"I would maybe say that the 2003 elections were even a little better," said analyst Boris Kagarlitsky. "But there is one interesting point. This time, most of the votes that were stolen were stolen from the liberal parties [as opposed to being stolen from the Communists]."
Stephen Cohen, Russian studies professor at New York University and author of Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia, essentially agreed: "The 2003 elections were perhaps more uneven than those in 2000, but all the talk that democracy is being undone by Putin is a misunderstanding. It was Yeltsin who began to dismantle democracy, first with the shooting of the 1993 parliament, then with gradually taking oligarchical control of the press, and then manipulating elections. It's been a steady line from 93 to '96 to 2000 to 2003. It's not qualitatively different, it's quantitatively different."
I called the OSCE to try to get someone to explain what was so different about the elections in 2003 from those in 2000 and 1996.
A press spokesman for the OSCE, Ivan Godarsky, couldn't answer the question, so he passed me to Rusto Kuzel, media analyst for the OSCE.
"In the media environment, there seems to be a regression," he told me. "It was clear that the state television was biased in favor of United Russia and against the Communists. There was also pressure in the regions. We also took into consideration developments which happened starting in 2001 -- talking about the seizure of NTV."
I retorted, "But in 1996 the Russian media was all stridently anti-Communist and pro-Yeltsin. Even NTV, because Gusinsky knew he'd become an oligarch if Yeltsin won. Yet at that time the OSCE said the election results were a step forward for democracy, and this time they said the final tally was 'fundamentally distorted' by the bias. The criticism now is much, much more hostile."
"You're talking about two different things," Kuzel said.
"So what was different?" I asked.
"We're talking about different aspects and different commitments. And I think that it's clear that in 1996 the commitment to access to the media was breached and I think that was reflected in a statement here. You keep talking about the process on the election day which the findings of those previous missions -- I'm not in a position to comment on those previous missions because I did not participate in them -- so I cannot make an overall judgment. As a matter of fact I'm against comparisons and I think that each election is unique. This is our mandate -- we are observing just this election. If you want to have a comparison, you will want to speak to Ambassador [Robert] Barry."
Kuzel was clearly caught off guard by my line of questioning. He promised to get Barry to call me. He never did, leaving his secretary to fend me off. The judges did not expect to be questioned themselves.
"I have passed your telephone numbers and messages onto Ambassador Barry," the secretary told me. "There is nothing else I can do. He said he will make the decision himself whether to speak with you, so that is his decision."
One interesting detail about Ambassador Barry: he was named the OSCE's Head of Mission in Bosnia-Herzigovina in the late 1990s, and oversaw the national elections in November of 2000. The OSCE openly backed pro-Western parties, but the results were shocking: extreme nationalists gained among all ethnic groups in a backlash against OSCE manhandling. Barry took much of the blame; the OSCE never ran a Bosnian election again. Eventually many of the democratically-elected extremists were forced out or to heel.
The eXiles September, 2000 expose on the OSCE whitewash in Russia. The eXile shamed the OSCE.