Ten years ago, the judgment of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as to whether an election in the post-Soviet space was "free and fair" would have been incontestable. It was the "gold standard" for assessing progress toward consolidated democracy.
Today, however, the OSCE has a rival. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has taken its first steps into granting an imprimatur as to the validity of polls and the legitimacy of the governments they produce. The SCO's findings may not carry any validity in Western countries-after all, the organization's commitment to state sovereignty means that its approach is grounded in the aphorism quod principi placuit, legem habet vigorem (what pleases the prince has force of law). But in a global media environment where non-Western outlets are gaining market share, it means that there is going to be increasing amounts of reporting along a "he said, she said" line, where any OSCE report can be counterbalanced by another document with a different policy conclusion.
We are seeing this play out in terms of evaluating the December 2, 2007 elections in Russia. While the OSCE was unable to send election observers, parliamentarians were present, as well as those representing PACE (the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe). These two bodies have focused on the use of state administrative resources and control of the election process to highlight the ways in which there was no true "even playing field" where United Russia competed with other parties for votes. The European Commission, in turn, has called upon the Russian government to "clarify all these allegations" of irregularities and fraud.
But the Russian Foreign Ministry now cites the election reports from the observer groups of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the SCO which assessed Sunday's ballot as "free and fair" in responding to American and European criticisms-comments which are duly appended to newswire reports on the aftermath of the elections.
So when President Bush says, as he did this morning, that he told Vladimir Putin "we were sincere in our expressions of concern about the elections," how much weight will that carry?
Of course, there are other indicators to consider. Kommersant reports today that Russian investors "did not vote for United Russia" as there was a slight dip in Russian markets while investors wait to see what will transpire at United Russia's December 17th party congress. Institutional investors seem more confident and see continuation of Putin's state-directed reform as the key to growth. Moody's notes in its latest assessment, "The key factor for the Russian political economy over the medium term is whether state-led investment, either through the budget or via quasi-state corporations, can drive growth efficiently and provide the wherewithal, both directly and indirectly, to expand the nascent middle class." A major part of this will be how the sovereign wealth funds, bulging with oil and gas revenue, are going to be invested-and Western banks want to have a piece of that action.
So we may even see a divergence-between proponents of the "great democratic peace" lamenting the loss of Russia as a democracy and those who see the future being shaped by a "great capitalist piece" (to use the formulation of John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven) in which states like Russia and China play a growing role. Certainly this explains why democratic activists soured on Sunday's elections but investors welcomed the results.
Finally, a closing note. Is Russia "leaving" the West? Some interpreted remarks made today by the head of Russia's electoral commission, Vladimir Churov, to mean that he and other officials do not consider Russia a European country (and therefore not bound by European standards). Is this another step on the road toward Russian participation in constructing a world that bypasses the West?
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.