WASHINGTON -- Things turned feisty at a Washington press conference held by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) when a representative of the Russian Embassy challenged the body's assessment of the U.S. presidential election as free and fair.
At a November 8 media briefing, Portugal's Joao Soares, the head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's U.S. election observation mission, told reporters that despite several concerns, the November 6 election was "yet another demonstration of the country's commitment to democracy."
He said among those concerns were the "often negative role" played by private campaign financing and "the avalanche of paid advertisements." The body also noted controversial legislation on voter identification requirements and early voting, which it said had "a tendency to reduce confidence in the process."
Overall, however, Soares said "things work very well here in the United States."
But during the question-and-answer session Sergei Chumaryov, a senior counselor at Moscow's embassy in Washington, pushed back on that assertion.
"I had the opportunity to also monitor the elections in Florida -- two main, key counties where OSCE observers, Parliamentary Assembly or the organization as such, were not present: Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach County," he said. "And I would tell you that I have a completely different story. Are you here to monitor or to visit Potemkin polling stations?"
Chumaryov also said the observers visited only polling stations "where you were allowed to visit."
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's team, made up of some 100 observers from 20 countries, was deployed to several "swing states" -- those which could have been won by either President Barack Obama or his challenger, Mitt Romney -- but not to swing state Florida. Two observers from the OSCE's human rights office, however, spent six weeks in the state leading up to election day.
"We [chose] freely the polling stations we wanted to visit," Soares responded. "And in such a big country like the United States, or in [the] Russian Federation, we have to choose according to the members that we have engaged in the observation process. We were not [obstructed] by anybody to enter in any polling station. That was clear yesterday in the debriefing meetings that we had [with observers] and where your compatriots from the Duma were there, very active, and they heard what was said."
Soares also said the observers' report was proof that the OSCE does not have "double standards" for assessing votes in Western countries and those he characterized as "east of Vienna."
OSCE Ambassador Andreas Nothelle, of Germany, said: "We have seen some chaotic scenes, such as in overcrowding [at polling stations], but this is not decisive. The general perception is things are free, with some little glitches here and there. We would wish this to happen in some other countries where procedures are probably much more orderly at first glance, but what comes out at the end is not as democratic."
American Spencer Oliver, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's secretary-general, offered a more direct rebuttal of Chumaryov.
"One of the differences between this country and Russia is that we have a very open and pluralistic press and media that cover every aspect [of the election]," Oliver said. "We don't put journalists in jail or shut down opposition newspapers and we don't disqualify our main opponent, so everybody has a chance to compete."
The Russian challenge to the OSCE's findings comes after Russian election chief Vladimir Churov last week described the U.S. electoral system as "the worst in the world."
, commissioned by Russia's Central Election Commission and released before the U.S. election results were in, claimed that the vote would be neither free nor fair. The authors, from several Kremlin-friendly NGOs, also predicted that Obama would be reelected in the allegedly flawed contest.
The report was widely seen as retaliation for U.S. and Western criticism of last December's parliamentary elections in Russia and the March vote that elected President Vladimir Putin, which were marked by widespread reports of fraud and other violations.
Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat-Maryland), the co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, was at the press conference. He called the Russian report "regrettable." He also pledged that lawmakers would study the OSCE mission's findings and look to address those concerns.