Name

Christopher Smith

  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • Politically Motivated Arrests in Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today to decry the growing litany of repressive measures undertaken by the Government of Belarus against the opposition, especially against members of the opposition's Central Electoral Commission (CEC). Earlier this year, the legitimate Belarusian parliament, the 13th Supreme Soviet, disbanded by president Alexander Lukashenka after the illegal constitutional referendum which extended his term of office by two years to 2001, set a date for the next presidential elections for May 16 and set up a Central Election Commission to conduct these elections.   According to the 1994 constitution, which most of the international community recognizes as legitimate, Lukashenka's term expires in July. Lukashenka has rejected calls for a presidential election and is clearly attempting to neutralize democratic opposition to his authoritarian rule. The most egregious crackdown in recent weeks was the sentencing of CEC chairman Viktor Hanchar, to 10 days “administrative detention.” Hanchar suffered some injuries when he was detained and treated roughly by police. He was not given access to his lawyer, Hari Pahanyayla, and his wife was not permitted to see him. A few days earlier, on February 25, fifteen members of the CEC were arrested by police in a café where they were meeting and discussing reports from local election commissions. Special police did not have a warrant and prevented the videotaping of the arrest by Russian television. Five-day detentions or heavy fines were meted out to several CEC members, including Boris Gyunter, Anatoly Gurinovich, Sergei Obodovsky, Iosif Naumchik, Algimantas Dzyarginchus, Alexander Koktysh, Nikolay Pohabov, Valery Sidorenko and Leonid Zakurdayev. Additionally, warnings have been issued to several members of regional opposition elections committees, such as Iosif Naumchik in Vitebsk and Sergei Abadowski in Mogilev. According to Radio Liberty, in Zhodzina, Miensk region, local authorities have begun intimidating people who joined or elected opposition regional election commissions. In Gomel, several opposition activists have been summoned and questioned about their role in the organization of the May presidential elections scheduled by the opposition. Police had seized leaflets about these elections at the office of the Gomel branch of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.   The repression of the opposition's elections committees is part of a longstanding pattern of Lukashenka's assault on democratic institutions and his campaign to stifle dissent in Belarus. On February 14, 20 students were arrested by police in Miensk for violating street demonstration laws. Among them, Yevgeny Skochko was sentenced to 10 days in jail, Victor Antonov to 5 days in jail, and Kazimir Kuchun and Ilya Banel were fined. Other opposition activists in Gomel and Borisov have been tried for unsanctioned demonstrations over the last few months. Two young workers in Gomel, for instance, were sentenced to 3 days administrative detention for holding an unsanctioned march. According to Reuters, the men were returning from a disco late in the evening and waving banners, which they were bringing home to wash. Earlier in the month, on February 5, members of the human rights movement Charter '97 were attacked and beaten in Miensk by members of the fascist Russian National Unity party. Andrei Sannikov, the Charter's international coordinator and former deputy foreign minister of Belarus was beaten unconscious. According to the International League for Human Rights a few days later, President Lukashenka trivialized the incident on Belarusian television, saying: “They say that some fascists have appeared in Miensk and have beaten somebody up. Do you know who they have beaten? Other fascists.” On February 27, several thousand marchers participated in a peaceful anti-fascist demonstration in Miensk. Organizers of the demonstration, Ales Bilyatsky who was sentenced to 10 days administrative detention and Oleg Volchek who was given a stiff fine, were cited for committing administrative offenses.   In late January, Lukashenka signed a decree ordering political parties, public organizations and trade unions to re-register during the period February 1 and July 1. The re-registration process includes a variety of onerous stipulations which would have the effect of weakening the NGOs and political parties. On February 17, the Lukashenka-controlled State Press Committee threatened six independent newspapers with closure if they continued to publish information about the opposition's presidential election plans in May, charging them with “calling for the seizure of power in Belarus.” On March 2, police searched the offices of one of the six independent newspapers, “Pahonya” in Hrodno, confiscating political cartoons and letters from readers.   Clearly, political tensions are increasing in Belarus, and the divide between the authoritarian president and the democratic opposition is widening. Mr. Lukashenka and his minions should cease and desist their campaign to harass journalists, to drain and demoralize individuals and organizations in the opposition through administrative fines and detentions, and to forcefully squelch the right to the freedoms of expression and of assembly. Continued harassment of the opposition will only aggravate the current constitutional crisis in Belarus and most certainly will not serve to promote reconciliation between the government and opposition. Mr. Speaker, it is imperative that the international community continue to speak out on behalf of those whose rights are violated, and that we continue to support the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Belarus.

