parts of the population, and we have identified this lack of confidence in the electoral process already in our statement after the election day. What followed was actually a confirmation of many things that we said.
Lowering The Democracy Bar
RFE/RL: Since ODIHR has long been regarded as the ultimate international authority in election monitoring, its stamp of approval or disapproval of an election bears immense weight in giving international legitimacy to the winners. Or, critics say, the lukewarm nod given recently to highly controversial votes in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and now Moldova, is contributing to the international recognition of undemocratic or not-so-democratic regimes. How do you answer the criticism that ODIHR has lowered the bar?
Lenarcic: That is certainly not what we believe is the case. I will not be able to comment on Armenia, because that was before my time as director of ODIHR, but I can clearly tell you that with regard to Azerbaijan, our office was criticized for being too negative by several quarters.
I could not agree to the claim that we have lowered the bar. Certainly not. Our bar, our standard remains the same and these are the commitments. And, we always apply commitments to the situation in the field: what we find out is almost never totally black or totally white, but somewhere in between. Most often it's many shades of gray.
That's why these assessments need to be read carefully. If we say certain elections met "many" international standards, that is different from when we say they met "most" standards. This is something most people failed to notice with regard to Moldova.
RFE/RL: Some commentators have pointed to the fact that the democratic opposition in former Soviet states is becoming disillusioned with the OSCE and ODIHR and the way they arbitrate elections. How would you reply to such an allegation?
Lenarcic: I would not be able to agree that ODIHR is in a position to arbitrate elections. We assess, on the basis of what we observe. These are not just technicalities. It's important that this process is professional, fact-based, and some consistent methodology is applied. That's what we do. We do not comment the results, we assess the process.
I can understand the disillusionment of all people who would like to see the democratic process develop faster and further in certain countries. But it is not ODIHR that can deliver that, it is their own governments.
On the other hand, there is quite a number of governments that are very much displeased with what we do, and continue to claim that our assessments are politicized and that we only criticize elections in one specific part of the OSCE area and so on. People should just understand that we are not in the business of trying to please either the government or the opposition.
RFE/RL: Since you've just mentioned the accusations of political bias, there were some allegations that the perceived leniency shown recently by OSCE election monitors in the former Soviet space is the result of Russian pressure. Some even speak about an "instinctive impulse" in the organization to somehow accommodate Russia. Has ODIHR faced such pressure, or any other form of pressure, political or financial, during its monitoring missions?
Lenarcic: During the monitoring missions -- never, since I have been here. On the other hand, yes, there are countries which are not entirely satisfied with our assessments, countries who believe that our assessments are politicized, but we reject those claims strongly."
RFE/RL: Could you name such countries?
Lenarcic: Well, you know who they are, and this was also one of the reasons that I traveled to the Russian Federation very early in my term and I tried to present our case that we are not in the business of political tailoring of our election assessments.
RFE/RL: Was your point taken?
Lenarcic: I think so, because I have to say that the relationship and the cooperation between the Russian Federation and our office have been fairly good. I could also note that just recently, when after long negotiations the OSCE was able to reach an agreement on the OSCE budget, that agreement included a significant increase for our [ODIHR] office, so you should not overlook the fact that also the Russian Federation and other countries have agreed to this.
And I take it as a demonstration of the willingness to engage constructively with our office. That willingness is there, and has been there and should not be confused with some negative political statement that may occur here and there.
RFE/RL: Did you sense any other type of pressure -- overt or covert -- on ODIHR?
Lenarcic: Never. On the contrary, I was received very well during my visit to Moscow. My points were taken, their concerns were also communicated to us, and I tried to address them in the same way, saying very plainly that our office is not taking any political considerations as the basis of our work. The bases of our work are commitments and these commitments apply equally to all countries in the OSCE. On the other hand, of course, the gap between the commitment and reality varies, and that contributes to the difference in our reports or assessments about election processes.