Thanks, But We Don't Need Your Monitors

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The conflict between Moscow and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which is the election watchdog for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election watchdog, over international observers has made Russia's State Duma election campaign the center of attention in many parts of the world.

The West interprets Russia's unwillingness to cooperate with observers as evidence of its intent to manipulate election results. In fact, there is probably a different reason the entire question of election monitors is such an issue.

There are serious doubts whether the observers will be able to fulfill their intended functions at all. They can criticize various provisions of Russia's electoral law, but for every criticism, another law can be cited that is, arguably, democratic in nature.

Representatives of the OSCE are able to monitor elections in many different countries. But the more advanced authoritarian regimes of the 21st century know how to deftly manipulate, or outright falsify, election results without resorting to the blunt, obvious methods used in earlier times. If you take the narrow issue of vote counting, there will probably be little to criticize in Russia's elections. Even though the Kremlin heavily influences the entire political process and mass media, these concerns, technically speaking, fall outside of the official mandate of the election monitors.

The end result might be similar to what happened in Kazakhstan last summer. There, the single pro-presidential party swept the elections in a landslide using methods that violated the spirit -- but not the letter -- of election laws. Although international observers had no other choice but to acknowledge that there was some progress made in the electoral process, the Kazakh government had merely mastered the art of manipulating the political process to its own advantage.

Russia's actions are a natural manifestation of its "sovereign democracy" ideology. The logic can be summed up as follows: This is our country. Our people elect their own leaders, and it is nobody else's affair. We are prepared to allow foreign observers to monitor our election process, but we will determine their number, the terms of their stay and what they can and cannot do. And we have no need of any "certificate of quality" from them.

The Kremlin is either consciously or unconsciously following the example of another member of the OSCE -- the United States. The thought would never even enter the minds of U.S. politicians or voters that their elections need to be monitored by outside organizations. And even when Europeans criticize their electoral procedures, Americans pay no attention to it whatsoever. Nonetheless, an ODIHR mission monitored the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, which received high marks overall, although the report mentioned that some observers were forbidden from monitoring the vote in certain states on the grounds that their presence would have been a violation of state laws.

From the point of view of Russian ideologues, only a few truly sovereign nations exist in the world, the main one being the United States. That is why the United States is such a strong example for the world. At the same time, the Kremlin takes little note of the fact that, despite the idiosyncrasies of U.S.-style democracy, the country has a longstanding system of competitive politics and a mechanism for the regular, peaceful transfer of power.

Another key issue is this the source of legitimacy. In the Copenhagen Document of 1990 delineating the OSCE commitments on elections, it is written that, "The will of the people, freely expressed through periodic and fair elections, is the basis for the legitimacy of government." In the opinion of the West, this implies that an evaluation of elections made by independent outside observers is needed to confirm the legality and legitimacy of the elected government. In Russia's point of view, such outside evaluations, on the contrary, actually undermine the legitimacy of a sovereign state because election monitoring can be used as a pressure tactic and a way of meddling in its internal affairs.

The main question surrounding this issue is this: As a country in transition, does Russia need to be monitored by more developed nations? The practice of inviting international observers to monitor elections gained wide acceptance in the early 1990s with the emergence of many new Eurasian states that declared themselves democracies.

Russia has no desire to adopt the West's way of thinking, and it does not feel the need to answer to anyone regarding its own internal procedures. The West, for its part, is losing hope that Russia's current course is only a temporary deviation from the "right path." As a result, there is increasing talk of coming to terms with Russia's "natural state" of having a strong, quasi-autocratic government. U.S. President George W. Bush even publically pondered whether Russian DNA could be "reprogrammed" away from centralized authority. If that is the case, then why even bother trying to interfere and influence events inside Russia?

Luckily, there are enough "experts" in the West to create new ways to bring the two superpowers into confrontation based on such polemical issues as liberal, free-market capitalism versus authoritarian, state capitalism. Thus, instead of finding solutions to the real problems facing the world, the two countries can engross themselves in these invented problems and conflicts.

In the end, however, the conflict over these elections will have little impact on Moscow's relations with the West. The deteriorating nature of the bilateral relationship has already been firmly established, and now both sides are just digging their heels in even deeper.

Even though U.S.-Russian relations play an extremely minor role in the U.S. presidential campaign, the question of "Who lost Russia?" still remains. In other words: Who in Washington let relations with Moscow worsen to their present low level? In 2000, the Republicans blamed President Bill Clinton for the "Russian problem," and now the Democrats are blaming Bush for the same thing. It would be hard to call this a positive discourse, but at least the subject is being discussed.

In Russia, only the marginal political factions ask, "Who lost the West?" Few in Russia are worried that relations have worsened with most of our Western partners. On the contrary, most voters and party leaders are convinced, strangely enough, that locking horns with the West means that Moscow's foreign policy is successful. To make matters worse, whenever politicians want to avoid touchy and potentially incriminating internal issues, they focus attention on Russia's seemingly great achievements in its foreign policy.

Russia badly needs to affirm itself on the global stage, especially after suffering such a heavy blow to its self-esteem during the disastrous 1990s. But at some point it becomes necessary to change the criteria according to which success in foreign policy is measured. That is, we should not rejoice when one of our politicians slams the door in the face of our international partner. At the very least, we have to start a substantive dialogue regarding this country's foreign policy, which has deteriorated to nothing but ideological and demagogic slogans. Otherwise, the great number of "successes" that Russians love to boast about might very well turn into serious, tangible failures.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.