  • Kazakhstan's Presidential Election

    Mr. Speaker, I rise today to bring to the attention of my colleagues disturbing news about the presidential elections in Kazakhstan last month, and the general prospects for democratization in that country. On January 10, 1999, Kazakhstan held presidential elections, almost two years ahead of schedule. Incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev ran against three contenders, in the country's first nominally contested election. According to official results, Nazarbaev retained his office, garnering 81.7 percent of the vote. Communist Party leader Serokbolsyn Abdildin won 12 percent, Gani Kasymov 4.7 percent and Engels Gabbasov 0.7 percent. The Central Election Commission reported that over 86 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots. Behind these facts, and by the way, none of the officially announced figures should be taken at face value, is a sobering story. Nazarbaev's victory was no surprise: the entire election was carefully orchestrated and the only real issue was whether his official vote tally would be in the 90s, typical for post-Soviet Central Asian dictatorships, or the 80s, which would have signaled a bit of sensitivity to Western and OSCE sensibilities. Any suspense the election might have offered vanished when the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling barring the candidacy of Nazarbaev's sole plausible challenger, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, on whom many opposition activists have focused their hopes. The formal reason for his exclusion was both trivial and symptomatic: in October, Kazhegeldin had spoken at a meeting of an unregistered organization called “For Free Elections.” Addressing an unregistered organization is illegal in Kazakhstan, and a presidential decree of May 1998 stipulated that individuals convicted of any crime or fined for administrative transgressions could not run for office for a year. Of course, the snap election and the presidential decree deprived any real or potential challengers of the opportunity to organize a campaign. More important, most observers saw the decision as an indication of Nazarbaev's concerns about Kazakhstan’s economic decline and fears of running for reelection in 2000, when the situation will presumably be even much worse. Another reason to hold elections now was anxiety about the uncertainties in Russia, where a new president, with whom Nazarbaev does not have long-established relations, will be elected in 2000 and may adopt a more aggressive attitude towards Kazakhstan than Boris Yeltsin has. The exclusion of would-be candidates, along with the snap nature of the election, intimidation of voters, the ongoing attack on independent media and restrictions on freedom of assembly, moved the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to call in December for the election's postponement, as conditions for holding free and fair elections did not exist. Ultimately, ODIHR refused to send a full-fledged observer delegation, as it generally does, to monitor an election. Instead, ODIHR dispatched to Kazakhstan a small mission to follow and report on the process. The mission's assessment concluded that Kazakhstan’s “election process fell far short of the standards to which the Republic of Kazakhstan has committed itself as an OSCE participating State.” That is an unusually strong statement for ODIHR. Until the mid-1990s, even though President Nazarbaev dissolved two parliaments, tailored constitutions to his liking and was single-mindedly accumulating power, Kazakhstan still seemed a relatively reformist country, where various political parties could function and the media enjoyed some freedom. Moreover, considering the even more authoritarian regimes of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and the war and chaos in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan benefited by comparison. In the last few years, however, the nature of Nazarbaev's regime has become ever more apparent. He has over the last decade concentrated all power in his hands, subordinating to himself all other branches and institutions of government. His apparent determination to remain in office indefinitely, which could have been inferred by his actions, became explicit during the campaign, when he told a crowd, “I would like to remain your president for the rest of my life.” Not coincidentally, a constitutional amendment passed in early October conveniently removed the age limit of 65 years. Moreover, since 1996-97, Kazakhstan’s authorities have co-opted, bought or crushed any independent media, effectively restoring censorship in the country. A crackdown on political parties and movements has accompanied the assault on the media, bringing Kazakhstan’s overall level of repression closer to that of Uzbekistan and severely damaging Nazarbaev's reputation. Despite significant U.S. strategic and economic interests in Kazakhstan, especially oil and pipeline issues, the State Department has issued a series of critical statements since the announcement last October of pre-term elections. These statements have not had any apparent effect. In fact, on November 23, Vice President Gore called President Nazarbaev to voice U.S. concerns about the election. Nazarbaev responded the next day, when the Supreme Court, which he controls completely, finally excluded Kazhegeldin. On January 12, the State Department echoed the ODIHR's harsh assessment of the election, adding that it had “cast a shadow on bilateral relations.” What's ahead? Probably more of the same. Parliamentary elections are slated for October 1999, although there are indications that they, too, may be held before schedule or put off another year. A new political party is emerging, which presumably will be President Nazarbaev's vehicle for controlling the legislature and monopolizing the political process. The Ministry of Justice on February 3 effectively turned down the request for registration by the Republican People's Party, headed by Akezhan Kazhegeldin, signaling Nazarbaev's resolve to bar his rival from legal political activity in Kazakhstan. Other opposition parties which have applied for registration have not received any response from the Ministry. Mr. Speaker, the relative liberalism in Kazakhstan had induced Central Asia watchers to hope that Uzbek- and Turkmen-style repression was not inevitable for all countries in the region. Alas, all the trends in Kazakhstan point the other way: Nursultan Nazarbaev is heading in the direction of his dictatorial counterparts in Tashkent and Ashgabat. He is clearly resolved to be president for life, to prevent any institutions or individuals from challenging his grip on power and to make sure that the trappings of democracy he has permitted remain just that. The Helsinki Commission, which I co-chair, plans to hold hearings on the situation in Kazakhstan and Central Asia to discuss what options the United States has to convey the Congress's disappointment and to encourage developments in Kazakhstan and the region towards genuine democratization.

