Dec 9, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

From Russia, Without Love

An all-too-familiar script played out this past week in Russia’s parliamentary elections. You may think you can guess the ending by page two: international observers claim Russian elections are flawed, the Russian government says that is not possible, and the international community sighs. Elections, flaws, move forward on common foreign policy goals – or as the Obama Administration described it, “reset.” But as with any worthwhile script, the reality is much more intriguing: President Putin’s United Russia party’s support dropped below 50%, Secretary Clinton criticized the elections as flawed, civil society protests erupted, reported in seventy Russian cities, and Putin, with the arrogance of a true autocrat, blamed the dissent noton the will of his people or the election processes, but on the words of Clinton. If her words are indeed able to cause totally unprovoked protests across seventy cities, perhaps we should read the interaction that allegedly sparked and resulted in those protests, starting here:

What the Election Monitors Reported

On December 5, OSCE elections observers, lead by delegates from Greece, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, issued a disturbing Statement of Preliminary Conclusions. There are numerous salient points in the report, two of particular concern. The first is election-specific: the Ministry of Justice denied registration to political parties, effectively ensuring a race only among seven Ministry-sanctioned parties. As the report stated, “Despite the lack of a level playing field, voters took advantage of their right to express their choice.” In other words, you can select any ice cream you want, but your options include seven variations of black cherry. The second represents a more disturbing trend: state actors used the leverage of their positions to influence results. “OSCE/ODIHR observers noted unequal treatment of contestants by the election administration, local authorities and service providers in favour of the governing party.” So you can choose any of the seven black cherry blends, but really, please choose the one called Cherry for United Russia.   

What Secretary Clinton Said: Neither Free nor Fair

On December 6, at the First OSCE Plenary Session, Clinton incorporated the following in her broader remarks: “We see setbacks for democratic institutions, the rule of law, and electoral processes. We witness prosecutions, such as that of Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine, which raises serious questions about political motivations. And when authorities fail to prosecute those who attack people for exercising their rights or exposing abuses, they subvert justice and undermine the people’s confidence in their governments. And as we have seen in many places, and most recently in the Duma elections in Russia, elections that are neither free nor fair have the same effect. We have serious concerns about the conduct of those elections. Independent political parties, such as PARNAS, were denied the right to register. And the preliminary report by the OSCE cites election day attempts to stuff ballot boxes, manipulate voter lists, and other troubling practices.” She further describes allegations of cyber attacks (to read more about these attacks and civil society responses, Freedom House published “A Victory for the Net in Russia” yesterday).

How the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Reacted: Refrain from Unfriendly Attacks

The response, issued on December 6, is available in Russian here. The translation: “The statements of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton relating to the parliamentary elections that took place in Russia, as well as similar commentary by the spokespeople of the White House and State Department are unacceptable.

With regret we are compelled to establish that in Washington, some long-exhausted stereotypes persist, and they continue to hang labels (on Russia), without even trying to figure out what is really going on in our electoral field.

Russian citizens made their (own) choice, (and) participated actively in the voting.  Only they have the right to define the future of our country, independent of anyone’s biased evaluations and politicized prescriptions.

We remind you that the electoral system of the United States is itself far from perfect.  This has been said many times.  It cannot serve as the standard of openness and fairness, which is evident in particular in the traditionally minimal voter turnout in elections at all levels.

The leadership of the United States ought to worry about the reasons for its own situation and the way to fix it.

We consider that in future the American side will refrain from unfriendly attacks that run contrary to the general positive trend of development in bilateral relations.”

On December 8, not to be upstaged, Putin added:

“Straight away the Secretary of State assessed the elections as dishonest and unfair even though she hadn’t even received the observers material. She set the tone for some of our personalities inside the country and gave them the signal and they heard this signal and with support from the state department started active work.” (Translation as reported by the AP)

Clinton Responded

On the same day, she stated: “the United States and many others around the world have a strong commitment to democracy and human rights. It’s part of who we are. It’s our values. And we expressed concerns that we thought were well-founded about the conduct of the elections. And we are supportive of the rights and aspirations of the Russian people to be able to make progress and to realize a better future for themselves, and we hope to see that unfold in the years ahead.”

Does it Matter?

It is a sign of individual and institutional weakness that Putin and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would blame the Secretary of State for internal dissent. A democracy comfortable in its electoral processes and secure in its electoral outcomes does not need to seek out a straw man (or woman) upon which to pin blame. A true democracy embraces the will of its people, it does not fear it. A true democracy would investigate the allegations and take direct action to address them, including by overhauling the party registration process, holding new elections, and welcoming international observers who remain friends of a democratic Russia. The international community must continue to stand on the side of Russians who seek representative government rather than cherry-picked leaders loyal to Putin.

Crossposted here: http://lizaprendergast.wordpress.com

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2 Comments

  • Yes, well I don’t think anyone mistook Russia for a real democracy.

  • [...] Clinton told us the other day that “the United States and many others around the world have a strong commitment to democracy and [...]

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