In this opinion piece Programme Leader for Politics Paula Keaveney shares her experiences working with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and explains why Putin is keen to avoid scrutiny of the Russian elections taking place this weekend.

This weekend voters in Russia will go to the polls for elections to the Duma (Parliament) and a selection of other regional bodies. Like any election in such a vast and globally important country, it is a massive exercise attracting considerable attention from the media, commentators, invested individuals and outside organisations. But this time one of those organisations will have to watch from a distance. 

Usually, international election observers working for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), myself included, would be there. I’ve worked with the OSCE in multiple countries and elections, from the North Macedonia Presidential to the Uzbekistan Parliamentary and most recently in Moldova, where a “snap” general election took place this July. This means travelling to a country with an election, visiting polling stations, talking to officials and voters, watching the whole process and reporting on it. I am part of a system made up of observers from Europe and sometimes beyond chosen based on our expertise and funded by our Governments. 

The point is to be able to say whether the election has been carried out fairly and transparently. For this latest Russian Election however the OSCE is not going. The organisation says that Russia wanted to apply too many restrictions on the number of election observers, ultimately making our job impossible. Russia was willing to accept just 60 observers. The smallest mission I have ever been on to date consisted of 250. 

This trend started in Belarus. I had also hoped to go visit for their most recent election but the Government decided not to invite the OSCE at all, no doubt keen to avoid more criticism of their political system… and we all know what happened next! The results, a win for the defending President Lukashenko, were largely seen as fraudulent. Weekly protests started when in the aftermath of polling day key opposition figures were arrested. Some fled and now effectively live in exile. Earlier this month (September) we saw long prison sentences meted out to some prominent anti-Lukashenko voices. Belarus has become the focus of criticism by other countries and by organisations such as the European Union. Sanctions have been imposed, including by the UK

Elections in Russia have become increasingly controversial too. The political climate has seen popular opposition leader Alexey Navalny arrested and imprisoned and maybe poisoned. Others have faced considerable pressure causing them to flee the country and some were effectively banned from being on the ballot paper. United Russia, the party in power which also gives support to President Vladimir Putin is accused of bribery to encourage voters on the one hand and of threats to dissuade other parties on the other. 

Russia may be a no-go for OSCE observers this time, but missions continue and recent missions show the importance of the work as well as the differences between election environments overseas and at home.  

In Ukraine, we were sent near the border with the so-called “independent republic”. There were holes from shells in the roads. I saw first-hand how fragile democracy can be where it is relatively new. In Uzbekistan, we saw a massive rush to vote when the polls opened. That scrum obscured for a while the fact that some voters had clearly signed for ballot papers for several family members and, almost definitely, cast the family votes. 

No elections are perfect.  

There are always things that can improve whether it be the process, electoral laws, advance information, polling station equipment, attention of the election staff. It is this focus on improvement which helps ensure credibility and confidence. 

From the countries I have listed you might assume that observation only takes place in nations with new or struggling democratic set ups. It is certainly true that the larger missions – there were 750 of us in Ukraine – do tend to be in post-Communist countries. But observation goes on in other places too.  

There were observers in the UK in 2019. A team will be in Germany later this month for the Federal Election contest. The host country has to be willing to invite observers in, but the list of those who do so is impressive. 

I fully intend to take part in more in future, maybe even Russia and Belarus, and to bring back the extra learning for our teaching on International Politics, on Democracy and Election Systems. 

Edge Hill runs a number of courses in politics including BA (Hons) History & PoliticsBA (Hons) Politics & CriminologyLLB (Hons) Law with Politics and BA (Hons) Politics and Sociology. Visit the website for more information.