  • 1999: A Critical Year for Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, last month, a Congress of Democratic Forces was held in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The Congress demonstrated the resolve of the growing democratic opposition to authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the determination by the opposition to have free, democratic elections consistent with the legitimate 1994 constitution.   Earlier last month, on January 10, members of the legitimate Belarusian parliament, disbanded by Lukashenka after the illegal 1996 constitutional referendum which extended his term of office by two years to 2001, set a date for the next presidential elections for May 16. According to the 1994 constitution, Lukashenka's term expires in July. Not surprisingly, Lukashenka rejects calls for a presidential election. Local elections are currently being planned for April, although many of the opposition plan not to participate, arguing that elections should be held only under free, fair and transparent conditions, which do not exist at the present time. Indeed, the law on local elections leaves much to be desired and does not provide for a genuinely free and fair electoral process.   The local elections and opposition efforts to hold presidential elections must be viewed against the backdrop of a deteriorating economic situation. One of the resolutions adopted by the Congress of Democratic Forces accuses Lukashenka of driving the country to “social tensions, international isolation and poverty.” As an example of the heightening tensions, just last weekend, Andrei Sannikov, the former deputy minister of Belarus and a leader of the Charter '97 human rights group, was brutally assaulted by members of a Russian-based ultranationalist organization. Additionally, Lukashenka's moves to unite with Russia pose a threat to Belarus' very sovereignty. Thus, Mr. Speaker, this year promises to be a critical year for Belarus.   Recently, a staff delegation of the (Helsinki) Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which I chair, traveled to Belarus, raising human rights concerns with high-ranking officials, and meeting with leading members of the opposition, independent media and nongovernmental organizations. The staff report concludes that the Belarusian Government continues to violate its commitments under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) relating to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and that at the root of these violations lies the excessive power usurped by President Lukashenka since his election in 1994, especially following the illegitimate 1996 referendum. Although one can point to some limited areas of improvement, such as allowing some opposition demonstrations to occur relatively unhindered, overall OSCE compliance has not improved since the deployment of the OSCE's Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) almost one year ago. Freedoms of expression, association and assembly remain curtailed. The government hampers freedom of the media by tightly controlling the use of national TV and radio. Administrative and economic measures are used to cripple the independent media and NGOs. The political opposition has been targeted for repression, including imprisonment, detention, fines and harassment. The independence of the judiciary has been further eroded, and the President alone controls judicial appointments. Legislative power is decidedly concentrated in the executive branch of government.   The Commission staff report makes a number of recommendations, which I would like to share with my colleagues. The United States and OSCE community should continue to call upon the Belarusian Government to live up to its OSCE commitments and, in an effort to reduce the climate of fear which has developed in Belarus, should specifically encourage the Belarusian Government, inter alia, to: (1) Immediately release Alyaksandr Shydlauski (sentenced in 1997 to 18 months imprisonment for allegedly spray painting anti-Lukashenka graffiti) and review the cases of those detained and imprisoned on politically motivated charges, particularly Andrei Klymov and Vladimir Koudinov; (2) cease and desist the harassment of opposition activists, NGOs and the independent media and permit them to function; (3) allow the opposition access to the electronic media and restore the constitutional right of the Belarusian people to free and impartial information; (4) create the conditions for free and fair elections in 1999, including a provision in the election regulations allowing party representation on the central and local election committees; and (5) strengthen the rule of law, beginning with the allowance for an independent judiciary and bar.   With Lukashenka's term in office under the legitimate 1994 Constitution expiring in July 1999, the international community should make clear that the legitimacy of Lukashenka's presidency will be undermined unless free and fair elections are held by July 21. The United States and the international community, specifically the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, should continue to recognize only the legitimate parliament, the 13th Supreme Soviet, abolished by Lukashenka in 1996, and not the post-referendum, Lukashenka-installed, National Assembly. At the time, the United States, and our European allies and partners, denounced the 1996 referendum as illegitimate and extra-constitutional. The West needs to stand firm on this point, as the 13th Supreme Soviet and the 1994 Constitution are the only legal authorities. The democratically oriented opposition and NGOs deserve continued and enhanced moral and material assistance from the West. The United States must make support for those committed to genuine democracy a high priority in our civic development and NGO assistance.   I applaud and want to encourage such entities as USIS, the Eurasia Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, ABA/CEELI and others in their efforts to encourage the development of a democratic political system, free market economy and the rule of law in Belarus. The United States and the international community should strongly encourage President Lukashenka and the 13th Supreme Soviet to begin a dialogue which could lead to a resolution of the current constitutional crisis and the holding of democratic elections. The OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) could be a vehicle for facilitating such dialogue. The Belarusian Government should be encouraged in the strongest possible terms to cooperate with the OSCE AMG. There is a growing perception both within and outside Belarus that the Belarusian Government is disingenuous in its interaction with the AMG. The AMG has been working to promote these important objectives: an active dialogue between the government, the opposition and NGOs; free and fair elections, including a new election law that would provide for political party representation on electoral committees and domestic observers; unhindered opposition access to the state electronic media; a better functioning, independent court system and sound training of judges; and the examination and resolution of cases of politically motivated repression.   Mr. Speaker, there is a growing divide between the government and opposition in Belarus, thanks to President Lukashenka's authoritarian practices, a divide that could produce unanticipated consequences. An already tense political situation is becoming increasingly more so. Furthermore, Lukashenka's efforts at political and economic integration with Russia could have serious potential consequences for neighboring states, especially Ukraine. Therefore, it is vital for the United States and the OSCE to continue to speak out in defense of human rights in Belarus, to promote free and democratic elections this year, and to encourage meaningful dialogue between the government and opposition.

