Indeed, not only did the OSCE essentially dismiss the cowed media's heavily biased pre-election coverage of the 2000 election and the regional authorities' abuse of "administrative resources" in their whitewash report on the campaign period, but they also overlooked -- or rather looked away from -- massive vote fraud on election day.
In September of 2000, The Moscow Times published an exhaustive and impressive investigative piece detailing exactly how and where votes were stolen, proving that that Putin only won the election in the first round thanks to massive vote fraud, including massive ballot stuffing and the creation of an extra 1.3 million voters in the space of a few months.
On the day of those elections, Yabloko and the Communists both complained of election rigging. Their cry fell on deaf ears. The day after the elections, Eduard Bruner, who headed the OSCE's observer mission in Russia, declared that the elections had been "well and correctly organized." Bjorn von der Esch, who headed the Council of Europe's observer mission, told Russian news agencies the night of the elections that they were "absolutely legitimate" and that they had been conducted according to international standards "openly and peacefully."
The OSCE's subsequent Final Report was even more effusive. "The 2000 presidential election represented a benchmark in the ongoing evolution of the Russian Federation's emergence as a representative democracy...[T]he presidential election was conducted under a constitutional and legislative framework that is consistent with internationally recognized democratic standards, including those formulated in the OSCE Copenhagen Document of 1990. [...] The Central Election Commission performed effectively as an independent and professional body that endeavored to fully implement the electoral legislation on an equal basis. The competence and expertise of election administrators to carry out well-organized and accountable elections is fully institutionalized."
As for the media bias in the campaign, the OSCE was well aware of the problem but chose not to pay attention. An EU-funded watchdog group, the European Institute for the Media, or EIM, complained just after the 2000 elections about the media bias. Its general-director at the time, Jo Groebel, told the Moscow Times, "Election media coverage seriously contradicted ethical principles, and this reversal to past practices, and some signs that Vladimir Putin's administration intends to approach media-related questions in a more assertive way, could indicate that freedom of expression and the autonomy of the media in Russia may encounter new tests."
At a press conference on the same day as Groebel's assessment, Bruner offered this softball spin: "Important segments of the media - both state-controlled and private - failed to provide objective information about the elections and the candidates." Which still wasn't as detestable as the OSCE's Final Report. While acknowledging that "print and electronic media experienced renewed pressure from State and regional authorities," in the end, the OSCE reminded us, "The advantages of incumbency are universally recognized in virtually all electoral contexts."
In 2003, the OSCE came to Russia and found religion. Its initial election report said that the advantages of incumbency, which in 2000 actually made Russia more like everyone else, had, in last Sunday's case, been "overwhelmingly distorted." Bruce George, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, attacked the "extensive use of the state apparatus and the media... to the benefit of United Russia" which he said "created an unfair environment for the other parties and candidates.
"Our main impression of the overall electoral process was ... one of regression in the democratization of this country," he said.
The problem with this sudden change in opinion is that the supposedly "bad" 2003 elections were not significantly less democratic than the "good" 2000 presidential elections, or indeed the 1996 presidential elections, which the OSCE enthusiastically approved.