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2005 In Review: Does The Presence Of Western Election Observers Make A Difference?

An OSCE election observer monitors voting during Kazakhstan's December presidential vote (OSCE/Urdur Gunnarsdottir) (Courtesy Photo) Monitoring missions in recent years have drawn attention to flawed elections and the corrupt regimes that conduct them. That's what happened in Georgia in 2003 and in Ukraine in 2004. But in 2005, Western election observers' criticism of polls in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Prague, 13 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It is hard to quantify the amount to which election-monitoring missions make a difference. Following Ukraine's flawed election in 2004, Western election observers' criticism of the poll gave credibility to the opposition's accusations of fraud.

This year saw parliamentary polls in Azerbaijan in November and a December presidential election in Kazakhstan.

After the Kazakh vote, Bruce George, the coordinator of the OSCE election-observer mission, announced that the election was flawed.

"Despite some improvements in the election administration prior to election day, the 4th of December presidential election in Kazakhstan did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections," George said.

His statement had little effect. There was little international outrage, meager domestic opposition within Kazakhstan, and the incumbent, President Nursultan Nazarbaev, remains in power.

So what is the role of election monitoring missions? And how much can they be a force for change?

Michael Emerson, a senior research fellow at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy, says election missions cannot push a country into the democratic fold and are not designed to transform societies or re-educate their rulers.

"You can't expect the election monitoring business to be the lever through which to achieve a democratic transformation of an authoritarian state," Emerson says. "It is just a part of a box of tricks to help the process, in particular where civil society wants to be helped and where the society is willing to become more democratic and where the political authorities are willing to receive external encouragement."

Much also depends on a society's level of development and willingness to change.

Emerson says that Ukraine and Georgia were ready for change, while Belarus and Azerbaijan are still not there yet.

Additionally, many say that Western monitors don't have a one-size-fits-all approach.

Petr Drulak, an analyst at the Czech Institute of International Relations, says it is easy to understand different approaches to different countries.

"The idea is that Ukraine actually advanced more in the [postcommunist] transformation than the other two or three countries and that there is much more hope for democratic government in Ukraine than there is in Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan," Drulak says. "[The situation] is like this for a variety of reasons, [one of them being] a lack of [democratic] traditions. [Also] they [Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan] are not considered as close to Europe as others. So there are a variety of reasons for the West to focus on Ukraine rather than on Kazakhstan."

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has become increasingly irritated by the activities of Western election observers in what it considers to be its sphere of influence.

In early December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attacked the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which monitors elections. He said the office had excessive autonomy and lacked clear guidelines to determine the nature of its work.

Analyst Jakub Boratynski of the Warsaw-based Stefan Batory Foundation says the Kremlin is not happy with the direction of Ukrainian and Georgian foreign policy after their "colored revolutions."

"The international verdict of OSCE observers is an important source of support for this movement that kind of questions oligarchic systems and eventually also questions the relationship with Russia," Boratynski says.

The Russian government is concerned about the prospect of a Ukrainian scenario in Belarus or Turkmenistan, and it blocked the OSCE budget for several months this year in protest at the "politicization" of the body.

Boratynski also says Western observers are less driven by political considerations than Western governments. They are, he says, more vocal in criticizing unfair elections and Russia has less leverage to influence their verdicts.

In Russia, the Kremlin's brand of "managed democracy" means that the media is often on a tight leash and some political parties are not allowed to participate.

The Moscow City Court on 26 November ruled to ban the nationalist Motherland (Rodina) party from running in the municipal elections. Ostensibly the ban was because of a campaign advertisement that was deemed to incite ethnic hatred. However, many in Russia have said that the Kremlin had other motivations.

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