  • 1999: A Critical Year for Belarus

    Mr. Speaker, last month, a Congress of Democratic Forces was held in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The Congress demonstrated the resolve of the growing democratic opposition to authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the determination by the opposition to have free, democratic elections consistent with the legitimate 1994 constitution.   Earlier last month, on January 10, members of the legitimate Belarusian parliament, disbanded by Lukashenka after the illegal 1996 constitutional referendum which extended his term of office by two years to 2001, set a date for the next presidential elections for May 16. According to the 1994 constitution, Lukashenka's term expires in July. Not surprisingly, Lukashenka rejects calls for a presidential election. Local elections are currently being planned for April, although many of the opposition plan not to participate, arguing that elections should be held only under free, fair and transparent conditions, which do not exist at the present time. Indeed, the law on local elections leaves much to be desired and does not provide for a genuinely free and fair electoral process.   The local elections and opposition efforts to hold presidential elections must be viewed against the backdrop of a deteriorating economic situation. One of the resolutions adopted by the Congress of Democratic Forces accuses Lukashenka of driving the country to “social tensions, international isolation and poverty.” As an example of the heightening tensions, just last weekend, Andrei Sannikov, the former deputy minister of Belarus and a leader of the Charter '97 human rights group, was brutally assaulted by members of a Russian-based ultranationalist organization. Additionally, Lukashenka's moves to unite with Russia pose a threat to Belarus' very sovereignty. Thus, Mr. Speaker, this year promises to be a critical year for Belarus.   Recently, a staff delegation of the (Helsinki) Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which I chair, traveled to Belarus, raising human rights concerns with high-ranking officials, and meeting with leading members of the opposition, independent media and nongovernmental organizations. The staff report concludes that the Belarusian Government continues to violate its commitments under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) relating to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and that at the root of these violations lies the excessive power usurped by President Lukashenka since his election in 1994, especially following the illegitimate 1996 referendum. Although one can point to some limited areas of improvement, such as allowing some opposition demonstrations to occur relatively unhindered, overall OSCE compliance has not improved since the deployment of the OSCE's Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) almost one year ago. Freedoms of expression, association and assembly remain curtailed. The government hampers freedom of the media by tightly controlling the use of national TV and radio. Administrative and economic measures are used to cripple the independent media and NGOs. The political opposition has been targeted for repression, including imprisonment, detention, fines and harassment. The independence of the judiciary has been further eroded, and the President alone controls judicial appointments. Legislative power is decidedly concentrated in the executive branch of government.   The Commission staff report makes a number of recommendations, which I would like to share with my colleagues. The United States and OSCE community should continue to call upon the Belarusian Government to live up to its OSCE commitments and, in an effort to reduce the climate of fear which has developed in Belarus, should specifically encourage the Belarusian Government, inter alia, to: (1) Immediately release Alyaksandr Shydlauski (sentenced in 1997 to 18 months imprisonment for allegedly spray painting anti-Lukashenka graffiti) and review the cases of those detained and imprisoned on politically motivated charges, particularly Andrei Klymov and Vladimir Koudinov; (2) cease and desist the harassment of opposition activists, NGOs and the independent media and permit them to function; (3) allow the opposition access to the electronic media and restore the constitutional right of the Belarusian people to free and impartial information; (4) create the conditions for free and fair elections in 1999, including a provision in the election regulations allowing party representation on the central and local election committees; and (5) strengthen the rule of law, beginning with the allowance for an independent judiciary and bar.   With Lukashenka's term in office under the legitimate 1994 Constitution expiring in July 1999, the international community should make clear that the legitimacy of Lukashenka's presidency will be undermined unless free and fair elections are held by July 21. The United States and the international community, specifically the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, should continue to recognize only the legitimate parliament, the 13th Supreme Soviet, abolished by Lukashenka in 1996, and not the post-referendum, Lukashenka-installed, National Assembly. At the time, the United States, and our European allies and partners, denounced the 1996 referendum as illegitimate and extra-constitutional. The West needs to stand firm on this point, as the 13th Supreme Soviet and the 1994 Constitution are the only legal authorities. The democratically oriented opposition and NGOs deserve continued and enhanced moral and material assistance from the West. The United States must make support for those committed to genuine democracy a high priority in our civic development and NGO assistance.   I applaud and want to encourage such entities as USIS, the Eurasia Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, ABA/CEELI and others in their efforts to encourage the development of a democratic political system, free market economy and the rule of law in Belarus. The United States and the international community should strongly encourage President Lukashenka and the 13th Supreme Soviet to begin a dialogue which could lead to a resolution of the current constitutional crisis and the holding of democratic elections. The OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) could be a vehicle for facilitating such dialogue. The Belarusian Government should be encouraged in the strongest possible terms to cooperate with the OSCE AMG. There is a growing perception both within and outside Belarus that the Belarusian Government is disingenuous in its interaction with the AMG. The AMG has been working to promote these important objectives: an active dialogue between the government, the opposition and NGOs; free and fair elections, including a new election law that would provide for political party representation on electoral committees and domestic observers; unhindered opposition access to the state electronic media; a better functioning, independent court system and sound training of judges; and the examination and resolution of cases of politically motivated repression.   Mr. Speaker, there is a growing divide between the government and opposition in Belarus, thanks to President Lukashenka's authoritarian practices, a divide that could produce unanticipated consequences. An already tense political situation is becoming increasingly more so. Furthermore, Lukashenka's efforts at political and economic integration with Russia could have serious potential consequences for neighboring states, especially Ukraine. Therefore, it is vital for the United States and the OSCE to continue to speak out in defense of human rights in Belarus, to promote free and democratic elections this year, and to encourage meaningful dialogue between the government and opposition.

  • WHITHER HUMAN RIGHTS IN RUSSIA?

    This hearing focused on the human rights situation in Russia. Russia is no longer an authoritarian dictatorship and civil liberties have improved. However, the decline in Russia’s recent economic fortunes has been accompanied by disturbing developments in the area of human rights and civil liberties. A religion law developed in 1977 has led to legal difficulties and complications for some religious organizations in their dealings with local authorities, most notably the declaration of Jehovah Witness as a “destructive sect.” Also recent cases of a crackdown on activist has led to Russia’s first political prisoner since the defunct Soviet Union with the arrest of the environmental whistleblower, Alexandr Nikitin.

  • The Milosevic Regime Versus Serbian Democracy and Balkan Stability

    This hearing, presided over by the Hon. Chris Smith, then Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, was held on the fiftieth anniversary of Human Rights Day, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in Paris by 56 members of the United Nations. Regarding the atrocities of Slobodan Milosevic and his regime, then, this hearing’s date was perfectly apropos. The storied crimes by the Milosevic Regime are world renowned. The hearing was held in the wake of actions by the regime taken against Serbia’s independent media. Earlier on, Milosevic refused to acknowledge the results of municipal elections in Serbia, and, of course, the violent conflicts that the regime was culpable for.  

  • Concerning Properties Wrongfully Expropriated by Formerly Totalitarian Governments

