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(Leonid Bershidsky - Bloomberg View) The US-Russian joint statement on Syria, released last Saturday, contains an intriguing tidbit: The parties agreed that Syria should hold "free and fair elections under UN supervision, held to the highest international standards of transparency, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate." Elections in Syria may still seem like wishful thinking, but the fact that global adversaries are endorsing UN supervision is a hopeful sign, and not just for Syria.
"UN supervision" isn't a phrase that can be used frivolously in this context. Since 1989, when the UN helped Namibia hold its first post-colonial election, it provided election assistance to more than 100 countries. Most of the UN projects were confined to technical assistance. For example, in Iraq in 2005, the UN supplied advisers to the local election commission and coordinated international assistance in holding it -- but the UN didn't play a supervisory or organizational role. Some missions, as in Nicaragua in 1990, Angola in 1992 and South Africa in 1994, were charged with election verification. On two occasions, in Cambodia in 1992-1993 and in East Timor in 1999-2002, the UN actually organized and conducted elections. But it hasn't supervised an election since the Namibian one.
At the time of the 1989 election, South Africa controlled Namibia and was engaged in an armed conflict with national liberation organizations. It was the South African authorities that organized the election, but the UN administration watched them every step of the way, helped draft the rules and had veto power over the organizers. Turnout reached 96 percent, and Swapo, the biggest of the national liberation organizations, won with 57 percent of the vote, setting up Namibian independence but giving the South African-backed party enough seats to make sure it took part in drafting the country's constitution.
It was a major success for the UN. So were the elections it fully organized in Cambodia (after the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge, which called on supporters to boycott the election and tried to prevent voting in some parts of the country) and in East Timor soon after it declared independence from Indonesia. UN election support missions with narrower mandates and smaller budgets have, on occasion, failed -- for example, in Angola in 1992, where a civil war resumed soon after the election, or in Haiti in 1990-1991, where a coup occurred eight months after the presidential election.
The Syrian case is special. No one except the UN can organize a meaningful election because so much of Syria's prewar population of 22 million has been scattered throughout the world by the conflict. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees counts 5.3 million people who have fled to neighboring countries, some 3 million of them to Turkey, others spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Most of these people live in camps that are well-known to the UN. In addition, almost a million Syrian refugees are registered in Europe, about two-thirds of them in Germany and Sweden. If the refugees are ever to return, they have to be able to vote on their country's future. The government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is incapable of organizing foreign voting and would certainly oppose a voting right for refugees, since many of these people fled the Assad regime.
It's usually helpful if all the sides in a civil conflict accept election results before the vote is held. That was the case in Namibia. Syria, with its many diverse combatants, may never get there -- but hands-on UN supervision should persuade most of the combatants to accept a vote and find ways to induce cooperation; those who don't would be labelled international pariahs.
It's important that the international organization be more involved than they were in Iraq or Afghanistan, where democracy has remained shaky and less than inclusive in part because the UN only played an advisory role. In the Afghan presidential election of 2004, US-backed incumbent Hamid Karzai won amid substantial fraud, and the results of the parliamentary elections the following year were even announced later than planned because of fraud issues. With less than a full UN imprimatur, such votes don't have much legitimacy. The Assad regime, however, would risk losing the last shreds of its international support if it refused to go along with a UN-supervised vote, backed even by his ally Putin.
This isn't the first time there's been talk of Syrian elections under UN supervision; they were mentioned in the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, to which the joint statement refers. But that resolution, passed in December 2015, merely expressed "support" for UN-supervised elections to be held within 18 months under a new constitution. That deadline has come and gone, and of course no new constitution has been adopted. It's heartening, though, that Trump and Putin are still in favor of giving the UN a meaningful role in the future election, whenever it takes place.
It would certainly be a timely intervention for the UN, whose influence has been on the wane lately as the Trump administration has voiced skepticism about its usefulness. Arranging a Syria settlement could reverse the UN's decline. It should seek the broadest possible mandate and ample funding.
It could also help build a case for a strong peacekeeping mission to eastern Ukraine. Russia, Ukraine and its Western allies have all agreed that such a mission could be helpful, but disagree about how it could work. Ukraine and the US have pushed for a UN peacekeeping force on the Russian-Ukrainian border, while Russia only wants the peacekeepers to guard international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. A proposal for UN election supervision, or even direct election organization as in Cambodia, could break the stalemate: It could soften Ukrainian resistance to holding any kind of vote in areas held by pro-Russian forces and it could change Russia's thinking on what peacekeepers could do. For example, it would probably have fewer objections to the Blue Helmets' standing guard at polling stations than to a border-patrolling force.
No one is proposing such a solution at the moment. But a UN success in Syria would logically lead the parties in that direction. One can only hope both Trump and Putin, who don't put much stock in sticking to publicly expressed positions, really meant it when they made election supervision part of the Syria statement.