Does it matter how many people observe Russia’s elections?

Russian officials have been feuding in recent weeks with officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) about how the organization will monitor Russia’s scheduled December Duma elections. The OSCE reportedly wants to send about 250 observers. That’s far too many, complains Russian election official Vladimir Churov: "We will try to be open ...

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

Russian officials have been feuding in recent weeks with officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) about how the organization will monitor Russia's scheduled December Duma elections. The OSCE reportedly wants to send about 250 observers. That's far too many, complains Russian election official Vladimir Churov:

Russian officials have been feuding in recent weeks with officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) about how the organization will monitor Russia’s scheduled December Duma elections. The OSCE reportedly wants to send about 250 observers. That’s far too many, complains Russian election official Vladimir Churov:

"We will try to be open on this, but, from the other side, we also want to see some positive steps. It is very difficult to sum opinions of so many observers and analyze them. Today, with the development of mass media and other sources of information like the Internet, you don’t need to put observers at each voting point." 

Churov complained that the organization was not treating all its participating countries equally because it sent only 15 observers to monitor a vote in Germany, which has a smaller population than Russia. 

"We have only one condition — to organize a professional and objective observation. Practice must be approximately equal for all OSCE countries," he said. 

It’s hard not to sympathize with OSCE officials courting Moscow’s wrath, but the back-and-forth has an unreal quality to it, as if the right number of observers could somehow alter the increasingly undemocratic character of Russian politics. I remember having a similar feeling as the OSCE mounted vast and expensive campaigns to monitor the first post-war elections in Bosnia. It was apparent to almost everyone that the overall political atmosphere was toxic and that few of the necessary preconditions for free elections had been achieved. And yet the OSCE was bound and determined to get the logistics of the futile exercise right. 

For what it’s worth, a number of other regional bodies, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), will also be sending observers. Precisely what wisdom the SCO will impart on holding free elections is not yet clear.

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

More from Foreign Policy

Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.
Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.

Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America

The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.

Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.
Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.

The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense

If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.

Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War

Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.

An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.
An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.

How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests

And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.