April 1, 2005

April 1, 2005 | Commentary on

Troubling Russian democracy

The Russian bear is an aging, ailing animal in bad health, but it is still a predator, and it longs for the days when it could dominate its own neck of the woods. From Ukraine to Georgia to Moldova and now Kyrgyzstan, democratic movements are stirring and declaring an end to the old ways. Among the meddlesome strangers in the Russian bear's woods is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an organization that was created through the Helsinki process in the 1970s and whose task it is to monitor elections and borders.

A 55-member international organization with bipartisan credibility, the OSCE has roused the ire of President Vladimir Putin by certifying recent elections in what Russia considers its "near abroad." "The OSCE is under attack," OSCE Chairman Dimitrij Rupel, foreign minister of Slovenia, told members of Congress during his visit to Washington last month.

Specifically, the Russian government has moved to block the 2005 OSCE budget of $240 million, which has to be approved by consensus. Ostensibly, this move is in protest to the lack of even-handedness in the organization's work, which tends to focus on the former Soviet Union and other points east, as opposed to, say, Britain, Canada or the United States. The real problem is that Russia is losing influence in key former Soviet republics, and it doesn't like it one bit.

Now, we are not talking about vast sums of money here. The organization has a budget of some $233 million, three-quarters of which goes to its important fieldwork in trouble spots like the Balkans and Central Asia. Of this budget, Russia contributes about $11 million, which Moscow now says is too much. To put the Russian complaint into relief, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands each pay more.

The simple solution to this unconscionable piece of blackmail by Russia is for the OSCE to operate on the equivalent of a continuing resolution. The European Union is reportedly considering asking its member states to make voluntary contributions to the OSCE budget in order to avoid a financial collapse. This is a sensible solution, that the United States should sign onto. Further, we could surely come up with the money to fill the gap left by Russia withholding its share.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that democracy-promotion is at the heart of the Bush administration's foreign-policy agenda, the approach of the State Department so far seems to give some credence to Russia's demands. The administration has agreed to set up a working group in Vienna to examine standards for election monitoring, which Russia finds not to its liking.

Mr. Putin, of course, believes in a "different kind of democracy," as he told President Bush during the latter's European trip in February. That would also mean a "different" kind of election standard. Interestingly, Ukraine in the last two weeks has opted out of the CIS election-monitoring group, presumably because it doesn't care much for democracy, Russian-style.

Also troubling is the fact that the United States has decided to back a candidate for OSCE secretary-general who may not be the best choice at this time of crisis. He is Marc Perrin de Brichambaut, a diplomatic adviser to the French Ministry of Defense and a former French ambassador to the OSCE. Americans who have worked with Mr. de Brichambaut have found his enthusiasm for American causes and trans-Atlantic organizations like NATO rather underwhelming.

This writer's own experience of Mr. de Brichambaut is based on an admittedly brief meeting in the spring of 2003, when tempers tended to flare hot between Americans and Frenchmen and it would have been hard to find anyone among the leadership of the French government who was friendly.

The selection process, however, is not a done deal, and there is still time to reconsider. Other candidates include Ambassador Gerard Stoudemann of Switzerland, who would be representing a non-aligned country and whose leadership at the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights would seem to give him just the right background. Furthermore, the EU currently fills all the top jobs at the OSCE. Why not introduce a bit of diversity?

Democracy cannot grow without institutions to nourish it, and the OSCE has proven itself both effective and credible. The United States should not compromise on its dedication to those institutions.

Helle Dale  is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times