The question of the purpose and role of international election monitors, one would think, should be a pretty easy one. They are sent as impartial observers to judge the conduct of elections in terms of democratic values such as transparency, fairness, access, and competitiveness.
But at a conference at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna this week, the Russian mission offered a competing vision, one that seems part of a larger effort by Moscow to fracture the admittedly weak sense of shared values in international law and politics.
Election monitors, Moscow's representatives argued, should primarily "respect the laws of the states holding elections and show respect for the national organs of power, including the electoral organs." This "respect" for the host state, according to the proposal, should take the form of letting it determine the format of the mission, its leader, the number of monitors, the period of monitoring, and "all other questions touching on the sovereignty of the country."
Such a view, it should be noted, has long been the norm at the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). CIS election monitors have been hard-pressed to find a post-Soviet election anywhere -- from Belarus to Russia to Turkmenistan -- that wasn't to their liking. Their effusively congratulatory election postmortems are routinely ridiculed outside the CIS -- if they are noticed at all.
The Russian proposal comes in the wake of tense relations between that country and the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which organizes OSCE election-monitoring missions. After ODIHR monitors declared the 2003 Duma elections in Russia "free, but unfair," Moscow imposed such onerous restrictions on future missions that the OSCE declined to send delegations to the 2007 Duma elections or the presidential election in March.
It should be noted as well that the OSCE has sometimes shot itself in the foot. Its monitors praised Russia's elections during the era of Boris Yeltsin, despite massive evidence of their shortcomings. Such reports feed Moscow's assertions that the organization is politicized in its judgments and operating under double standards.
But Moscow's dissatisfaction runs deeper still. The Kremlin fumed at what it perceived as the OSCE's role in fuelling the so-called colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, countries where manipulated and falsified elections were exposed and massive protests ensued. In fact, Russia has long taken umbrage at the OSCE's emphasis on human rights and democratic development. A Moscow-inspired anti-OSCE tirade submitted by six CIS countries in 2004 stated baldly that the OSCE "does not respect such fundamental...principles as noninterference in internal affairs and respect for national sovereignty."
The OSCE bills itself as a 56-member "community of values." Its governing 1990 Charter of Paris commits members to "build, consolidate, and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations." It further defines democracy as "based on the will of the people, expressed regularly through free and fair elections. Democracy has as its foundation respect for the human person and the rule of law. Democracy, with its representative and pluralist character, entails accountability to the electorate, the obligation of the public authorities to comply with the law and justice administered impartially. No one will be above the law." The document, which heralds "a new era in democracy, peace, and unity," continues in this vein for many pages, obligating members to help one another make democratic gains "irreversible."
Russia in the era of President Vladimir Putin has increasingly presented a challenge to this "unity" and this "community of values" not only in terms of its actions, but on the plane of ideas as well. Moscow has repeatedly defended its antidemocratic domestic policies by arguing Russia has its own "path to democracy," and that all nations must build democracies that are unique to their cultural heritages.
While some observers expected this sort of divisiveness to be toned down after Dmitry Medvedev -- who rarely misses a chance to point out that he is a lawyer by training -- became president, it has in fact been ramped up in recent weeks. Moscow has renewed its calls for phasing out The Hague war crimes tribunal, saying it is fatally "biased."
Perhaps most importantly, the quasi-official Russian Orthodox Church last month adopted its Basic Principles of the Russian Church on Human Dignity, Freedom, and Rights. The document, which was partially drafted by Kremlin insider and Eurasianist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, called for a "reexamination" of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It says Western notions of human rights do not apply to Russia and should be replaced by Orthodox principles. It also asserts that civilizations "should not impose their lifestyle patterns on other civilizations." The document clearly prioritizes the rights of society over the rights of individuals.
As the Vienna conference on election monitoring shows, Moscow's assertiveness in the realm of ideas can have serious consequences. Organizations like the OSCE and the UN are already cumbersome institutions that often have difficulty acting decisively. The Kremlin's challenges to the fundamental assumptions and values of international organizations will only magnify those difficulties.
Conferences such as the one this week will be reduced to discussions of basic principles -- of whether they even exist -- and issues of implementation will be crowded off the agenda. And achieving that goal is enough to satisfy those whose domestic policies and institutions fail to stand up to scrutiny from the perspective of values that have been recognized internationally since the end of World War II.Robert Coalson is commentary and analysis co-editor for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL