The Magazine

Who Will Observe the Observers?

From the November 15, 2004 issue: Monitoring the U.S. elections with Bjørn, Galymzhan, the Kazakhs, and the Romanians.

Nov 15, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 09 • By MATT LABASH
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Raleigh, NC

DESPITE HOW EFFORTLESS Jimmy Carter makes it look, there's nothing easy about monitoring elections. Take the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a body comprising 55 member nations (including the United States), whose monitors have suffered all manner of indignities. In Croatia, their chopper was shot down, and in Macedonia, their car set alight. In Kosovo, OSCE staff were attacked, while in Moldova, they were hit with kefir, a yogurt-like dairy product.

But sometimes, words can hurt more than flying yogurt. So the unfriendly reaction must've stung the OSCE, when they announced earlier this year that at the invitation of the State Department, 60 of their non-American members would fan out across the United States to monitor our presidential election in light of last cycle's Florida fiasco. The announcement was greeted with scorn, to put it mildly. Many Americans regarded this as a transparent effort by the OSCE to jab us in the eye, treating America like some third-rate banana republic. After all, it is we who usually bring democratic enlightenment to the likes of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and other far-flung corners of the globe, and not the other way around.

But fair is fair. One of our own congressmen, Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings, is president of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, and that must speak to the unimpeachable integrity of the organization, if you'll pardon the expression (since the former federal judge is one of the few to have been impeached by Congress for perjury and accepting bribes). A little turnabout would seem to be called for. So in that spirit, I headed off to Capitol Hill shortly before Election Day for the OSCE monitors' orientation. There I made contact with the four-man parliamentary delegation from Kazakhstan, which was headed to North Carolina to monitor our election.

We all have our favorite Stan, and Kazakhstan is mine. I don't know much about the place, but have taken a shine to it from watching Borat, the clueless Kazakh reporter on HBO's comedy showcase, Da Ali G Show. Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat, in trying to ingratiate himself to Americans, blithely references his own country's horrors, making (false) claims such as that Kazakhstan's national sport is shooting a dog, then having a party. The Kazakh embassy's press secretary has protested, giving publications like the New Yorker point-by-point rebuttals. He has argued, for instance, that while Borat asserts Kazakhstan's favorite hobbies are disco dancing, archery, rape, and table tennis, archery is "not prominent."

I couldn't wait, then, to make the acquaintance of a bunch of disco-dancing table-tennis players, but I was disappointed when I arrived at the orientation. The program consisted of two days' worth of grueling educational seminars by the likes of Common Cause and the Federal Election Commission. An OSCE official told me, "The Kazakhs were here for about 10 minutes, then they took off. Most of them don't speak English." In fairness to the Kazakhs, I do speak English, and I couldn't take any more than 15 minutes.

Later, I made contact with the Kazakh delegation's sponsor, Galymzhan Nurmagambetov, the embassy's second secretary and a man whose name is so unwieldy, I settled on calling him "GN." In limited English, GN told me that if I were to shadow them on their monitoring duties in North Carolina, I'd need to get approval from their delegation's leader, a Norwegian member of parliament named Bjørn Hernaes. By the time I reached Bjørn, he had already arrived in Raleigh and was stuck there without a car and driver, which, along with a translator, is usually provided according to OSCE custom. "Raleigh on a Sunday without a car is like a stone desert," he later told me. Tempted to ditch the whole mission in order to visit relatives in Florida, Bjørn seemed grateful for the prospect of my company. When I asked him the names of his Kazakh delegation-mates, he said how should he know? "Their names are so impossible, I gave the list to our Romanians."