It’s official: Putin has just stopped pretending

MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images It’s safe to say that no one really expects this December’s Russian elections to be a fair contest. All the same, the Kremlin’s decision to cut the number of international observers invited by two thirds is a particularly brazen demonstration that Vladimir Putin has stopped trying to even appear remotely democratic. Europe’s ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
598354_071102_putin_05.jpg
598354_071102_putin_05.jpg

MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images

It's safe to say that no one really expects this December's Russian elections to be a fair contest. All the same, the Kremlin's decision to cut the number of international observers invited by two thirds is a particularly brazen demonstration that Vladimir Putin has stopped trying to even appear remotely democratic. Europe's largest election watchdog, the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, has grudgingly accepted Putin's conditions, having little other choice. Russia is planning to allow 300 to 400 observers to observe polling throughout a country that spans eleven time zones.

It will likely be fewer than that. Since Russia waited until a month before the election to issue its initiation, OSCE and other groups have had to scramble to obtain visas for their observers. Getting a travel visa for Russia is a trying experience under the best of circumstances, but the current regime has proven masterful at using the inefficiency of Russian bureaucracy as a political weapon. Just ask the head of any of the foreign NGOs that operate in Russia and spend about as much time fighting through red tape as they do on advocacy work. If the OSCE folks get anywhere near the 70 observers they want into Russia in time, they'll be extraordinarily lucky. 

MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images

It’s safe to say that no one really expects this December’s Russian elections to be a fair contest. All the same, the Kremlin’s decision to cut the number of international observers invited by two thirds is a particularly brazen demonstration that Vladimir Putin has stopped trying to even appear remotely democratic. Europe’s largest election watchdog, the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, has grudgingly accepted Putin’s conditions, having little other choice. Russia is planning to allow 300 to 400 observers to observe polling throughout a country that spans eleven time zones.

It will likely be fewer than that. Since Russia waited until a month before the election to issue its initiation, OSCE and other groups have had to scramble to obtain visas for their observers. Getting a travel visa for Russia is a trying experience under the best of circumstances, but the current regime has proven masterful at using the inefficiency of Russian bureaucracy as a political weapon. Just ask the head of any of the foreign NGOs that operate in Russia and spend about as much time fighting through red tape as they do on advocacy work. If the OSCE folks get anywhere near the 70 observers they want into Russia in time, they’ll be extraordinarily lucky. 

All the same, the tactics of intimidation and media blackout that essentially rig Russian elections in favor of the pro-Putin United Russia party are hardly a secret and the world hardly needs OSCE to tell us about them. Putin’s more troubling suggestion may be his proposal that OSCE permanently limit observers in seven other post-Soviet states and ban them from issuing reports until official results are published. Again, it’s not really news that Russia’s leaders feel they have the right to control political outcomes in their “near-abroad,” but they’ve rarely been so forthright about it before. Armenia’s government has already heartily endorsed the proposal.

All the same, Putin thinks that Russia has a lot to teach the West about democracy. At this week’s EU-Russia summit he announced plans to start a Russian-funded think tank to promote democracy and human rights in Europe and counter the influence of western NGOs in his country.

With the aid of grants, the EU helps develop such institutes in Russia. I think the time has come for Russia, given the growth in our financial capabilities, to make its contribution in this sphere as well.”

With oil prices nearing $100 a barrel, Russia’s “financial capabilities” seem to allow Putin to do pretty much whatever he wants. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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