Due to the fact that the Cambodian authorities banned the main opposition party in 2017, Western states declined to send any observers to monitor the parliamentary elections in Cambodia held on 29 July 2018. On the contrary, for the first time since 2002, Western institutions sent several missions to monitor the elections in Zimbabwe that were held on 30 July 2018 following the coup d’état in 2017.
As the Cambodian authorities needed friendly Western voices that would approve of the parliamentary elections, Cambodia’s National Election Committee accredited several minor Western missions, including a “senior delegation of the international observers” consisting of around 30 monitors and represented predominantly by European and American politicians, that were coordinated and seemingly guided by the Cambodian, pro-government Civil Society Alliance Forum.
While there was no lack of Western monitoring of the elections in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission accredited a mission of the little known and shady organisation called Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC) that sent around 40 observers – some of them were from European countries – to monitor the Zimbabwean elections.
The “senior delegation of the international observers” (in the Cambodian case) and the AFRIC’s observation mission (in the Zimbabwean case) offered positive – and sometimes clearly politically charged – assessments of the elections in both countries, and their statements were widely disseminated by the state-controlled media to give an impression of overwhelming Western satisfaction with the conduct of the elections.
Neither the “senior delegation of the international observers”, nor the AFRIC’s mission was transparent about the principles or methodologies they employed for observing the election processes in Cambodia or Zimbabwe. They did not comply with the “Code of Conduct for International Election Observers” endorsed by all relevant international election observation organisations including ODIHR/OSCE which states that “international election observation missions must be of sufficient size to “determine independently and impartially the character of election processes in a country and must be of sufficient duration to determine the character of all of the critical elements of the election process in the pre-election, election-day and post-election period.”
Many of the members of the “senior delegation of the international observers” in Cambodia and the AFRIC’s observation mission in Zimbabwe have a history of involvement in various pro-Kremlin efforts that include, but are not limited to: (1) previous participation in politically biased and/or illegitimate electoral monitoring missions; (2) legitimisation and justification of the actions of the Russian Federation directed at undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity (illegal visits to Russia-annexed Crimea and occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine); (3) criticism of the EU European sanctions imposed on Russia; (4) cooperation with the Russian state-controlled instruments of disinformation and propaganda (RT, Sputnik, etc.); and (5) disseminating pro-Kremlin narratives on social media (Facebook).
The mission of the “senior delegation of the international observers” in Cambodia was directly coordinated by several Russian actors, in particular, by Aleksey Chepa, deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, and Oleg Bondarenko, Director of the Foundation for Progressive Policy that is engaged in advancing the Kremlin’s foreign policy interests in Europe.
While there has been no evidence so far that Russian officials or experts were directly involved in coordinating the AFRIC’s mission in Zimbabwe, it is important to note that the head of the mission, Jose Matemulane, studied in several Russian universities from 2002 until 2012, disseminates pro-Kremlin propaganda on the social networks and maintains contacts with various Russian actors.
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