Ukraine fecklessly irritates OSCE, but fails to identify genuine security threats related to election observation

On 2 January 2019, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin wrote a letter to Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), in which he invited ODIHR observers to monitor the presidential elections in Ukraine planned for 31 March 2019. In the same letter, Klimkin informed Gísladóttir that Ukraine recognised the Russian Federation “as an aggressor state and an occupying power” and said that Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry would not “accept applications for accreditation as official observers from foreign states or international organizations from the holders of Russian passports or other individuals seconded by the Russian side”.

On 23 January 2019, the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Ukraine issued a statement in which – referring to the need of “minimizing the risks and threats of the Russian intervention [sic] in the upcoming presidential elections on March 31, 2019” – it reminded “all foreign states and international organizations intending to monitor the electoral process” that the Russian Federation was recognised by Ukraine as “an aggressor state, committing a crime of aggression against Ukraine and temporarily occupying parts of its territory”.

Several days later, on 4 February, a draft law was submitted to the Ukrainian parliament that barred Russians from observing Ukrainian elections. The new law modified the existing laws on Ukrainian elections and said that citizens of an aggressor state or individuals nominated by an aggressor state could not serve as official observers representing foreign states or international organisations. The Ukrainian parliament adopted this law on 6 February, and President Petro Poroshenko inked it on 26 February.

The law drew criticism of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) that traditionally sends the largest international observation missions to Ukraine. As Russia is a member of the OSCE, it has a right to send Russian citizens to the ODIHR missions and it proposed to include two Russian citizens as long-term observers to monitor the presidential elections in Ukraine.

Ambassador Peter Tejler, the head of the ODIHR observation mission to Ukraine, said that Ukraine’s intention to bar Russian observers from monitoring the presidential elections ran counter to the country’s commitments to the OSCE and was against OSCE principles.

Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

Gísladóttir wrote a letter to Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and expressed her regret over the decision to block Russian citizens from taking part in the ODIHR election observation mission. In particular, she said: “The decision to deny the possibility of accreditation to citizens of one participating State is without precedent and contravenes commitments made by all participating States to invite observers from any other OSCE participating States that may wish to observe election proceedings to the extent permitted by law”.

Criticism of Ukraine’s move came also from other influential figures. Miroslav Lajčák, Slovak Minister of Foreign and European Affairs and Chairperson-in-Office of the OSCE, “expressed his deep regret” about the law and “called upon the Ukrainian authorities to continue to explore all possible avenues for a solution that would allow all ODIHR observers to become accredited for these elections”.

Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine wrote in his Twitter:

The Ukrainian authorities justified the decision to bar Russian citizens from observing the elections either citing security concerns or playing a moral card saying that it would be unsavoury to invite citizens of an aggressor state to monitor elections in the country which is a victim of the aggression. While Russia’s aggression, which started from the occupation of Crimea in February 2014, is undeniable, banning Russian observers has no security dimension, especially in relation to ODIHR observers. As Gísladóttir explained, ODIHR monitors “do not represent their respective countries, but rather the entire OSCE. They are obliged to follow ODIHR’s election observation methodology and are bound by the Office’s strict code of conduct for election observers, including remaining strictly impartial and not intervening in the election process in any way”. In other words, ODIHR’s methodology excludes a possibility for individual observers to interfere in the electoral process. In this sense, by banning Russian citizens from observing Ukrainian elections for political reasons, Ukraine effectively cast doubt on the methodology of the OSCE, which Ukraine has been a member of since 1992.

Moreover, ODIHR missions including Russian observers monitored Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 and regional elections in 2015, i.e. during the Russian-Ukrainian war, and the country did not have any problem with Russian observers. Russian citizens also took part, in 2014 and 2015, in the monitoring missions organised by the European Platform for Democratic Elections, and, again, no problem was registered with the Russian members.

