Ukraine aims to ban Russian election observers | In Depth | DW | 08.02.2019
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In Depth

Ukraine aims to ban Russian election observers

According to a draft bill, Russian observers will be excluded from all future elections in Ukraine. The OSCE has misgivings, experts are torn between appreciation and criticism – and have offered a solution.

Ukraine fears that Russia could – by making use of its representatives in international observation missions – interfere with the presidential elections scheduled for March 31. Kyiv believes it's possible that Russian election observers, in particular, could become a "weak spot" when they supervise the voting process and vote count.

For this reason, Parliament on Thursday passed a law which bans Russian nationals from taking part in the planned election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The law stipulates that citizens of a country that has been classified as an "aggressor state" by Ukraine's parliament cannot be employed as observers – neither in the Ukraine presidential elections in spring, nor in the Ukraine parliamentary elections in autumn. Kyiv has categorized the Russian Federation as an "aggressor state" – due to Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula, which was against international law, and the war in eastern Ukraine.

Misgivings from the OSCE

On February 6, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) began its mission of observing the presidential elections in Ukraine. With respect to the law passed by Ukraine, ODIHR representative Thomas Rymer told DW: "We have reservations as to whether this is compatible with OSCE commitments regarding access of international observers."

According to Rymer, the OSCE will continue to monitor developments surrounding the initiative. "As is customary in the course of every election observation mission, the mission will review whether agreements on election observers, both national and international, are in accordance with obligations vis-à-vis the OSCE," Rymer said.

Within the OSCE, there had already been cases of a country not accepting election observers from another country, Peter Kleppe of the Brussels-based think tank "Open Europe" told DW. In the summer of 2018, for example, Turkey refused permission to one parliamentarian each from Germany and Sweden to enter the country.

"For Ukraine, however, this option is not the best idea," he said, pointing out that the international community still had misgivings regarding the state of democracy in Ukraine. For this reason, the elections should be held with maximum transparency.

Woman casting her ballot in Kyiv (Reuters/V. Ogirenko)

In 2019, Ukrainians will elect a new president and a new parliament (file photo)

Sympathizing with Ukraine

According to Roland Freudenstein of the Brussels-based think tank Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies it's hardly surprising that a nation which has been attacked by a neighboring country wants to exclude that country's citizens from an election observation mission. Freudenstein believes that the OSCE should take Ukraine's arguments into consideration. "It is realistic to assume that the Russian secret services will talk to every Russian citizen taking part in such a mission – before and after," he said.

Florian Bieber, a political analyst at Graz University's Center for Southeast European Studies, also sympathizes with Ukraine's rejection of Russian election observers, who Kyiv believes may not be independent . In addition, he says, we cannot be sure that the Russians would not meddle in the election.

Read more: Ukraine separatists vote in elections denounced by the West

Bieber said he could not imagine Croatian representatives having taken part in election observations in Serbia and vice versa in the 1990s, at the time of armed conflicts in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. In those days, however, elections were only monitored by very few observers.

Hand-picking observers

Oleksandr Kliuzhev of OPORA, a civil network which observes elections in Ukraine, told DW that, on the one hand, there was in fact a danger of Russian meddling in the Ukrainian elections. On the other hand, however, Ukraine risked losing external support if citizens of certain nations were excluded from observation missions. "For international institutions, in particular for the OSCE, this is a challenge, because, later on, other countries might cite certain missions as a precedent," Kliuzhev said.

The Committee of Voters of Ukraine (CVU) believes that Russian election observers should be hand-picked. The NGO's head, Oleksii Koshel, suggests admitting only those who "expose Putin's tampering with elections and fight for democratic elections." Koshel told DW.

"We need barriers against Putin's propagandists, but not against Russian public figures who really oppose election fraud, both in Russia and in Ukraine." According to Koshel, this approach would enable Kyiv to kill two birds with one stone — it could prevent Russian secret services from meddling in the elections, and it could avoid being accused of a lack of transparency by the international community.

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