Don’t Vote, Don’t Complain

The United States should just shut up about the Serbian elections.

Serbia elects a new president this Sunday, and I detect a whiff of skepticism in the air. The Washington Post reports that “most foreign experts, as well as many Yugoslavs, say they expect the election that Slobodan Milosevic has called for Sept. 24 to be marred by substantial fraud in his favor.” The president of the Democratic Party, whose candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, rates higher than Milosevic in independent polls, this week told a rally that the authorities fully intend to “rig” the elections, and he called on supporters to organize a campaign of civil disobedience should this be the case. The Serbian authorities have meanwhile refused all offers to place independent Yugoslav observers in polling stations, have jailed and harassed opposition politicians and student groups, and have orchestrated physical attacks on Kostunica, who has been pelted with everything from tomatoes to rocks.

Nothing whatsoever indicates that these elections will be even remotely free and fair. But perhaps there is one very thin silver lining: At least, given Milosevic’s hostility to the outside world, there will be no foreign observers. True, neither the United States nor the European Union has been able to shut up altogether. Both have appealed to the Serbian people to vote against Milosevic, promising aid and the lifting of sanctions should he lose—thereby allowing Milosevic to accuse his rivals of being “tools of the West” and ensuring that at least a percentage of the Serb electorate swings staunchly behind him. No one likes to be pressured by Uncle Sam and his sidekicks; the Serbs least of all.

But things could be worse, given that the West’s record on interference in other people’s elections in general, and election monitoring in particular, ranges from naive to risible. In the former category, for example, ranks President George Bush’s infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech, way back in 1991. That was when Bush Sr. showed up in Kiev, not long before a referendum on Ukrainian independence, and called upon the nation to oppose it: “Long Live the Soviet Union,” he urged. Within weeks, Ukraine had voted overwhelmingly to become an independent nation.

More sinister is the West’s recent record in Russia, where the tendency has been not so much to encourage a particular result but to beam sunshine on the entire election process, no matter how dirty, as part of the general Western campaign to appear friendly and to “stay involved.” Sometimes, observers will even come close to admitting that this is what they are doing. As it happens, I met an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observer in Moscow on the eve of last December’s parliamentary elections, who privately admitted that the organization would probably “go easy” on the Russian government, which had, among other things, pretty flagrantly ignored any sort of norms about equal media access. Her argument was that they had to do this, in order to ensure that they would be invited back in March to monitor the (more important) Russian presidential elections.

In retrospect, it might have been better not to have shown up at either event. In its final report on the Russian presidential race, for example, the OSCE complimented the Russian government on its “constitutional and legislative framework that is consistent with internationally recognised democratic standards” and noted that “the election also demonstrated Russia’s continuing commitment to strengthen its democratic electoral institutions, which appear to have the public’s confidence and acceptance, as demonstrated by the 69% turnout.” It congratulated the Central Election Commission, which it said “performed effectively as an independent and professional body,” and said that 98 percent of its observers had submitted positive reports from their visits to 1,724 polling stations.

And what really happened? A recent, brilliant, and vastly undernoticed piece of investigative reporting  conducted by the Moscow Times over the past six months has shown that, in fact, cheating was so blatant and so widespread that President Vladimir Putin may not have won at all, let alone achieved victory in the first round. Among other things, the Moscow Times detected an additional 1.3 million voters (or should I say “dead souls”) on the electoral roles, who mysteriously appeared between December and March, as well as the altering of results—that is, the totals in individual electoral precincts simply disagreed with the totals reported higher up, in territorial electoral commissions. In Dagestan alone, this sort of fraud meant that about 88,000 votes were stolen from other candidates and given to Putin.

Meanwhile, in Novosibirsk, those who voted for Putin were presented with a bottle of vodka (hence the 69 percent turnout, demonstrating the “public’s confidence and acceptance” of the system). In Saratov, the staff of a local hospital was forced to spend election day at their workplace and to vote for Putin at the hospital: One doctor who refused, on the grounds that his wife was away and he had to take care of his children, was punished by his supervisor. In dozens of other regions, everyone from farm workers to college professors were bullied into voting for Putin, under threat of losing their jobs. And none of this even takes into account the relentless positive media coverage the Russian president received, in some regions amounting to a total monopoly.

Given that these are the sort of tactics that may well be used in Serbia, we should be grateful that neither the OSCE, nor the Council of Europe, nor anyody else will be there to legitimate the process. Without all of them standing around paying compliments to the Serbian electoral commission, it will be easier for Kostunica and the other opposition leaders to organize a genuine protest movement afterward, if Milosevic does decide to cheat or, as he has also hinted, declare a state of emergency to prevent anyone else from taking power. Now if we can just get everyone to stay quiet while this happens, perhaps he’ll even have a chance of success.