The ODIHR observers scandal and the Aleksanian case as a backdrop for the presidential campaign

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“A month from now, Russia will have to show a different face to the world – the person who said the following words at the World Economic Forum in Davos a year ago: ‘People in Russia are well aware that no undemocratic state has ever become truly prosperous – for one simple reason: freedom is better than non-freedom.'” Gazeta.ru included that quote from Dmitri Medvedev in its analysis of the negative media backdrop to the presidential election campaign.

Over the past week, the Russian press has been actively discussing two issues: the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) refusal to send observers to the Russian election, and the trial of the terminally ill Vasili Aleksanian, a former vice president of YUKOS.

The conflict between the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) and the ODIHR started with the CEC’s demand to reduce the number of ODIHR observers and the duration of their mission in Russia. As Newsru.com reports, the CEC initially set a quota of 70 people, with an arrival date of February 27-28. The ODIHR requested the CEC for permission to observe not only the voting process, but also the election campaign. The ODIHR added that its observers could not perform proper election monitoring with such a short timeframe.

In an interview with Radio Liberty, ODIHR spokesman Curtis Badden said that according to the ODIHR’s established procedures, a team of analysts is supposed to arrive in a monitored country three weeks before the election, and the observer team should arrive two weeks before the election. An ODIHR mission monitors the media, studies the candidates’ campaign policies, analyzes candidate access to the media, monitors the work of election officials and the progress of the campaign, and examines questions related to legislation.

The ODIHR declined to squeeze its election-monitoring procedures into the proposed timeframe, and drew the CEC’s righteous wrath by continuing to insist that the main group of observers should arrive in Russia by February 15.

The ITAR-TASS news agency quotes a statement made by Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko at a meeting with European Union “troika” ambassadors: “The fact that the ODIHR is not prepared to act within the framework of the Russian CEC’s invitation is evidence of the need for reforms at the ODIHR.”

CEC member Igor Borisov said he found the ODIHR’s proposed terms baffling. In his opinion, the ODIHR is essentially attempting to obstruct proper organization of the presidential election.

Newsru.com reports that the last drop in the bucket came from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who called the ODIHR’s demands an “ultimatum” which Russia cannot accept. After that statement, the ODIHR declined to send its observers to Russia at all; and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation also canceled its visit.

ODIHR Director Christian Strohal said: “The ODIHR regrets that the restrictions imposed on our planned observation mission make it impossible for us to send a mission to observe the presidential election in Russia on March 2, 2008. We have taken all steps of goodwill in endeavoring to deploy our mission, even on the terms proposed by the Russian authorities. However, we do have obligations to all 56 OSCE member states, to fulfill our mandate, and the Russian Federation has imposed restrictions that would prevent our observer mission from performing its tasks in accordance with that mandate.”

Prominent political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation, views the OSCE’s actions in terms of a conspiracy theory. Pavlovsky told the Interfax news agency that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s refusal to send observers to Russia’s election may signal the start of a plan aimed at declaring this presidential election illegitimate. Pavlovsky said: “This is an interesting and important signal to us and to European structures. It may be evidence of the start of the first phase of implementing a plan to declare the forthcoming election illegitimate.”

According to Pavlovsky, if this is actually the case, this plan would aim to “weaken the new president right from the outset.” However, Pavlovsky doesn’t rule out the possibility that this refusal may be merely an attempt to put psychological pressure on Moscow: “This is a signal from the structures that control the apparatus and nomenklatura of the OSCE – certain forces linked to the US State Department.”

Could it be a signal that the word “elections” in Russia needs to reclaim its former meaning? The meaning that was current back in 1996, before the term “successor” became so entrenched in our political vocabulary.

“History happens to have arranged things so that the primaries in the United States are coinciding with the presidential campaign in Russia,” says Gazeta.ru, noting that “Russian citizens are following the US primaries with far more curiosity than our own election campaign.”

As Gazeta.ru observes, the real political battle between Democrat and Republican candidates makes the question of ODIHR observer numbers in America quite superfluous: “Obviously, no observers can monitor the Democrats and the Republicans better than they monitor each other. Obviously, the press will be looking into every nook and cranny. Obviously, cameras will be present whenever and wherever the television networks see fit to send them, not as decided by politicians. And the OSCE is allowed to send as many observers as it sees fit, at any time it chooses.”

Aside from the ODIHR observer situation, another story is also causing controversy: the trial of Vasili Aleksanian, a former vice president of YUKOS. He was arrested in spring of 2006, and has been held in pre-trial detention ever since. The former YUKOS executive is charged with embezzling TomskNeft assets worth over 8 billion rubles and Eastern Oil Company shares worth over 12 billion rubles, money-laundering, and tax evasion (over 3 million rubles). Aleksanian is pleading not guilty: “I never participated in the events named in the allegations against me.”

During his time in detention, Aleksanian has been diagnosed with AIDS and lymphatic cancer. Moreover, he has gone almost totally blind.

It’s worth noting that neither Aleksanian’s lawyers nor journalists covering legal and rights issues were the first to draw public attention to his appalling situation. The first to do so was blogger and Izvestia society observer Bozhena Rynska, who told Aleksanian’s story in her becky_sharpe LiveJournal.

Gazeta.ru says: “In any country with real political institutions and human rights protection institutions, all decent parties and rights organizations would join in protesting against Aleksanian’s fate.”

Gazeta.ru notes that Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin – whose duties ought to include reminding the president, the government, and the prosecutor general of the Aleksanian case every single day – has only sent one letter requesting Aleksanian’s transfer to a regular hospital. That’s all.

Gazeta.ru goes on to say: “The Public Chamber – another civil society quasi-institution created by the Kremlin – is keeping silent. Political parties in the parliament are keeping silent. The business community, now swearing loyalty to the successor, is keeping silent. The only people demanding a clear and unequivocal decision on the Aleksanian case are opposition politicians and rights activists – from Lyudmila Alekseyeva to Garry Kasparov.”

Vedomosti notes that the official successor, Dmitri Medvedev, hasn’t commented on this case either; even though a search is under way for some glaring case of injustice that Medvedev could resolve, publicly and at the state level.

It’s been three days now since presidential candidate Medvedev’s 84 reception offices opened their doors nationwide. Vadim Khokhlov, head of the Central reception office in Moscow, said in an interview with Vedomosti that the offices are mostly performing a function akin to opinion polling – they can’t offer any real assistance. Citizens are free to approach the offices with complaints, but electoral laws do not permit office staff to solve any of these problems, since that would count as bribing voters.

Khokhlov explained that among the numerous complaints about housing problems and dacha-related conflicts, reception office staff are deliberately keeping watch for a sufficiently glaring and demonstrative case of social injustice which Medvedev could step in and solve.

But the Aleksanian case isn’t glaring and demonstrative enough, apparently; or perhaps “YUKOS,” “AIDS,” and “cancer” aren’t the kind of words that should be associated with Medvedev’s name in his presidential campaign.

ITAR-TASS reports that the Federal Penitentiary Service’s Moscow Medical Service decided on February 7 that Aleksanian should be transferred to a specialized civilian hospital. This decision was based on advice from a panel of physicians and specialists. Aleksanian will be hospitalized under intensive 24/7 security provided by Federal Penitentiary Service guards.

As Gazeta.ru notes, it would be hard to imagine a less favorable media backdrop for the international “launch” of Medvedev, a candidate promoting the values of democracy and freedom.

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