Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Not your typical vacation

Next week I'll be leaving for my third mission as a volunteer election observer with the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. With some new friends and colleagues reading this blog for the first time, I've decided to remind everyone about exactly what it is that this involves.

The OSCE is a collection of countries that includes the U.S., Canada, the European Union, and the members of the former Soviet Union. They engage in a variety of activities aimed at improving the security of all members by focusing on conflict avoidance and resolution through a variety of cooperative means, including what they call "democratization."

Part of this involves member nations inviting other members to send election observers to witness their democratic process at work and to provide feedback on the results - which is what I've done on prior missions to Albania in 2005 and Armenia in 2007.

On May 21, the Republic of Georgia - a former member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) - will be holding elections for their Parliament, and have asked the OSCE to send observers.

I'll be one of 31 Americans joining hundreds of volunteers from other OSCE nations in the process of observing the elections and providing feedback to help the Republic of Georgia in their transition from a one-party form of government to a multi-party democracy.

The process is quite complicated, but fascinating and fun - especially for a political junkie like me. It's not a typical vacation, but I'm not a lay-on-the-beach kind of guy, either...

I get all kinds of question about exactly what this involves, and I've decided to provide you all with some of the FAQs:

Is this safe?
Pretty much...

The OSCE doesn't send election observation missions to nations where there isn't an established government, or where there's open armed conflict.

That being said, many of the former Soviet Republics are experiencing political tensions as the ally themselves either with the Russian Federation or the West, and some of them have separatist regions that don't get along with the central government.

In Georgia, the atmosphere leading up to the parliamentary elections in May is expected to be tense. Casual travelers are also advised to avoid the border regions of Chechnya, Dagestan, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Kabarda-Balkar and Karachay-Cherkessia due to land mines, civil unrest and a high incidence of kidnapping.

How much do you get paid?
Nothing - I'm a volunteer.

How much does this cost you?
Nothing - the U.S. State Department, through a private contractor, provides my airline tickets and covers my expenses.

How do you know where to go and what to do?
The OSCE makes all of the logistical arrangements - local transportation, accommodations, etc.

What do you know about Georgian election law that qualifies you to do this?
Nothing - the first thing we'll do after arriving in Tbilisi and getting settled in is to receive a crash-course in everything we need to know about their election process. It covers all of the logistical and security arrangements for the mission, the political situation, election law, and the process for us to make our observations and report them for analysis.

When did you learn to speak Georgian?
I haven't. The observers can all get along because the working language of the OSCE is English, I'll be assigned a local driver and translator once I deploy to the area where I'll be working.

Do you get to sight-see while you're there?
Sort of. After the briefings in the capital, teams are deployed all over the country to observe the elections at the local level. Once deployed, we familiarize ourselves with the area by having our driver and translator take us out to visit the polling places ahead of time, as well as to meet local elections officials and candidates. Naturally, we end up seeing some of the local sights along the way - and we always have some off-time in the schedule to explore as well.

Who will you work with?
Each person is paired off with someone from another country as a partner. Each two-person team gets a local driver and translator - the driver is usually just some guy who happens to have a car, and the translator is usually a student from a local university.

What exactly do you do?
On election day, we go to as many local polling places as we can to see if there are any complications. We have forms to track the various events we witness, like what times a polling place opened, whether or not certain procedures are being followed, and if anyone was interfering with the process. We fax reports in to a central OSCE office at various times throughout the day, and when the polling places close we go to the nearest place where the ballots are counted and observe the process there - in my previous missions to Albania and Armenia, they used manual ballot processing that goes on non-stop for days! We usually work the first 24 hours non-stop, and then work in 12-hour shifts until the results are in.

The tentative schedule that I'll be following in Georgia is available online here.

What do you do if you see something suspicious?
We're observers - not referees. We're not allowed to interfere in the election process, so we limit our involvement to asking questions through our translators, noting our observations and reporting them.

What happens when you're done?
A long bus ride back to the capital, a group debriefing, and a reception and all-night party followed by a 4 a.m. flight out of the country.

What becomes of all the work you did?
The OSCE analyzes all the data gathered by observes at dozens or hundreds of sites all over the country on election day to see if there are any specific trends to show how well their election process works. They will issue a statement of preliminary findings and conclusions the day after the election, and a formal report about eight weeks later.

What if I want to know more?
Just post a question to the comment section, and I'll answer it!

Much more to follow...


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