The only genuine reason for banning Russian observers seems to be Ukraine’s willingness to settle scores with the OSCE. Ukraine is legitimately aggrieved by the fact that the OSCE includes Russian citizens in its Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) that has been deployed to Ukraine since 2014 “to observe and report in an impartial and objective way on the situation” in the country and “to facilitate dialogue among all parties to the crisis”. Ukraine’s grievance is undoubtedly justified at least for two main reasons: (1) Russia is party to the conflict, and (2) there are well-founded suspicions that Moscow has been sending agents and spies to the OSCE SMM under the guise of regular observers. However, these problems cannot warrant the decision to bar Russian observers from monitoring the elections, because – to reiterate – ODIHR’s election observation methodology does not allow for political interference in the elections.

OSCE SMM patrolling in eastern Ukraine near Zolote/Pervomaisk area in September 2016 (OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka)

At the same time, the Ukrainian authorities give free rein to politically biased international observation which does constitute a security threat but is routinely ignored by Ukraine’s CEC, Foreign Ministry and security services.

A mission of the European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA) observed the early presidential elections in 2014. The ECGA was founded by Mateusz Piskorski, a Polish pro-Kremlin activist who has been under arrest in Poland since 2016 on suspicion of spying for Russia.

In 2014, a mission of the International Expert Center for Electoral Systems (ICES) led by Alexander Tsinker monitored the early parliamentary elections. Although the ICES has official credentials of an election observation organisation, its activities are aimed at approving electoral results of pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine and elsewhere. In 2012, the Georgian CEC rejected the ICES’s application for accreditation as election observers because of non-transparency of sources of funding of the ICES.

In 2015, a mission of the International Civil Organisation “Political Initiative” observed the Ukrainian regional elections. The mission was headed by Sergejs Blagoveščenskis, the self-proclaimed defender of the Russian language in Latvia and supporter of pro-Russian parties in that country. The mission also featured, among others, Stanislav Berkovec from the Czech ANO 2011 political party who observed the illegitimate referendum in Crimea in 2014, and members of far-right parties Alternative for Germany and Hungarian Jobbik that were known for their pro-Moscow foreign policy positions. During its activities in Ukraine, the mission of the “Political Initiative” was working in favour of the Opposition Bloc – a successor to the now defunct pro-Russian Party of Regions.

This year, the CEC granted accreditation to the ICES’s mission again. It features nine people:

1. Alexander Tsinker.
2. Natan Cohen.
3. Anna Čurdová.
4. Dariusz Cychol.
5. Johan Deckmyn.
6. Zita Gurmai.
7. László Kemény.
8. Nikolai Meinert.
9. Vilmos Szabó.

Alexander Tsinker, the head of the ICES mission

Biographies of several people on this list imply that these observers are far from impartial.

Dariusz Cychol is a regular author for the Polish edition of Sputnik, the Russian state-controlled international news website that promote Russian foreign policy interests.

Anna Čurdová is a member of the Party of Civic Rights founded in 2009 by current President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman who is known for his xenophobic and openly pro-Russian views. In 2015, she took part in the observation mission organised by the above-mentioned “Political Initiative” that provided “election observation” service for the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc.

Johan Deckmyn is a member of the Belgian far-right Flemish Interest party. Several of its members observed the illegitimate referendum in Crimea and so-called parliamentary elections in the Russia-occupied areas of Donbass.

Nikolai Meinert and László Kemény participated in an event co-organised by Alexander Tsinker’s ICES and structures close to the “Party of Regions”. The same event hosted above-mentioned pro-Kremlin activist Mateusz Piskorski.

As we see, the actions of the Ukrainian authorities are irrational in strategic terms. On the one hand, by fecklessly barring Russian citizens from observing elections in the country as part of the ODIHR and other respectable missions, they upset relations with the OSCE ODIHR that may cancel its mission to Ukraine altogether thus casting doubts on the fairness and transparency of the Ukrainian elections. On the other hand, the Ukrainian authorities accredit politically biased international observation missions whose only purpose is to provide partisan support to pro-Moscow political forces taking part in the Ukrainian elections.