Special to the Progress
Stu Soffer of White Hall was one of 31 Americans deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to observe the Oct. 1 parliamentary elections in Republic of Georgia. On Election Day, 290 OSCE long-term and short term observers from participating states deployed throughout the country to observe voting and ballot tabulation.
Soffer, who is a state and Jefferson County election commissioner, was teamed with an Italian PhD candidate studying International Humanitarian Law at the University of Geneva. They were dispatched to Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin, along with observers from the U.S., Spain, Poland, Belarus, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Belgium and Netherlands. The group got along exceedingly well and English was the common language.
Election observation was conducted in the Kareli District which was peaceful on Election Day. Soffer’s biggest concern was the high potential for a traffic accident on the main road between Gori and their observation area. It was the first time he ever encountered 3 ½ lanes of high speed two-way traffic on a two lane road. Another concern was ensuring not to cross into the adjacent Russian occupied zone on one of the unmarked back roads they had to travel to reach polling locations. There were no directional signs once drivers left the main road, but they encountered an occasional police check point and livestock on the narrow, winding mountain roads.
OSCE’s preliminary findings were the parliamentary elections marked an important step in consolidating the conduct of democratic elections in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments, although certain key issues remain to be addressed. The elections were competitive with active citizen participation throughout the campaign, including in peaceful mass rallies. The environment, however, was polarized and tense, characterized by the use of harsh rhetoric and some instances of violence. The campaign often centered on the advantages of incumbency, on the one hand, and private financial assets, on the other, rather than on concrete political platforms and programs. Freedoms of association, assembly and expression were respected overall, although instances of harassment and intimidation of party activists and supporters marred the campaign environment and often ended with detentions or fines of mostly opposition-affiliated campaigners, contributing to an atmosphere of distrust among contestants.
This was Soffer’s seventh OSCE election observer mission representing the United States in a former Soviet Republic in Eastern Europe or Central Asia.