The gold standard in international monitoring of elections is in danger of losing its value. The latest warning sign comes from the tiny country of Moldova, once part of the Soviet empire and now the poorest country in Europe.
For several years, Russia has tried to weaken the world's champion of democratic elections, the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This is the body, set up during a warming period of the cold war, that has impartially judged so many elections in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – and whose judgments Russia blames for sparking democratic "color revolutions" on its doorstep.
But the OSCE's impartiality has come into question over Moldova's disputed parliamentary elections of April 5. The country, sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, has been shaken by violent protests against the apparent sweeping win of the Communist Party, which has led the country since the elections of 2001. Young protesters and opposition groups claim fraud, and results of a recount are expected Friday.
The OSCE, however, deemed the election generally free and fair, noting blandly that "further improvements are required." It has since complained about Moldova's treatment of journalists covering the election, and says in a confidential report obtained by Reuters that the human rights of some arrested protesters may have been violated.
Not all OSCE monitors, however, agreed with group's overall positive assessment of the election. Baroness Emma Nicholson, a British member of the European Parliament, told the BBC that she saw "hundreds and hundreds" of voters stopped and turned away. When she finished observing ballot counting at 1 a.m., the Communists stood at about 35 percent, but at 8 a.m. they had nearly 50 percent. The baroness, experienced in monitoring in this part of the world, feared manipulation had taken place "completely invisibly."
She and several colleagues tried to get "really tough" points into the OSCE's statement, she said, but they were rejected. "The problem is that it was an OSCE report, and in the OSCE are, of course, the Russians, and their view was quite different, quite substantially different."
Credible accounts such as this give the impression that Russia is making headway in its attempt to dilute the OSCE's influence in human and civil rights, a goal Moscow has been working toward for several years. For its own parliamentary elections in December 2007, Moscow delayed so long in granting visas to OSCE observers and placed so many restrictions on them, that the Vienna-based group did not monitor the vote. The following year, the OSCE did not monitor Russia's presidential election for similar reasons.
Russia has also enlisted six neighborhood allies in an official effort to de-emphasize election monitoring and human-rights work by the transatlantic OSCE. Moscow & Co. want the group instead to focus on economic, political, and military security. The "reform" effort, which would require consensus, has so far failed.
But in 2010, Russia's friend Kazakhstan takes over the chairmanship of the OSCE. It will be the first time that a nondemocratic nation will lead this international body.
Russia would like nothing better than to check this check on authoritarianism. If it succeeds, the OSCE could find itself without influence or credibility in a strategic region still struggling to emerge from the post-Soviet era. More important, voters would be without an impartial judge to tell it as it is.