No Observers Can Deliver Fair Elections

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The failure of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Russian authorities to agree on observers for the presidential election will backfire on both sides. But it will not hurt the legitimacy of Russia's next president.

Two OSCE organizations -- the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Parliamentary Assembly -- announced on Thursday that they would not send observers for the March 2 vote after Moscow sharply restricted the size of their missions and the timing of their visit. ODIHR observers also skipped the State Duma elections in December after a similar dispute.

The final straw in the observer dispute came over the ODIHR's insistence that its representatives be allowed to start work on Feb. 15 -- five days earlier than Moscow wanted.

The failure to reach a compromise bodes ill for both the European organizations and the Kremlin. Russia is one of the major sponsors of the OSCE, and it exercises strong influence over fellow members, including Central Asian nations and Belarus.

Angered by OSCE's refusal to reach a compromise and send observers, Russia could use that influence to convince the leaderships of those countries to reject observers at future elections. Some leaders will gladly follow Russia's lead, given the fact that their elections are even less free and fair than Russia's.

A multination blockade could deal a tangible blow to the OSCE's legitimacy as a pan-European organization.

There are consequences for the Kremlin as well. The absence of OSCE observers will raise questions about the fairness and transparency of the elections.

But these questions will not last long. After all, President Vladimir Putin's preferred successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has a popularity rating of more than 70 percent -- assuring his victory and making any large-scale vote-rigging unnecessary, with or without ODIHR observers.

As for the campaign, it is already too late to monitor it, and even if Moscow had heeded the ODIHR's demands to let its observers arrive on Feb. 15, it would not have made a difference.

The only true opposition candidate -- former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov -- has already been thrown out of the race, and the three who remain are running to provide legitimacy for the Kremlin favorite's victory.

But even if Kasyanov were allowed to run, he would not have achieved much, given that his popularity is around 1 percent. Such a low popularity rating among candidates who try to pose a genuine challenge to the Kremlin is the result of the Kremlin's manipulation of public opinion, consolidating power and stifling political competition. These actions have made free and fair election campaigns impossible in Russia for years to come, and no ODIHR observers can change that.