Full Interview with Melinda Haring

Melinda Haring is an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project

Leading up to her participation in this week’s conference, Melinda Haring talked elections, corruption and Eastern European political dynamics with the Oberserver’s editorial staff. The views expressed are those of Melinda Haring and may or may not represent those of her current or former employers. 

TKO: Tell us about your work with the National Democratic Institute, the Eurasia Foundation, and the American Security Project.

MH: As a Program Officer at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Washington, I supported programs in Baku, Azerbaijan and Tbilisi, Georgia. In Azerbaijan, we were implementing a civil society program that focused primarily on youth and women. We also assisted the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, which is an indigenous election monitoring organization that does tremendously good and brave work. In Georgia, I supported a parliamentary strengthening program that provided research assistants and training to the Parliament of Georgia. Georgia’s major television stations often give the ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM), a free pass and present its perspective without any critical judgment. This is an extremely important issue, as 89 percent of Georgians receive their political news from TV. To bring more balance to national television, NDI developed a media program to highlight policy differences between UNM deputies and MPs from opposition parties. The work is tremendously exciting in Georgia, where there is political space and the government in general desires to improve and cooperate with Western NGOs. On a day-to-day basis, I would talk to the field office, write reports to our donors, represent the organization in Washington at Caucasus-related events, monitor expenses and stay current on the politics of the region.

For students considering this field, I would strongly encourage them to think about whether they are a better fit in a field office, where the programs are actually implemented, or in DC, where the programs are managed. I wish that I had thought more about this distinction when I was a college student. I’d much rather be in the field implementing programs than writing tired grant reports to donors that may or may not read them. If a student wants to work in the field and implement programs, I would urge them to get some political experience, develop a regional AND a technical specialty. For example, to become an elections expert, you should volunteer on a campaign, learn Arabic, study the North Africa region in graduate school, take statistics courses, and learn as much as possible about elections. If you were to do this, you would likely be snapped up by one of the political party institutes, the National Democratic Institute or International Republican Institute. Other technical specialties include monitoring and evaluation, women’s programming, civic participation, and media.

TKO: As an election observer, what are you allowed to do if you witness fraud?

MH: As a short-term election observer, you and your partner write a report on each polling station that you visit. A short-term international election observer visits about a dozen polling stations on Election Day. If the fraud is serious — you see someone presenting multiple identification cards to receive multiple ballots, there is evidence of ballot box stuffing, there are many identical signatures on the voters’ list — you write a special form and call your long-term election observer and this feedback goes into a final report that is given to the host government and the press. Observers may ask election officials questions but they cannot interfere in the process. When I’ve seen many ballots folded together and rammed into a ballot box, I have asked local officials for an explanation. Many times the mere presence of an international election observer prevents fraud. At a polling station in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2010, I saw one woman try to present three IDs to receive three ballots. The election officials refused and told her to come back after the observers had left.

More generally, election observation missions compile reports from their short and long-term election observers. Long-term observers spend more than a week in-country and speak with nongovernmental organizations, government officials, election officials, voters and political parties to gain a fuller picture of the electoral environment.

An election isn’t a one-off event. Of course the results of an election are what make the headlines, but in terms of assessing whether an election meets international standards, examining the candidate registration process, the political party registration process, the election law and legal framework and whether opposition political parties had access to the media are just as (if not more) important than observing an actual election. An election can be technically sound but still unfree and unfair because candidates have been unlawfully disqualified before the election, for example.

TKO: How important is it for our democracy promotion efforts to combat what we would identify as “political corruption”? Would such efforts disrupt our relationships with such governments?

MH: I’m not convinced that democracy promotion programs seeking to curb corruption are effective. Curbing corruption requires political will at the highest levels. Within the Eurasia region, Georgia most successfully curbed everyday corruption. Traffic police notoriously enriched their paltry salaries by extracting bribes from drivers. Journalist C.J. Chivers has written that traffic police are “nearly universally regarded as an especially low form of social parasite, an opinion that holds true from Moscow to Samarkand [Uzbekistan].” In 2004, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sacked 13,000 traffic police officers and replaced them with a new, lean police force of 1,300. He made it clear that he wouldn’t tolerate corruption, and increased new police officers’ salaries, put them in Western uniforms and bought a fleet of Volkswagens to replace the old Ladas. Year after year, Georgia receives rave reviews on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index and Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

I don’t want to go too far in praising Saakashvili’s government because there are credible cases of businesses being raided for political reasons and some of the more plugged-in analysts I know will grant that while the government has curbed everyday corruption, it hasn’t tackled high-end corruption. That may be true, but Georgia today continues to attract foreign direct investment and is an attractive place to do business. In short, I would not spend our few assistance dollars on programs to curb corruption in the former Soviet Union. “Re-educating” judges, attorneys and bureaucrats is just plain silly. Judges, attorneys and bureaucrats operate within systems with strong incentives; until the incentive structure is changed — in Georgia, you will lose your job if you take bribes — battling corruption is a waste of time.

TKO: What do you think the recent Russian elections say about the prospects of democracy there? 

MH: The recent parliamentary and presidential elections themselves do not say much about the prospects of democracy in Russia, but the people’s response to the obviously falsified elections does. The unexpected street protests – the December 24, 2011 protest may have been the largest in post-Soviet Russia since 1991 – tell us that middle-class educated Russians are no longer willing to trade economic and social freedom for political freedom. They’re sick and tired of pervasive corruption. They want to live in a country where officials can’t slap a blue light on the top of their car and drag race on the Ring Road in Moscow. They want to live in a normal, European country with real politics. They don’t want to be disrespected either.

In November 2011 when Vladimir Putin announced that he and Dmitry Medvedev would be switching roles and that this plan had been in the works for a long time it infuriated many Russians. Russians in their late 20’s and 30’s realized that if Putin came back to the power for another 12 years, they would have only known the Putin regime for all of their youth. For many, this was unacceptable. I’m encouraged by the protests, although it may take a while for Putin, Inc. to crumble and it may not be a gentle transition.

TKO: What lessons from Eastern Europe’s post-Soviet transition to democracy would you highlight as most usefully applicable to the Arab Spring? 

MH: A transition doesn’t necessarily lead to a more democratic society. Most of the countries of the former Soviet Union went through a transition, but it certainly wasn’t to democracy. The experience of the former Soviet states has chastened my optimism for democratic transitions in North Africa, especially in Egypt. It’s far more difficult than expected

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