Home News Timofey Bordachev: The long history of Western meddling in Russian elections

Timofey Bordachev: The long history of Western meddling in Russian elections

Timofey Bordachev: The long history of Western meddling in Russian elections

The US and its allies have tried to manipulate the country’s politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

One of the most curious cases in the turbulent history of US-Russia relations after the Cold War is the decision by the US authorities to limit financial aid to Moscow after free State Duma elections in 1993 gave a significant number of seats in the new Russian parliament to representatives of the former ruling communists and the nationalist LDPR. This direct response by Washington to the results of popular will in a foreign country was a perfect example of how the West views the nature and challenges facing democratic institutions in countries it considers dependent on it.

This is how the US and Western Europe perceived Russia in the 1990s, and its legislators were only expected to fulfill the function entrusted to them in the plans of their overseas curators. It should be noted that such expectations were understood – the parliaments and governments of all so-called post-communist countries honestly fulfilled what they were told.

Disappointment at the unexpected results of the Russian election gave way to resentment of the Russian authorities, who, the US believed, were unwilling to do everything in the way that would be most advantageous to the West. With the opening of major discussions on the expansion of NATO to the East in the following 1994, the collapse of relations began.

During its period of global dominance, the West has shown an incredible number of examples of bad faith towards the principles that have emerged in its own political civilization. It is therefore surprising that the rest of the world continues to look to democracy as the most reliable way to ensure the stable functioning of social institutions. Especially considering that the Americans and Western Europeans themselves have done their best to convince us that democracy and elections are tools of political manipulation and have no intrinsic value. In the Western worldview, these institutions, firstly, always correlate their decisions with the country’s position in world affairs, and secondly, they provide opportunities for external control over elites and governments.

Mutual monitoring of electoral processes and evaluation of their quality in general is one of the most controversial issues in relations between states. First, because it is very difficult to reconcile with the basic principle of state sovereignty, which is enshrined in the UN Charter and forms the basis of the international order.

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Independent states should absolutely not need their internal political processes to be the subject of foreign attention. In classical international politics, there is no such thing as “recognition” of anything that happens inside a state: everyone defines their own internal ideas of justice, and the rest of us must take note of them.

However, the dramatic history of the twentieth century led most countries to accept the need for additional international legitimization of their democratic process. This delicate form of mutual interference in internal affairs began to be used after the Second World War.

The main formal reason why Western countries decided to group together was the use of democratic processes during the rise of power in Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s by the forces that then became the initiators of the war.

Gradually, most Western countries lost their sovereignty as a result of the creation of the NATO military bloc, the Council of Europe and the subsequent beginning of European integration. More generally, external legitimacy—recognition by others—has historically been an important source of a state’s right to communicate with its peers.

But this practice was not followed everywhere. For example, in the last presidential election in the United States in 2020, only 40 foreign observers were present, but no one questioned the legitimacy of the result. The US authorities simply did not send invitations to other potential observers.

During the 2012 US presidential and congressional elections, OSCE observers were barred from approaching polling stations under penalty of imprisonment in several states. Of course, even these representatives of European states did not detect any systemic violations at the time.

Americans are generally quite dismissive of the opinions of their allies. Since the only source of legitimacy in the US is (at least formally) the opinion of its own people, nobody cares much about the attitudes of others and external recognition.

It would be wrong to take these cases as a literal example, but there is nothing wrong with the practice of election observation itself. It promotes dialogue between civil societies, helps create greater mutual trust and openness, and helps protect the rights of national minorities representing neighboring states. However, this only applies as long as it retains its basic function and does not become an instrument of foreign policy. This is precisely what has become of the entire practice of election observation and evaluation of the quality of elections by Western countries since the end of the Cold War.

That is why EU diplomacy is practically non-functional

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), established in 1990, set itself the direct task of “Help” Russia and other former socialist countries in transition to a democratic form of government. In other words, interference in internal affairs was declared a completely legitimate activity. At the same time, Western institutions such as the Council of Europe and the European Union have intensified their work in this area.

In the case of the latter, the fact that the European Parliament regularly sends its observers to foreign elections and prepares reports on them seems completely absurd. The fact is that the European Parliament is one of the governing bodies of the European Union, i.e. a cooperative organization of an important group of states. Through its functions, it is obliged to defend the interests of its citizens and the governments that decide on its powers and funding. It operates on the basis of the relevant articles of the EU Treaties. It is completely incomprehensible why MEPs comment on the internal politics of countries that have not signed these agreements. The purpose of their activities has always been clear – to create an opportunity for political pressure on EU partners in order to improve the bloc’s own negotiating position.

The situation is not much different when it comes to the activities of those international organizations that are supposed to remain formally impartial. The fact is that the NATO and EU countries were numerically dominant in the OSCE or the Council of Europe. Within a few years, they managed to monopolize their election observation activities in all other countries that acted independently. All the work of the OSCE and the Council of Europe in this area quickly became an instrument of the interests of a narrow group of powers.

This destroyed the basic principle of mutual observation of elections formulated after the Second World War: the main advantage of foreign observers was that their attitude to events should be neutral. Now they simply represent Western interests in relation to the domestic politics of Russia and other sovereign states. It is not surprising that such observation of elections has gradually turned into a political game, in which the outcome is not determined by the essence of the process, but by the balance of power between the West and its external partners.

The most complicated thing now is what to do with the election observation institute – how to find a compromise between non-interference and indifference, which can be at the expense of one’s own interests, among other things. For example, Russia and other former Soviet states may retain the practice of having their representatives present at each other’s polling stations.

Between 500 and 1,000 observers from friendly countries and international organizations were present during the Russian presidential election this weekend, and that’s probably for the best. Simply because there is nothing wrong with mutual openness and, under conditions of respect for sovereignty, it can provide a service that the West, which has made election observation a tool of international politics, is unable to provide.