    Mr. Speaker, I thank the gentleman from New York (Mr. Gilman), the chairman of the Committee on International Relations, and the ranking member of my subcommittee, the gentleman from California (Mr. Lantos), for working with me and with my friend and colleague, the gentleman from Indiana (Mr. Hamilton) to help bring this resolution to the floor. Mr. Speaker, House Resolution 562 addresses the difficult subject of claims arising from uncompensated property confiscation by totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. House Resolution 562 stemmed from a Helsinki Commission hearing that I held in 1996 that examined the efforts underway to restore plundered properties in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the witnesses at that hearing explained that under the international law and practice, the U.S. government is only able to seek compensation from foreign governments on behalf of property claimants who were American citizens at the time that their property was taken. In contrast, claimants who were not American citizens when their property was taken have at their disposal only the domestic law of their former country, even if they later became naturalized American citizens. Mr. Speaker, this resolution urges countries to pass laws that will commit their governments to return plundered properties to their rightful owners, or, when actual return of property is not possible, to provide prompt, just, and effective compensation. This compensation language derives from the Bonn agreement on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in which the participating states, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, recognized the `right to prompt compensation in the event private property is taken for public use.' This resolution also urges countries that have adopted restitution and compensation laws to implement those laws effectively and expeditiously. By adopting this resolution, Mr. Speaker, the Congress will lend its voice and persuasive power to that of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, which have both passed strongly-worded and similarly-worded resolutions calling on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to adopt legislation for the restitution of plundered properties. I hope this will have the full support of the body. Mr. Speaker, I thank the Chairman of the International Relations Committee, Mr. Gilman, and the Ranking Member of my Subcommittee, Representative Tom Lantos, for working with me to bring this resolution to the floor. Similar legislation was introduced in the 104th Congress, reintroduced in this Congress, and offered as an amendment to the foreign relations authorization bill which has not been passed by the Congress. H. Res. 562 is co-sponsored by my colleagues Mr. Gilman, Mr. Lantos, Mr. Hyde, Mr. Rohrabacher, and Mr. Fox, and by my fellow members of the Helsinki Commission: Mr. Christensen, Mr. Hoyer, Mr. Salmon, and Mr. Markey. Mr. Speaker, H. Res. 562 addresses the difficult subject of claims arising from uncompensated property confiscations by totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. Throughout much of this century, individuals and religious communities in Central and Eastern Europe saw their private property plundered by totalitarian regimes. In particular, Communist regimes expropriated real property, personal property, financial property, business property, and religious property in fulfillment of a main tenet of communism: the abolition of private property. Moreover, Communist-era expropriations often compounded Fascist-era wrongs. The restitution of property in Central and Eastern Europe today has a multitude of possible effects: restitution will demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law, will advance these countries in the establishment of free market economies, will encourage foreign investment, will help the newly-democratic regimes distance themselves from their totalitarian predecessors, and will provide a measure of justice to the victims of fascism and communism. H. Res. 562 stemmed from a 1996 Helsinki Commission hearing that examined the efforts underway to restore plundered properties in Central and Eastern Europe. Our witnesses at that hearing, Stuart Eizenstat, then the Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade and the U.S. Special Envoy for Property Claims in Central and Eastern Europe, and Delissa Ridgway, the then-Chairwoman of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, explained that under international law and practice, the United States Government is only able to seek compensation from foreign governments on behalf of property claimants who were American citizens at the time their property was taken. Under one common scenario, the United States obtains payment of such claims by having the Secretary of State, on behalf of the President, negotiate a government-to-government settlement agreement that settles a block of claims by American citizens against the foreign government in exchange for a lump-sum payment from the foreign government to the United States. Before or after such a settlement is reached, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC), an independent, quasi-judicial Federal agency within the Department of Justice, determines the validity and valuation of property claims of U.S. nationals against that foreign government. The FCSC informs the Secretary of the Treasury of the results of the FCSC's adjudications and the Secretary of the Treasury then distributes funds from the lump-sum settlement on a pro rata basis to the U.S. nationals that obtained awards from the FCSC. In contrast, claimants who were not American citizens when their property was taken have at their disposal only the domestic law of their former country, even if they later became naturalized American citizens. Considering these realities, Congress has a role in helping enable these dispossessed property owners to file claims in their former homelands with a real possibility of achieving a just resolution. Since that 1996 hearing, the Helsinki Commission has actively encouraged the governments in Central and Eastern Europe to adopt nondiscriminatory property restitution laws and has sought to intervene on behalf of several claimants whose rights under existing restitution and compensation laws are not being respected. While some progress has been made, the Helsinki Commission nonetheless continues to receive hundreds of letters from American and foreign citizens with unresolved property claims in Central and Eastern Europe. The writers plead for help from the Helsinki Commission and from Congress. Many have been struggling for seven or eight years to regain possession of their family properties. Many are elderly and are losing hope that they will ever recover their property. The issues addressed by this resolution are timely and, Mr. Speaker, they demand our attention. Some countries in the region have not yet adopted restitution or compensation laws. In those that have, certain requirements imposed on claimants involve so many conditions and qualifications that something just short of a miracle seems necessary for the return of any property. In Communist countries, expropriated properties were often given to Communist party officials or collaborators. In many cases, these former officials still live in the properties. Regrettably, a number of the democratic governments now in place are stalling and delaying the return of those properties to their rightful owners. Worse yet, some governments are offering meager compensation to the rightful owners and then allegedly reselling the properties for a profit that the State then pockets. The resolution urges countries to pass laws that will commit their governments to return plundered properties to their rightful owners or, when actual return of property is not possible, to provide `prompt, just and effective compensation.' This compensation language derives from the Bonn Document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe) in which the participating States, including those in Central and Eastern Europe, recognized the `right to prompt compensation in the event private property is taken for public use.' The resolution also urges countries that have adopted restitution or compensation laws to implement those laws effectively. Several examples help illustrate the state of affairs in Central and Eastern Europe with respect to property restitution. The Helsinki Commission staff met recently with a group known as the Committee for Private Property that has collected information from more than fifteen hundred people with outstanding restitution claims in Romania. Most of these claimants are American citizens, hundreds of whom filed legal claims in Romania and followed the proper judicial process to obtain decrees reinstating their property titles. After obtaining what they believed to be final and irrevocable decrees, the property owners began paying taxes on their properties or, in at least one case, thousands of dollars due on an old mortgage, only to have the Romanian Special Prosecutor appeal the cases to the Supreme Court and win reversals of the judicial decisions. On the other hand, some positive advancements have been made in regard to communal property restitution in Romania. In April 1997, the Romanian Government adopted a resolution restoring Jewish community ownership rights over six buildings, including the National Jewish Theater, and issued a May 1997 decree that established a committee with joint government and community participation to review communal property claims. This past June, the Romanian Government pledged to return an additional seventeen buildings to several minority ethnic communities. These efforts are positive steps forward in the restitution of more than three thousand communal properties, such as orphanages, cultural centers, apartment buildings, ethnic community centers, and houses of worship, lost by religious and minority communities under communism. Regrettably, however, legislation to return properties to the Greek Catholic Church was blocked in Romania's parliament last year and has yet to be enacted. Another group, American Owners of Property in Slovenia, has also contacted the Commission about property claims. This group estimates that at least 500 emigres from the former Yugoslavia are now American citizens with property claims in Slovenia. Despite clear mandates in Slovenia's restitution and compensation law requiring action on filed claims within one year, government officials have not implemented the law; the vast majority of claims remain pending without resolution seven years after the law was passed and five years after the filing deadline. Of the approximately 40,000 applications filed by the 1993 deadline, only 35 percent of the individual claims filed had been resolved by the end of 1997; sixty-five percent of the claims had received no action or only dilatory action. The Slovenian Government has not shown the political will to return property and has failed to take the administrative measures needed to implement the legislation. Moreover, it is of particular concern that this past September, the Slovenian parliament adopted amendments to its restitution law that contain numerous provisions that may further restrict the ability of victims of the Communist regime to regain ownership and access to their properties. Similarly, in Lithuania, despite enactment of a restitution and compensation law, Lithuanian Government officials also appear disinclined to return properties. Property claimants there encounter a variety of roadblocks to restitution, including citizenship requirements, unreasonable bureaucratic delays, and the sudden, suspicious inclusion of claimed properties on an official `Register of Immovable Cultural Properties' as the basis for non-restitution. In one case, Mr. Vytautas Sliupas, an American with dual Lithuanian citizenship, has struggled for seven years to regain ownership and possession of inherited property in Palanga, Lithuania. One building is controlled by the Ministry of Culture and Education and is reportedly used by the National Museum of Lithuania primarily as a vacation site for Museum personnel. The second property is controlled by the City of Palanga and is rented to a commercial entity. These properties belong to Mr. Sliupas' family and were nationalized, without compensation, by the Communist regime. In 1993, the Minister of Culture and Education issued an official letter stating that the Ministry agreed to return the first property to Mr. Sliupas. In 1997, the City of Palanga passed a resolution to return the second property to Mr. Sliupas. Nonetheless, the groups occupying the properties have failed to comply with the orders to vacate. Mr. Sliupas has sought unsuccessfully to obtain the assistance of various government entities, including the courts, in enforcing his right to regain possession of these properties. The Lithuanian Government recently informed the Helsinki Commission that the property has been placed on the Register of Immovable Cultural Properties and, therefore, cannot be restituted to Mr. Sliupas. In Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and other countries, the existing restitution and compensation laws only allow people who are currently residents or citizens of the country to apply for restitution. The Czech Republic's citizenship requirement discriminates almost exclusively against individuals who lost their Czech citizenship because they chose the United States as their refuge from communism; as many as 8,000-10,000 Czech-Americans are precluded from even applying for restitution or compensation because of this requirement. Citizenship and residency requirements have been found to violate the nondiscrimination clause of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international agreement that these countries have voluntarily signed onto, and yet the countries mentioned have been unwilling to eliminate the restrictions. The resolution calls on these countries to remove citizenship or residency requirements from their restitution and compensation laws. Mr. Speaker, the examples given only begin to show the obstacles faced by property claimants in formerly totalitarian countries. This past August, Stuart Eizenstat, now the Under Secretary of State or Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs and the U.S. Special Envoy for Property Claims in Central and Eastern Europe, testified before the International Relations Committee about the need for Congress to pass a resolution that encourages Central and East European countries to return wrongfully expropriated property. While that hearing focused on Holocaust-era assets, in reality many Holocaust victims who suffered the loss of their property at the hands of the Nazis were victimized again by Communist regimes. I comment Under Secretary Eizenstat for his tireless efforts on behalf of Holocaust victims and I hope that the United States Government will make property restitution and compensation a priority in Central and Eastern Europe, as it has done in Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries.

