Somewhere between liberal democracy and autocracy lies the political netherworld of the post-Soviet states. Will countries like Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan ever be totally free?

Post-Soviet elections have become elaborately choreographed occasions. The script is now getting so precise that we even know what the preferred winning share of the vote is for an official candidate in the South Caucasus: 53 percent. Twice already this year, 53 percent has been the decisive number in presidential elections in the post-Soviet countries of Georgia and Armenia.

This all stems from the authorities working to organize a desired result by using what the Russians call "the administrative resource": pressure on the media and protégés across the country to deliver the right result on election day. In perfect harmony, the opposition plans just as much for the protests the day after elections as they do for the vote itself. In the latest Azerbaijani elections, opposition activists headed straight for pre-prepared rallies from the polling stations.

Being the leader of a post-Soviet country on the edge of Europe is a delicate balancing act. The proximity of Europe means you are pulled toward making democratic reforms that win you greater favor in the West, larger aid programs, and potential membership in institutions such as the World Trade Organization or NATO.

Yet you also sit at the top of a pyramid of patronage and need to fight hard not to be dislodged from it. Being in opposition in these countries is a miserable lot: ceding power to your opponents means risking being stripped of everything and perhaps going to jail or into exile. Consider that since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 in the eight countries of the post-Soviet South Caucasus and Central Asia, six leaders have been forced out of office mid-term but an official candidate has never lost a contested election to the opposition.

Elections are especially dangerous times, with the peaceful revolutions in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 all springing from disputed votes. In each case the opposition was able to demonstrate that the incumbent had rigged the vote, orchestrate a popular uprising and force the president from office.

In January, Mikheil Saakashvili was declared to have been reelected as president of Georgia with 53.4 percent of the vote. In February Serzh Sarkisian, the Armenian prime minister and official candidate, was declared the winner of that country's presidential election with 52.8 percent of the vote.

In both cases that number sent a double message: to the nation that the official candidate had soundly beaten his opponents and to the world that the margin of victory had been modest and the vote had been fair.

These elections were in fact not massively rigged. It is possible that both Saakashvili and Sarkisian might have been elected in an entirely free and fair vote. The trouble is that we will never know if that would have happened. What did take place was fairly widespread vote-rigging and heavily skewed media coverage sharply in favor of the official candidate. This in turn naturally provoked anger from the Georgian and Armenian oppositions, who complained that their elections have been stolen.

In Georgia this triggered two months of protests, a hunger strike and domestic political turmoil. The opposition's passions have been muted by two considerations: the widespread public perception that their candidate, a colorless member of parliament named Levan Gagechiladze, would have lost a runoff contest against the charismatic Saakashvili anyway; and the fact that they still have a good chance of reducing Saakashvili's authority by doing well in parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

The Armenian case has been far more tragic. The vote-rigging there was more open, the divergence from democracy more blatant. The opposition candidate was also much more formidable, being Armenia's first post-independence president, Levon Ter-Petrosian. Once the official results were announced, Ter-Petrosian's furious supporters poured out onto the streets and set up camp in the center of the city, demanding a recount of the vote.

On March 1, outgoing president Robert Kocharian sent in the security forces to break up the tent camp and the protestors resisted. Street fighting broke out, with official forces using firearms and the opposition employing improvised weapons and barricades. At least eight people were killed and more than one hundred opposition activists are still in jail. Ter-Petrosian was put under de facto house arrest. Armenia is now a land divided and the government has a huge legitimacy deficit.

All this is bad enough for these small countries still seeking to emerge into the European mainstream.

What makes it even worse is the role the third member of this electoral dance-the international community in the shape of election observing teams-played in letting these crises occur. Through a combination of cynicism and incompetence, Western governments put an imprimatur of approval on both these elections that stoked the internal conflicts.

International election monitoring missions, generally led by the fifty-six-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have become an integral part of all votes in the former-Communist world since 1991.

The missions generally fall into two parts. The professional side of things is handled by the Warsaw-based arm of the OSCE, the unfortunately titled Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (because its ODIHR acronym sounds like the English "oh dear") which sets up a long-term monitoring mission, looking at media coverage and the campaign as a whole.