Democratist is someone who follows the goings-on across the former Soviet Union in some depth.

Here he takes up William Hague’s recent speech on UK foreign policy, and makes an interesting point about how the UK invests in foreign policy outcomes in that complicated region:

OSCE election observation is about the best value for money currently available to the UK in terms of its overseas aid/foreign policy in relation to the former Soviet Union. Election observation played a key role in the development of the Baltic States in the 1990′s, and more recently in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova (considerably improving the relationships of each of these countries with the UK, and allowing for far higher levels of co-operation than had previously been possible).

It retains huge potential to positively influence developments in countries as diverse as Belarus,  Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and even (over the longer-term) Russia itself. All this at a total average cost of just over £600,000 per annum (apparently less than the current value of the FCO’s wine cellar).

Sounds reasonable. But is it true?

Election observing has grown into a busy lifeform in the past two decades, with sizeable numbers of international observers using rights under OSCE and other arrangements to watch the conduct of elections across Europe and far beyond.

Good grief, they even look at our beloved UK elections – and find them wanting.

The laudable aim is to bring an outside and supposedly independent eye to bear on elections, to check and confirm that they have indeed been ‘free and fair’ and thereby (it is hoped) to deter abuses and help ‘cement’ democratic process and values.

The problem is that observers necessarily observe the observable, and only a tiny proportion of that.

It is not much use international observers dutifully watching voting and counting of an election where some candidates have been unfairly excluded and/or where the media coverage of the campaign has been skewed massively to favour one side (ie the ruling tendency).

On the contrary, the very fact that international observers are observing such an election might be said to give its outcome a legitimacy it richly does not deserve.

Read, for example, this full and frank account of the lot of the Short-Term Observer in an EU-funded observation in Venezuela:

We make our first report of what is to be a long day. Then we move on, spending only 20 or 30 minutes at each polling station. At various intervals we must phone our LTO team and read out, question by question, our results. The tick-box approach is evidence of the EU’s lack of trust in our judgment. We are data collectors, not observers. It speaks of a bureaucracy keen on statistics that it can brandish scientifically.

The trouble is that it is quasi-scientific: a lot of the data we have to take on trust, such as opening times – and the polling staff are rarely going to admit to tardiness.

Which helps explain why in some cases the ‘international community’ is keen to pronounce an elections outcome ‘good enough’ despite manifest and radical flaws. There is no obvious alternative to doing so.

Even when an election is obviously unfair and international observers say so (as in Sudan this year), the self-proclaimed winner just brazens out the criticism and carries on regardless of EU hand-wringing:

"These elections have struggled to reach international standards. They have not reached them all," said Veronique de Keyser, the head of the EU observer mission in Sudan.

Mrs De Keyser said that, especially in the oil-producing south, there had been cases of harassment and intimidation of voters "which has nothing to do with a democratic process".

She praised the enthusiasm of voters and said opposition parties had been free to voice complaints throughout the process.

That’s a good example of what I hate about such EU or wider ‘Western’ missions. They typically are loath to say what is blindingly obvious, viz that they have watched a farcical parody of democracy and that no-one should treat the outcome as legitimate.

Why? Because the governments sending and supporting these missions suspect (not unreasonably) that whatever happens they are stuck with a bad outcome dragging in to the indefinite future, and so condemning it outright makes their job harder. Plus there is no outcome so scandalous and unjust that the UN will not proclaim it legitimate.

Thus our Observers act like unhappy chickens and peck in the local dust for crumbs of comfort to include in their Report, such as the fact that ‘opposition groups have been free to voice complaints’.


That merely shows how bad the abuse is – the ruling elite have skewed the process to the point that they are so confident of winning that they can allow the opposition to make some puny oppositionist noises!

Still, the fact that there is some sort of scrutiny, however limited it might be, arguably cheers up local people a little and does (perhaps) edge things towards less flagrant abuses.

Which often is the best or only scrawny progress available.

One story of British election monitoring.

The Yeltsin administration in 1993 opened up the whole Russian election process to international scrutiny, and an army of observers duly appeared.

We wily Brits decided that it made little sense to limit our effort to staring at lines of stolid Russians casting votes. The only place which really mattered was the national nerve centre where all the regional results were sent and aggregated.

So waving OSCE identity badges a few British obervers including people from the Embassy gained admission to that national election nerve centre in Moscow, much to the bewilderment (and some annoyance) of the Russian officials there. They then had a fascinating time spending the night watching results pour in from all those time-zones and be tallied for overall outcome purposes.

And, indeed, as far as we could see the nation-wide votes as finally announced fully and fairly reflected the results as fed in from local and regional voting centres.

As for the British role in all this, my guess is that for reasons of economy and general reluctance to ‘rock the boat’, this new coalition government will opt for the quiet life option of doing such exercises through an EU framework, thereby diluting a distinctive steely British voice.

In other words, that Democratist is right to have concerns:

… if the UK does not put people forward to work as observers, it means that certain, perhaps less well-intentioned countries gain proportionately more influence in the process of observation, and will be able to have greater influence on subsequent OSCE  statements and reports over the coming years.

In a worst-case scenario, such an outcome could do significant damage to the OSCE’s reputation – and (as the Foreign Secretary so correctly noted in his speech) such damage is not easily repaired.