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OSCE crisis: Election observation has become an instrument of interference in the affairs of the CIS countries

Belarus has decided not to invite the OSCE to observe the elections to be held in February. The reason was attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the republic. The work of OSCE observers had been criticized more than once before. For example, the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan stated about the lack of objectivity in the OSCE observation monitoring of the 2022 presidential elections in the republic. And at the end of 2023, Kazakhstan, Russia and a number of other CIS countries launched a joint appeal to the Organization to use “double standards” in approaches to key world problems and individual countries. Anatoly Boyashov, analyst at the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Rresearch, explained the reasons for the lack of objectivity on the part of the OSCE.


Biased surveillance and direct interference

First of all, the OSCE is criticized, referring to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights – the OSCE ODIHR. It is an advisory body established in 1990, with headquarters in Warsaw. Consultative status implies the accountability of this Organization to the main intergovernmental bodies sitting in Vienna – in other words, to each of the OSCE members. In practice, this does not happen: the Organization does not coordinate its methodological monitoring documents, including questionnaires, with Member States, but develops on the initiative of senior officials within the framework of voluntary funding.

The ODIHR's 80-question questionnaire for short-term observers is complicated and directional in nature. This allows programming the observation outcomes. The methodology of analyzing the information, part of which has nothing to do with elections, has not been disclosed.

Voluntary funding and the lack of a uniform observation methodology results in the fact that, despite the formal transparency of the work, OSCE observers interfere in electoral processes. In some cases, as a rule, when observing in the CIS countries, the OSCE gives its observers a wider freedom of action than in Western countries. Sometimes the ODIHR draws conclusions even without sending observers.

As a result, it comes to cases of direct participation of Office's observers in campaigning, falsifying conclusions, discrediting electoral systems, interfering in the work of election commissions, even consulting extremist groups. At the same time, fakes are spreading among short-term observers, they are often misled. Working in allegedly the same mission, citizens of different states are treated differently.

If earlier the ODIHR campaigned for individual "parties" by supporting non-profit organizations, the Office recently relies on promoting the model of organizing election commissions, which may lead to interference in the work of election organizers. The countries east of Vienna are well aware of these forms of interference. At the 30th OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Skopje in 2023, which some delegations so wanted to derail, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan issued a joint statement on "the inadmissibility of a policy of exclusivity, domination, imposition of cultural values alien to peoples, interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states."

The roots of the problem

The mandate of the OSCE ODIHR was fixed in the Paris Charter for a New Europe: named as the "bureau for free elections", the organization was supposed to "facilitate contacts and exchange of information about elections in participating States." It is hard to imagine today the adoption of such a formulation: the ideas of equality, even enshrined in international treaties, are sophisticated in practice, and elections are almost always accompanied by attempts of foreign interference.

But in the 1990s, apparently, the idea of exchanging information about elections corresponded to the political context: with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, the USSR leaders relied on creating a system of indivisible security. Similar steps were expected from the United States, and institutionalist analysts promised a "spillover effect" that would enable trustbuilding between the once-conditional opponents as election observation increased.

A year and a half after the ODIHR establishment, the CSCE Helsinki Document 1992 transformed the Office into an instrument for monitoring the reforms of post-Soviet states. The ODIHR's powers in the field of the so-called human dimension were expanded. As a result, the Office became responsible not only for elections observation, but also for reforms observation, emergency response, and human rights promotion. This allowed individual States to circumvent the norm of the 1990 Copenhagen Document, which enshrined the obligation of observers not to interfere in electoral processes during international election observation.

The practice of mixing mandates was continued in other OSCE bodies. The ultra-liberal interpretation of human rights as the right to freedom of assembly and express opinions was introduced in all working documents of the organization. Consultative mechanisms on social, economic and cultural rights were not established. The work of the High Commissioner on National Minorities and the Representative on Freedom of the Media was politicized. The non-core consideration of human dimension issues led away from a substantive discussion, allowing individual States to use an international organization as an instrument of pressure. The absence of the OSCE Charter exacerbated this problem.

Erosion of the OSCE

Due to systemic shortcomings inherent in the work of the ODIHR, the value of international monitoring by this Organization is gradually decreasing. The objects of criticism have already adapted to working with the ODIHR, and monotonous reports have ceased to carry added value for the Western states themselves. The international observation implemented by the Office is no longer able to monitor the political development of States, and its reports are not a reference source of information.

For example, despite the sensitive promotion of reforms by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev's team, at the parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan in 2023 OSCE observers declared "insufficient protection" of fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens in the republic, lack of media freedom in terms of providing equal opportunities to all candidates, accusing the authorities of "intimidation and harassment of critical online-journalists and bloggers."

In 2023, at the OSCE Warsaw Conference on the Human Dimension, businessman Barlyk Mendygyziev, who fled from Kazakhstan, called on the EU and the United States not to believe the "empty promises" of the Kazakhstan authorities on reforms and called for personal sanctions against President K.J. Tokayev for his actions to restore order in the country in January 2022.

Despite the reforms, the development of political systems and even creating new forms of democracy, the latest ODIHR conclusions on the presidential elections in Uzbekistan in July 2023 and the parliamentary elections in Turkmenistan in March 2023 were also critical.

The ODIHR politicization leads to the erosion of the entire OSCE structure, including military-political and economic cooperation. Over time, other formats that were previously effective, such as cooperation to combat transnational threats of human trafficking and drugs, are also devalued. The formats of multilateral negotiations for conflict prevention gradually faded away, although at the first stages the OSCE negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ukraine gave an intermediate result. The Minsk agreements under the auspices of the OSCE in 2015 could led to a repetition of Helsinki-75, the treaty on indivisible security. But individual States made unacceptable amendments to the draft treaty at the last moment, and as a result it could not be coordinated.

Prospects for election monitoring by OSCE missions

The prospects for the OSCE's work in election observation are vague. The Office observers are still invited formally, without overstating expectations, but the OSCE's unilateral refusal to observe the elections in Belarus and Russia has not gone unnoticed. Future elections without OSCE observers will reveal in practice the added value of this Organization in the field of electoral monitoring.

As for the OSCE as a whole, the CIS and Central Asian States continue to advocate a broad political dialogue within the OSCE. But the erosion of institutions of this organization, especially in the field of the human dimension and specifically election observation, is gradually leading to the replacement of the OSCE by other international organizations. The elections are effectively monitored by the CIS Executive Committee and the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly. Not far off is the expansion of the powers of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, and the Organization of Turkic States is actively developing.

A model of confidence-building measures in a narrow format has been developed using the example of Caspian cooperation. The International Institute for Monitoring and Development of Diplomacy is improving the methodology of international observation based on the non-interference principle. For example, the IPA CIS has already developed methodological recommendations for monitoring electronic voting. Concepts of electoral security, stability of political systems, development of new branches of government and forms of democracy are actively discussed in the Eurasian space. All these processes inevitably lead to the restoration of the balance lost in the 1990s.