This week, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) — the world’s largest regional security organization and the main watchdog on democratic governance for 57 member states across Europe, North America and Central Asia — is deploying its initial mission of 80 long-term observers to Russia in advance of the presidential election there on March 18. They will later be joined by 420 short-term observers from OSCE countries, including the United States.
Election observation is one of the group’s core missions. The “Copenhagen Document” signed by OSCE foreign ministers in the summer of 1990 laid down fundamental election standards that member states should adhere to. They include “the right of citizens to seek political or public office … without discrimination,” the right of “political parties … to compete with each other on a basis of equal treatment before the law and by the authorities,” “unimpeded access to the media,” and “a fair and free atmosphere in which neither administrative action, violence nor intimidation bars … the candidates from freely presenting their views.”
For years Russia has been falling short on these obligations. The last election assessed by OSCE observers as “consistent with internationally recognized democratic standards” was held on March 26, 2000. Beginning with the Duma election in December 2003 — the first since the end of Soviet rule to be described by European observers as “not fair” — every national vote, parliamentary and presidential, has failed to meet basic criteria.
The 2004 election, in which Vladimir Putin cruised to a second term, according to OSCE observers, “did not adequately reflect principles necessary for a healthy democratic election.” The 2008 vote, won by Putin’s technical stand-in, Dmitri Medvedev, was conducted without OSCE observation because of “severe restrictions” imposed by the Russian authorities; the small contingent of Council of Europe observers who went affirmed that the election was “still not free and still not fair.” The most damning verdict came after the election in 2012, which formally returned Putin to the Kremlin: OSCE observers concluded that “there was no real competition and abuse of government resources ensured that the ultimate winner … was never in doubt.”
One Wednesday afternoon, the American secretary of state took to the podium in the State Department briefing room. “The Central Election Commission has just announced official results and declared the current prime minister the winner,” the secretary said. “We cannot accept this result as legitimate because it does not meet international standards and because there has not been an investigation of the numerous and credible reports of fraud and abuse.” The secretary of state was Colin L. Powell, and the election in question was not Russia’s in March 2012, but Ukraine’s in November 2004. I know from friends in Ukraine how important this unequivocal stance by the world’s leading democracy was. It bolstered Ukrainians who took to the streets to protest the stealing of their votes. The Orange Revolution, as their protest movement came to be known, ultimately succeeded in overturning the results of a fraudulent election.
The U.S. response to Russia’s 2012 election was very different. I will never forget it, not least because of the timing. On March 5, the day after the election, tens of thousands of people gathered in Pushkin Square in Moscow, a couple of miles from the Kremlin, to denounce a manipulated vote that secured another six years in power for Putin. I remember the sea of faces and flags in front of us as we stood on the stage. All the leaders of Russia’s democratic opposition were there, including Boris Nemtsov, Alexei Navalny, Grigory Yavlinsky, Garry Kasparov and others. While the protesters were gathering, the State Department issued an official statement affirming that “the election had a clear winner with an absolute majority” and announcing that “the United States congratulates the Russian people on the completion of the presidential elections, and looks forward to working with the president-elect.” It was not clear to us whether congratulations to “the Russian people” were intended as a mockery or an insult.
In fairness, the U.S. government was not alone. That same day, British Prime Minister David Cameron called Putin to congratulate him. He was one of the first world leaders to do so, alongside Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
For years, the attitude of Western democracies toward Russian elections has followed a strikingly duplicitous model: After observers from OSCE countries concluded that the elections had not been free or fair, the leaders of those same countries — democratically elected presidents and prime ministers — called Vladimir Putin to congratulate him, in effect, on a successful theft. It remains to be seen what conclusions OSCE observers will reach in March, but the defining aspect of Russia’s 2018 election — the elimination of genuine competition — is already well-known. The OSCE’s preliminary mission report notes that Alexei Navalny, Putin’s strongest surviving opponent, has been barred from the ballot on the grounds of a conviction that was found by the European Court of Human Rights to be “arbitrary and unfair.”
This time around, Western leaders should not rush to congratulate the “winner,” awarding the international seal of approval to yet another mockery of the democratic process. The only acceptable form of legitimacy for an OSCE member-state government in the 21st century should be one based on free and fair elections. To affirm this is the least that can be expected from countries that pride themselves on democratic governance and the rule of law.