On Election Eve, Controversy Over Russian Election Observation Mission

May 25, 2014

This article was written on Saturday, May 24, ahead of today’s elections.

Kiev: Election observers have descended on Ukraine for the presidential elections this Sunday, May 25. Given the tumultuous situation in Ukraine’s separatist eastern regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, the elections are particularly important for legitimating Ukraine’s central government and reestablishing faith in Ukraine’s democracy after the Maidan revolution. For these reasons, it is crucial that the elections proceed in accordance with international standards and receive the seal of approval from independent observers.

The flagship international observation mission is led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). OSCE has one thousand international long-term and short-term observers in Ukraine. Seven long-term OSCE observers were held hostage by pro-Russian separatists in Slovyansk in April and were later released on May 3. Ensuring free and fair elections is risky business.

OSCE, however, is not the only observation mission in Ukraine. Two domestic observation missions led by Ukrainian civil society organizations,   Opora and Committee of Voters of Ukraine (CVU), are much larger. Together, Opora and CVU have deployed almost six thousand observers across Ukraine.

However, the most controversial of the observation missions is led by the Russian civil society organization, GOLOS. GOLOS, which means voice, was the main independent election observation organization in Russia. Since 2000, GOLOS uncovered and reported instances of election fraud in Russian elections. In 2013, GOLOS was deemed a “foreign agent” under a new Russian law that required all organizations that receive foreign funds to register as foreign agents. GOLOS received funding from the US National Endowment of Democracy. GOLOS’s operations in Russia were suspended and the organization was effectively shut down in June 2013. Its influence and strength diminished, the organization quickly reestablished itself in Lithuania in July 2013 as Golos.

Recently invigorated with funds from the Khodorkovsky Foundation, Golos intended to bring 800 Russian election observers to Ukraine for the presidential election (at the time of writing only 150 were accredited). This made many Ukrainian civil society leaders uncomfortable, to put it lightly. As Elena (not her real name), a longtime Ukrainian political activist and NGO leader, said, “the idea of 800 Russians coming to Ukraine as ‘independent’ observers doesn’t bring me much comfort. What could be the use, when we already have international and domestic observers? It will only feed the propaganda machine.” Elena did not wish to be identified by name because she works closely with election observers, but her statement represents the unease some of Ukraine’s civil society activists feel about having Russian citizens reporting on these important elections.

There is, however, another point of view. Golos’s participation in Ukraine’s election observation will provide a much-needed Russian voice of dissent. Over the years, the Russian government has sought to stump out and control civil society and media opposition with progressively draconian laws – the “foreign agent” law that shut down GOLOS is one example, and the recent Internet censorship law is another. This has left a vacuum of dissent in Russian society, allowing the (essentially) state controlled Russian media to frame the Ukrainian revolution as an undemocratic coup and to define the presidential elections as illegitimate.

If the elections on Sunday proceed in accordance with international rules, Golos’s observation mission, rather than feeding the propaganda machine, would send a strong opposition message: Russian citizens recognize the elections as free, fair, and legitimate. This message would go a long way to dispel the dominant opinion in Russian media that the elections are a farce and that Viktor Yanukoych remains the legitimate president of Ukraine.

Now, let’s just hope that the elections will indeed be free and fair, for Ukraine’s and Russia’s sake.

Full disclosure: During the presidential elections, I am working with a Berlin based NGO called the European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE), which supports civil society election observation in Europe’s Eastern Partnership Countries. Opora, CVU, and Golos are member organizations of EPDE.