Washington, 7 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Upcoming votes in Uzbekistan and the Russian Federation raise questions about what makes an election fair and free and what role the international community can play in promoting such procedures.
This Sunday, Uzbek voters will go to the polls to overwhelmingly reelect President Islam Karimov. And on March 26, Russian voters will go to the polls and, according to virtually all analysts, overwhelmingly elect acting President Vladimir Putin to a full term.
The international community already has declared that the election in Uzbekistan is not going to be fair or free. Indeed, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has announced that it will not send observers to Tashkent because the Uzbek vote does not offer the people there "a genuine choice."
By his own design, Karimov faces only a token challenger, a little-known professor who many observers suggest was put forward to give the elections the gloss of fairness. Moreover, Karimov exercises almost total control of the media and government apparatus, and he justifies all of this by the need to maintain stability against Islamist challenges.
Not surprisingly, Uzbek officials have been outraged by the decision of the OSCE not to send observers. Nazhmiddin Kamilov, the head of Uzbekistan's Central Election Commission, said earlier this week that "the general, abstract approaches" of the OSCE "do not suit only Uzbekistan but all former Soviet republics which are on the way to developing democracy."
The international community so far has reached a very different judgment about the upcoming elections in the Russian Federation. Overwhelmingly, political leaders and analysts in Western countries have viewed the recent transfer of power from Boris Yeltsin to Putin and the upcoming elections there as a triumph for democracy.
They have reached that conclusion despite the fact that all of them concede certain imperfections in the upcoming campaign. The timing of the vote, Putin's advantages as an incumbent including both leverage over the media and control of the state apparatus, and the war in Chechnya have led most of his rivals to concede defeat in advance.
Sergei Stepashin, a former prime minister who many thought would seek the presidency, said on Wednesday that "I think that democratic forces will unite behind Putin and I will be among them. Putin doesn't have any realistic challengers."
Even the one serious figure who has announced that he will run, Yabloko party leader Grigoriy Yavlinsky, said this week that "right now it isn't serious to speak about anybody other than Putin winning the election. But if we ever want to change things for the better, if we want to preserve openness and democracy, other people also must run."
As of this date, then, the Russian election looks in many ways as if it will be almost as much a predictable coronation as the one that will take place in Uzbekistan.
But the reaction of the international community has been and is likely to remain very different. The reasons for that seem clear.
First, Karimov has blatantly used his power to guarantee a result while Putin has exploited his power to make the result extremely likely but not certain.
Second, Uzbekistan is not a major power while Russia still is, and the international community has repeatedly shown that it is prepared to be far more critical of what goes on in less powerful countries and far more understanding of what takes place in more powerful ones.
And third, and most important, the process by which international organizations certify elections as fair and free was not designed for the uses to which it is now being put both by leaders who seek such certification and opposition groups who want it to be denied to their opponents in power.
International observers typically have gone into post-communist and other countries only a few days before the actual vote. They are thus in a position to say whether the vote itself was carried out in a legal and technically correct way. Their conclusions, typically reported as being that the vote is fair and free or that it is not, often are deeply political.
On the one hand, international observers seldom have the time in country to make independent judgments about the electoral process as a whole -- the campaigns, the media environment, and all the other aspects that define what makes an election democratic and not something else. As a result, they often rely on the judgments of others.
And on the other hand, governments and opposition groups in these countries regularly seek to use certification by these groups to justify themselves and their actions. Such use of this certification has rendered the process even more political, despite the best efforts of many involved.
That does not mean their conclusions are wrong. The Uzbekistan elections are certainly less democratic than the elections in Russia are likely to be. But to say that one is fair and free, while the other is not, overstates the difference between them.
That by itself increases public cynicism about such findings and reduces the ability of the international community to help these two countries as well as others move toward democracy.