Russia Ratifies Foreign Dictatorship

In another installment of its series of reports on Russia that are translated into Russian and published on a blog for Russian comment, with selected comments translated into English, the New York Times reports on how Russia is shamelessly ratifying electoral fraud in former Soviet states so as to maintain influence through dictatorship:

The voting monitor began his rounds on election day here at Polling Place No. 7. “Issues? Violations?” he asked the poll workers, glancing around like a casual sightseer. They said no, so he left. The monitor, Kholnazar Makhmadaliyev, breezed from one polling site (“What’s up? Things O.K.?”) to another (“Everything fine here?”), shaking a lot of hands, offering abundant compliments and drinking brandy with this city’s mayor. Such went Mr. Makhmadaliyev’s stint on a large observer mission led by the Kremlin that concluded that Belarus, a former Soviet republic and an ally of Russia, had conducted a “free, open and democratic” parliamentary election in late September.

The Kremlin monitors’ version of reality, though, clashed with the one described by a European security group, whose own monitors dismissed the election as a sham tainted by numerous shortcomings, not the least of which was vote rigging. The monitors dispatched by the Kremlin did not report anything like that. Nor did they raise concerns about Belarus’s security service, still called the K.G.B., which had exerted harsh pressure on the opposition, imprisoning several of its leaders over the last year and thwarting their campaigns. Or about state-controlled television broadcasts repeatedly branding opposition leaders as traitors. Or, for that matter, about the final results: a sweep of every seat in the 110-member Parliament by supporters of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, often described as Europe’s last dictator.

The Kremlin under Vladimir V. Putin has sought to bolster authoritarian governments in the region that remain loyal, and these election monitoring teams — 400 strong in Belarus alone — are one of its newer innovations. They demonstrate the lengths to which the Kremlin will go to create the illusion of political freedom in Russia and other former Soviet republics, even though their structures of democracy have been hollowed out.

The monitors play a critical role in creating a democratic veneer, solemnly giving their customized assessments and formal reports, which are promoted by the government-controlled media. They also provide a counterweight to observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who denounce the same elections.

The goal for the Kremlin is to convince the public — and, perhaps, even foreigners — that these governments are lawfully elected and representative of the popular will.

“These monitors really illustrate what is happening in the post-Soviet space,” said Andrei Sannikov, an organizer of European Belarus, an opposition movement. “The monitors bless everything — in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, places where we know there are no real elections. These leaders want to be accepted and seen as truly democratic, even though they are unreformed and unchanged. They want to present themselves as equal to the American president.”

Ultimately, Mr. Sannikov said, “they want some kind of legitimacy, especially in the eyes of the West.”

A Sphere of Influence

By backing these leaders, Russia has also reaped economic benefits and maintained its regional sphere of influence. It has done so even while seeking to destabilize pro-Western neighbors, most notably when it invaded Georgia in August in response to what it said was Georgian aggression. Belarus, which has 10 million people, is the only former Soviet bloc nation to Russia’s west that maintains warm ties with the Kremlin.

The United States and its NATO allies have also sought good relations with many of the authoritarian governments in the region, to offset the Kremlin’s influence, to maintain military bases and to increase business opportunities. Still, the West has generally refrained from endorsing the results of elections in these countries.

Senior Russian officials tend to tie themselves in knots explaining how governments that have crushed opposition movements can conduct fair balloting. The officials refer to Western election monitors as a tool that the West uses to smear Russia and other former Soviet republics.

Vladimir A. Pekhtin, a vice speaker of the Russian Parliament who supervised the Kremlin monitors in Belarus, said every recent election in the former Soviet Union had been democratic and fair. He included countries like Uzbekistan, whose president has ruled since the end of Communism and was re-elected last year with 88 percent of the vote.

Asked about the conclusions of Western monitors in Belarus, Mr. Pekhtin said, “They just made it up, invented it, to try to show that there was some kind of rot.”

Still, even some insiders acknowledge what is at work here.

Igor Y. Yurgens, an adviser to President Dmitri A. Medvedev who is the chairman of a liberal-leaning research group set up by Mr. Medvedev, described the Kremlin missions as doing little more than currying favor with neighbors.

“It’s a pretty clumsy thought that the near abroad can be consolidated only through this, through being polite to the authorities in place,” he said.

“They regard it as a diplomatic endeavor — be good to your ally,” Mr. Yurgens said, referring to the Kremlin. “Don’t poke him in the eye when the whole of the West is poking him already.”
An Unlikely Monitor

As he canvassed polling places at a rate of one every 5 to 10 minutes, Mr. Makhmadaliyev, the Kremlin’s monitor in Zhodino, allowed that he knew little if anything about Belarus’s political situation. That is understandable, given that he is from a village in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, in Central Asia.

