Observe the Observers

Valery Perry, DPC Senior Associate

I’ve increasingly been using this space to work through what I’m thinking as I watch history in motion on both sides of the Atlantic. While the parallels have been emerging since 2015, as with so many things the COVID-19 crisis makes some things much more acute, either by opening up opportunities for new problems, or shining light on problems that have been lurking, hidden from view to anyone not actively looking.

Reading an article about a Republican effort to deploy 50,000 poll watchers for the November US elections – allegedly to reduce fraud, but largely interpreted as being aimed at voter suppression in key states – was troubling, but not surprising. It also brought back memories of my first experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In mid-summer 1997, I got a call from an old friend from my university days who was working for the Peace Corps. On short notice, he had been asked to find around 300 Americans who were interested to go to Bosnia and Herzegovina to serve as supervisors in the country’s first post-war local elections. I was one year into a doctoral program in conflict analysis and resolution, and jumped at the chance.

It was a long time ago, but certain things stand out in my mind. Refueling a charter flight in Shannon, Ireland. Landing in Zagreb and taking a bus to Tuzla via Brcko, as there was a policy of ensuring that the American observers stayed in the zone where American troops were stationed as a part of the NATO Stabilization Force. Serb soldiers in purple camouflage taking a long time to check all of our documents before we continued our journey, then passing through the wild west of the Arizona Market.

There were a lot of older retired Americans who routinely went out to supervise elections around the world – “election tourists,” some called them. And a lot of people in their 20s looking to get involved in international relations careers, in that short-lived, post-Cold war euphoric period between the end of the war in Bosnia, and before 9/11, the war in Iraq and the financial crisis began to erode the clarity of the elusive yet seemingly achievable democratic peace.

I remember sitting in a large hall in a school in Tuzla getting briefed. In the presentation of the Dayton political structure, after listening to an earnest young man (I think he was Irish) talk about the Federation and the Republika Srpska, I remember one American observer standing up and asking, “The Federation? Republika Srpska? Just what country are we in right now?” It was only with time that I would come to appreciate the irony of this question.

We were there to ensure that every single one of the country’s 2000+ polling stations would have a foreign, independent observer present to give credibility to the voting process, the count and the ballot delivery; back then the ballot boxes were escorted by NATO peacekeeping troops to ensure confidence in the results. These measures were seen as necessary as the war had only been over for a little over a year and a half; no one wanted to take the possibility of a trusted, participatory and free and fair vote for granted. The 1996 general elections a year earlier had been widely criticized, marked by intentional and unintentional voter disenfranchisement, misinformation and logistical problems. The voter turnout was estimated to be over 100%.

The army of observers in September 1997 was part of an effort to improve the situation. And some aspects had improved, though the political aim of pressuring, deterring or otherwise inhibiting voter choice was still clear. This was not entirely surprising after a war that displaced half the population, ravaged the country’s infrastructure and was from start to finish predicated on unravelling social bonds and trust. It was also an early example of war by other means, and of using ballots rather than bullets to achieve narrow political aims.

Except for my translator, a good-looking, very tall young man who simply disappeared at some point, people were friendly and open and positive as we patched together English and some dusty Russian from my college days. The experience and the people I met led me to settle on a dissertation topic on the peace process, which in turn brought me back. And kept me here for two decades.

And now I’m more worried about my parents in New York during the pandemic than they are of me in Sarajevo.  As I follow news in the U.S., I’m seeing independent inspectors general being dismissed; states being pitted against one another in a twisted demonstration of feudal federalism; armed individuals and “militias” claiming the public space resisting any semblance of shared public solidarity.

And now efforts that are viewed as intended to reduce the vote among the marginalized and the poor; the exact opposite of participatory democracy. Republicans will claim a commitment to fight voter fraud, in spite of the fact that voter fraud is less likely than being struck by lightening. Democrats in turn are expected to organize their own poll watchers. Regardless of what happens on November 3, the erosion of trust has already begun. America’s increasingly tribal, us. vs. them politics will stake out and divide yet another part of the public sphere, further destroying the civic.

As I continue to wish that the US would look to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s to recognize the consequences of undermined institutions, weaponized nationalism and party divisions based on identity rather than policy, I find myself wanting to see a corps of international election observers deployed to the US, to do what I did in Tuzla in 1997. They could never have the coverage possible in a small territory like Bosnia, but could focus on population areas in swing states.  Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio would likely be as exotic to some as Tuzla, Banovici or Kladanj were to us.

It would be an investment in the shared human interest in the ability to participate in the basic decision of who governs one’s community and country. A reminder that no country or society is immune to challenges to accountable democracy. And a signal that in the 21st century the struggle to protect these values is a global two-way street. Balkan election tourists: welcome to Wisconsin.