  • Romani Human Rights in Europe

    Commission Co-Chairman Christopher H. Smith presided over this hearing that discussed the rights of the Romani population in Europe. While ostensibly of Central and Eastern European descent, Romani, or Roma, individuals have existed in almost every European state. The Roma consist of a dispersed minority that, at the time of this hearing, was the fastest growing European population, numbering between 8 million and 10 million people. Unfortunately, their numbers did not protect the Roma from being the only population whose situation had actually worsened since the fall of Communism. From the first signs of anti-Romani discrimination in Romania to the dissolution of the Czechoslovak Federation in January of 1994, the reasons to justify holding this hearing to discuss the plight of the Romani were many. At this hearing, besides Commissioner Chris Smith, were Commission Chairman Steny Hoyer, and witnesses James Goldston of the European Roma Rights Center, Livia Plaks of the Project on Ethnic Relations, and Drs. David Crowe and Ian Hancock, professors at Elon and the University of Texas-Austin, respectively.

  • Repression and Violence in Kosovo and Hearing on Kosovo: The Humanitarian Perspective

    This hearing, chaired by Commissioner Alfonse D’Amato, discussed the dire circumstances in Kosovo, specifically Serbian repression of the Kosovar Albanian majority population. In this hearing, D’Amato called for the U.S. to step up and prevent another outbreak of ethnic cleansing and achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis. More specifically, to facilitate a lasting peace, the Commissioner called on U.S. leadership to make Slobodan Milosevic believe that the world would not stand by while the atrocities in Kosovo and Serbia continued. In addition, any settlement reached between Milosevic and the Kosovo Albanian leadership, D’Amato, continued, must be respected and protect the human rights of all individuals in Kosovo, without preconditions. Witnesses in this hearing discussed these human rights violations and the predicament of the Kosovar Albanians.

  • Status of the Russian Religious Law

    Congressman Chris Smith and other lawmakers criticized the Russian Federation law on freedom of conscience and religious organizations signed by Boris Yeltsin for the threats it posed to religious liberty for minority religious faith. The scope of the law, including the terms of its formal implementations regulations and its actual implementation on the ground were topics of discussions. Those who testified at the briefing provided their insights on this law, its status at the time, and their perspective of developments in Russia in light of the law. Dr. James Billington, a distinguished author and Russian scholar, spoke to the decline in the standard of living and social services that the Russian people had suffered in the post-Soviet era. Another witness, Dr. Anatoly Pchelintsev, Director of the Christian Legal Center of the Institute on Religion and Law in Moscow, attributed the existence of the law to the tide of nationalist and Communist movements that were on the rise in Russia.