The observer teams typically work under the umbrella of the Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance of former Soviet republics controlled by Moscow. In Belarus, many monitors were Russians, but some were from friendly countries like Tajikistan that had particularly checkered human rights records.

Mr. Makhmadaliyev, 60, won a parliamentary seat last April in Tajikistan, where the elections tend to be as fair as those in Belarus. A member of the ruling party, he received 86 percent of the vote, officials said.

He had received no training in election monitoring, he said, but that did not concern him. His sole aim, he said, was to assess whether election day was orderly in Zhodino, a city of 65,000 about 25 miles from the capital, Minsk.

Rumpled and courteous, he wore a blue armband that identified him as an official observer. He took no notes. And everywhere he went — polling sites in schools, recreation halls and apartment buildings — the responses to his brief questions were the same.

“Everything is fine here,” said Larisa A. Chichina, the senior official at Polling Place No. 7.

He pronounced himself satisfied.

Still, to judge an election based only on whether people can physically cast ballots is a little like reviewing a restaurant based solely on the quality of its waiters.

Election experts say it is equally important to determine whether candidates can conduct their campaigns without pressure, whether the government denies the opposition access to the news media, particularly state television, and whether votes are tabulated fairly.

But Mr. Makhmadaliyev said he would not delve into those issues in Zhodino.

“It doesn’t interest me at all,” he said. “I am interested in whether people can vote on their own, whether people are given the freedom to vote.”

(The monitors later released a report declaring that the overall election climate, including the news coverage, had been free and fair throughout Belarus.)

Mr. Makhmadaliyev also said he saw no reason to conduct post-mortem interviews with the two candidates in the district to ask about their experiences. If he had, he would have heard the loser, Aleksandr V. Volchanin, from the pro-Western opposition, contend that the vote count had clearly been falsified.

Election officials said Mr. Volchanin, a 46-year-old paramedic, received 24 percent of the vote, but he said the tally was highly suspicious because of a delay of several hours in announcing it.

“I think that they were very strongly thinking about what figures they wanted to put out there,” Mr. Volchanin said.

The winner, Dr. Vasily V. Lutikov, 51, a Lukashenko supporter, said Mr. Volchanin was looking for excuses. “Of course, he is going to complain,” Dr. Lutikov said. “He is upset — no one voted for him.”

A Kremlin Counterattack

The rise of these shadow monitors can be traced in part to Russia’s presidential election in March 2004. Mr. Putin won a second term in a landslide, but there was a major blemish: the O.S.C.E.’s observers called the contest far from democratic. This seems to have spurred the Kremlin to counterattack.

Russia began a campaign to undercut monitors from the group, which is an alliance of more than 50 countries that includes Russia and other former Soviet republics.

The Commonwealth of Independent States, which had been sending informal monitoring teams, adopted a formal policy of doing so, officials said.

The missions are now overseen by a former director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Gen. Sergei N. Lebedev, whom Mr. Putin installed as the commonwealth’s executive secretary last year. General Lebedev said that the West applied double standards, scrutinizing elections in the former Soviet Union far more closely than those elsewhere.
“We have a principle — the main principle — which is to objectively evaluate the situation, and not interfere in internal affairs,” he said. “We cannot evaluate the political system of a country. Our main goal is not to find shortcomings, as Russians say, to find bugs.”

Mr. Putin, the current prime minister and former president, and his aides have lately evinced even more hostility to the O.S.C.E., calling for drastic cuts in its monitoring teams. They have also imposed such heavy limits on the group that it refused to monitor Russia’s presidential election in March 2008. (The Kremlin monitors did — and found no problems.)

In the end, the Kremlin monitors in Belarus seemed to play just the role envisioned for them: helping to neutralize negative findings by the Western ones.

As Lidia M. Yermoshina, chairwoman of Belarus’s election commission, put it: “If you are guided only by the O.S.C.E. report, you might become desperate. You need something to cheer you up.”

Mr. Lukashenko had invited the Western monitors because he said that he was confident that they would endorse the election and that he was hoping for better relations with the West, which had imposed stiff sanctions on Belarus after opposition leaders were imprisoned in 2006.

But the Western monitors came down hard, so it was no surprise that the state-controlled television news focused mostly on the Kremlin teams.

Even Mr. Makhmadaliyev, the Kremlin’s monitor in Zhodino, made a television appearance.

“At all the polling places, we have noted a very good mood among the people,” he told a reporter. “They are coming to elect those who most deserve it.”

With that, he hustled to his next stop, walking past a large sample ballot that directed people to vote for Mr. Lukashenko’s candidate.

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