Russia is back in the news again. In the run up to the Duma election on December 2, two events have particularly stood up in the spotlight.
First, there was a decision by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), an election monitoring group under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), not to send observers to monitor the Duma election.
Initially, the ODIHR planned sending about 450 observers, but the Central Election Commission (CEC), a Russian official body overseeing the elections, has reduced this number to 70. The decision to abort the monitoring mission at all came after the ODIRH observers, who were still allowed to travel to Russia, reported troubles with obtaining Russian visas. Adding fuel to the fire, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has made a bizarre statement in which he accused the U.S. State Department in standing behind the ODIHR demarche.
In the cacophony of mutual allegations, the sense of proportion has been completely lost. The absence of the ODIRH observers doesn’t mean that the Duma elections will not be monitored at all. About 330-350 international observers — representing the OSCE, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) — will still attend, according to the CEC Chairman, Vladimir Churov.
More importantly, there is ample evidence that every one of the 96,000 polling stations throughout Russia will be packed with armies of domestic observers. Only the Union of Right Forces (SPS) alone promised to unleash for this purpose about 50,000 of its activists.
The very idea that a Russian election needs a foreign stamp of approval to be considered legitimate — as implied by The New York Times — is absurd. Equally absurd is the idea that foreign observers could make any difference. What would 70, or 450, or even 4,500 ODIHR observes do so special that could not be accomplished by 50,000 more knowledgeable and boiling with revenge SPS members?
The second major news was a five-day imprisonment of Garry Kasparov for turning an approved protest rally into an illegal march through the streets of Moscow. Many Western observers expressed surprise at the apparent harshness of the punishment. One should remember, however, that Kasparov was already arrested in April for exactly the same violation, and back then, was only fined with 1,000 rubles (about $40). It would seem logical that this time, the punishment was more severe as from the legal point of view, Kasparov can be considered a repeated offender — a "recidivist", as a Russian would say.
The Western reaction to Kasparov’s arrest has again demonstrated a lack of common sense. The German government, for example, has demanded Kasparov’s immediate release on the ground that "[the arrest] makes his participation in the decisive phase of the Russian parliamentary elections on December 2 impossible." This is ridiculous. Kasparov does not take part in the elections in any meaningful way. His ability to influence the elections is about the same as his impact on the performance of the Bol’shoi Ballet in the evening of December 2.
In the end, "the Kasparov affair" comes out as a classic win-win situation. Kasparov has received yet another dose of the international attention he was looking for. On the other side, the Moscow authorities have demonstrated their toughness in the eyes of Muscovites whose peaceful Christmas shopping is being interrupted by aggressive political hooligans.
There is no tragedy here. Perhaps, a little bit of a farce.