  • Status of Religious Liberty for Minority Faiths in Europe and the OSCE

    The purpose of this hearing, which the Hon. Christopher H. Smith chaired, was to discuss the reality of disturbing undercurrents of subtle, but growing, discrimination and harassment of minority religious believers, as opposed to discussing the widespread documentation of torture and persecution of practitioners of minority faiths. In a number of European countries, government authorities had seemed to work on restricting the freedoms of conscience and speech in much of their governments’ actions. For example, in Russia, on September 26, 1997, President Boris Yeltsin signed the law called “On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations,” which blatantly violated agreements of the OSCE which the former U.S.S.R. helped to initiate. Through use of witnesses, then, attendees of this hearing, namely commissioners, gained a deeper understanding of the religious liberty violations within OSCE member countries and insight into how to best influence governments to adhere more closely to internationally accepted human rights standards.

  • The Meaning of Yeltsin's Veto of Russia's Law on Religion

    This briefing provided an analysis of the events surrounding President Yeltsin's veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia which would have effectively banned the activities of certain religious minority groups including Protestants and Catholics. The bill passed emphatically in both houses of the Russian Parliament, mounting great domestic pressure on the President to approve it. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute credits the blocking of the bill to international pressure from both the US and the EU, which were vocal in their opposition. Congress sent several letters to Mr. Yeltsin, including one which was signed by 160 senators and members of the House of Representatives. The discussion in the question and answer period centered around more concrete measures taken by the US Congress to persuade Yeltsin to veto the bill, including economic incentives tied to foreign aid and trade.

  • Russia’s Religion Law

    This briefing addressed Congressional concerns about a draft law regarding religion that was making its way through the Duma. Given that this draft was vetoed by President Yeltsin, the Commission took special care to highlight this act standing for religious freedom and the efforts that were made to respect and adhere to the Russia’s international commitments. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute provided an analysis of the events surround President Yeltsin’s recent veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia. The roles of domestic and international influences in this resulting veto were each evaluated. Trends of religious freedom in Russia were also examined in the context of how much progress the defeat of this law would actually make.

  • Dogs Have More Freedom

    Mr. Speaker, `Dogs have more freedom than us; at least they are not afraid to go outside.' Mr. Speaker, this is the conclusion of a young Romani father in Slovakia who recounted his experience with growing skinhead violence in his country. His story is, regrettably, just one of the many documented in a January 1997 report prepared by the European Roma Rights Center [ERRC] entitled `Time of the Skinheads: Denial and Exclusion of Roma in Slovakia.' This study describes a grim pattern of violent assaults against Roma perpetrated by skinhead extremists; it also suggests that local police forces have been, at best, unwilling to fulfill their obligation to protect their citizens and, at worst, have themselves actually engaged in violence against Roma.   Descriptions of a 1995 organized attack on the entire Romani community in the town of Jarovnice--something that reads like a pogrom from a bygone era--were especially chilling. Since Slovakia became an independent state in 1993, a great deal of international attention has, rightly, focused on the status of the Hungarian minority in that country, a community that makes up approximately 10 percent of the population. Slovakia also has another large minority population which is less well known abroad. While the exact number of Roma in Slovakia is contested, it is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. These people, the survivors of Nazi efforts to eradicate the Roma altogether, now face increasing violent attacks against their homes, their villages, and their lives.   The problems of Roma in post-Communist European countries are many, and often defy easy answers. But at least three of the problems described in `Time of the Skinheads' do have obvious solutions. First, the Slovak Government has failed to demonstrate any serious effort to acknowledge and address the widespread problem of violent skinhead attacks on Roma. On the contrary, some public officials, members of the ruling coalition, have repeatedly made crude racist remarks about the Roma. As long as such remarks stand uncontested or unchallenged by Prime Minister Meciar, skinheads will believe that they can attack Roma with impunity. Clearly, local police officials take their cues from the top. Accordingly, any improvement in the situation of Roma in Slovakia must begin with the leadership of that country stating that racism and bigotry will not be tolerated.   Second, the ERRC report described a pattern of excessive use of force by the police against Roma. When the victims seek to bring a complaint against the police, the charges are, in effect, reversed and the Rom is charged with assaulting the police. Significantly, the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture released a report on April 3, which also documented a problem of police brutality in Slovakia. That report, like the report of the ERRC, noted that the failure to ensure that those charged with a criminal offense have adequate legal representation has significantly contributed to this miscarriage of justice. One of the purposes of providing such representation is to guarantee a fair trial, consistent with the due process of law, and to ensure that those accused of crimes do not have confessions extracted from them by force. The failure to provide the accused with defense counsel violates one of the most important provisions of the international human rights system: the right to an attorney, a right articulated in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as paragraph 5.16 of the OSCE Copenhagen Document. I hope the Slovak Government will take immediate measures to redress this problem.   Finally, the ERRC report on Slovakia indicates that Slovak localities continue to use a system of tightly controlled residency permits to restrict the freedom of movement of Roma. Not only does this practice offend the nondiscrimination provisions of the Helsinki process, this system also harkens back to the rigid controls of the Communist days. If people are not permitted to move where jobs are, how can a free market system flourish?   Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, this pattern of violence against Roma is not unique to Slovakia. The ERRC, which was founded to defend the human rights of Roma, has also issued major reports on Austria and Romania. In addition, its most recent newsletter reported on problems Roma face in several other European countries. Clearly, there is much more that many governments in Central Europe can and should do to address these problems. I realize that Slovakia is in the midst of grappling with a very broad range of fundamental questions regarding its development and future. The basic human rights of Roma should be a part of that agenda. I see no better time. Will Slovakia enter the 21st century as a country which seeks to unite its citizens in achieving common goals, or will it lag behind with those countries which have permitted nationalism and racism to divide their people and weaken the very state they worked so hard to create?

  • Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE)

    This briefing focused on the topics of European security and NATO enlargement, specifically in terms of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Elements of the treaty that remained especially important, including the goal of avoiding destabilizing concentrations of forces in Europe and the goal of creating greater transparency and promoting information exchange among governments in Europe, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at this briefing spoke to the need for amendments and changes to the CFE, but maintained the relevance of the treaty to international security. Different strategies for making these changes related to Russian pressure and NATO involvement were presented. 

  • Political Turmoil in Serbia

    In this hearing, Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) discussed, with witnesses, the developments in Serbia and what opposition forces had to say about the future of the country. Witnesses present included Miodrag Perisic, co-founder and vice president of Serbia’s first political opposition party (the Democratic Party); Branislav Canak, the president of a confederation of independent trade unions that wanted to organize workers throughout Serbia (the Independents); Veran Matic, Editor-In-Chief of B92, Belgrade’s independent radio station; and Obrad Kesic, program specialist for the Professional Media Program at the International Research and Exchanges Board. More specifically, Smith and witnesses discussed popular unrest against Milosevic’s refusal to accept election results regarding the ruling Socialist Party and its allies, underscoring more general displeasure with the Serbian government’s track record regarding the economy, human rights, and a lack of confidence that Serbians’ children would have a democratic and prosperous future.  

  • Hungary's Relations with her Neighbors

    Mr. Speaker, I want to bring to the attention of my colleagues the joint declaration adopted in Budapest on July 5 by representatives of the Hungarian Government and by representatives of Hungarian communities abroad- the so-called Hungarian-Hungarian summit declaration. The status of the various and sizable Hungarian minority communities in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia are of considerable interest to many in Congress. How governments treat their minority communities is often a significant barometer of how they will treat their citizens as a whole, and a strong indicator of the progress of democratization in countries in transition. In fact, I remain concerned about the minority situation in each of these countries, and, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, have raised such concerns on a number of occasions.   Many hoped the Hungarian-Hungarian summit document would provide some useful insight into the concrete concerns of Hungarian minorities. Unfortunately, the summit document adopted in Budapest does not address the kind of specific and concrete issues that are usually raised with the Commission, such as minority language schooling or electoral districting. Instead, the declaration stands as a broad and somewhat ambiguous endorsement of `autonomy' and `self-government.' Those terms, guaranteed to alarm those already afraid of alleged Hungarian irredentism, were unfortunately left undefined, fostering the perception in some quarters that the declaration represents only a thinly veiled effort by Budapest to extend its influence beyond current Hungarian borders and, implicitly, to turn back the clock to the days when Hungarians were united in a single country.   I appreciate the Hungarian Embassy's willingness to clarify for the Commission the underlying intent of his declaration. In particular, the Embassy asserted that the word `autonomy' was in no way intended to signal `territorial autonomy.' I also believe the declaration's positive emphasis on the importance of the accession of all Hungary's neighbors into NATO and the European Union should not be overlooked and, indeed, is especially important in light of the recent congressional debate on NATO expansion. Nevertheless, I believe that the declaration, through the use of wording that is ambiguous at best and, at worst, predictably inflammatory, stands in contradiction to Hungary's stated goal of pursuing `good neighbor' policies. Surprisingly, Hungary implies that its goal of gaining admission to NATO and other European organizations should be dependent on `the fundamental interests of Hungarian national communities abroad'--a message that suggests a qualified interest in accession to NATO.   Finally, I must note that concerns about this declaration were only heightened by the statement of the Hungarian representative to the OSCE in Vienna, Ambassador Martin Krasznai. In defending the use of the word `autonomy,' Ambassador Krasznai presented the Basques, Catalans, and South-Tyroleans as positive examples of Europe's experience with autonomous movements. The irony of these particular references was probably not lost on the representatives of Italy or Spain--especially in the wake of the numerous terrorist bombings attributed to Basque separatists last month. Mr. Speaker, while a rare opportunity for discussion about real minority concerns may have been missed, I also see the Hungarian-Hungarian summit declaration as an aberration from the current government's usually constructive approach. I will continue to follow the situation of minority communities in central Europe and the inseparable issue of the progress of democratization in general. As I do so, I hope that Hungarian representatives will join with the Commission in seeking to promote democracy for all the citizens of all the countries of the OSCE.

  • Property Restitution, Compensation and Preservation: Competing Claims in Post-Communist Europe

    This hearing, which Rep. Christopher H. Smith (NJ – 04) presided over, focused on how to rectify transgressions against individuals by former totalitarian regimes, which Smith called one of the most challenging issues confronting post-Communist societies in the OSCE region. This specifically related to the wrongful confiscation of property. Even though some Communist regimes were required by the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty to make restitution of Jewish property, these governments duly ignored such directives. In fact, Communist regimes were infamous for their complete disregard for private property, nationalizing factories, etc. Likewise, more recently, efforts to return property to former owners had been uneven and oftentimes unsuccessful, stymied by complex moral and legal obligations.

  • Russia’s Election: What Does It Mean?

    Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) and others discussed the outcome and the implications of the Russian presidential election of 1996, which, at the time of the hearing, had just happened. The winner of the election was Boris Yeltsin, who was re-elected with a margin of thirteen percentage points over Communist Party Chairman and challenger Zyuganov. The hearing also incorporated discussion concerning the conflict in Chechnya and the circumstances under which the election transpired (i.e., fairness, media coverage).

  • Bosnia: Should the OSCE Certify Conditions Exist for Free and Fair Elections?

    The Helsinki Commission is focusing on what it considers one of the most important international events of this year, the elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Commission has held several briefings on this topic already with election experts from the United States, with members of the Provisional Election Commission from Bosnia, with representatives of political parties from that country, and most recently, with persons close to the situation in Banja Luka. Human rights organizations and others following the situation in Bosnia have warned that conditions for a free and fair election simply do not exist; and yet, the U.S. Government and some European governments have pressured the OSCE to certify nonetheless. A robust discussion on curbing rampant political gerrymandering and obstructions to free and fair elections will be underscored in the hearing.

Pages