Name

Belarus

Belarus, a country of about 9.5 million people which gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has a troubled record on human rights that has complicated its relationships with the U.S. and the EU for almost all its independence. Since his election as president in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees.  Under his rule, all presidential and parliamentary elections have been neither free nor fair and have fallen well short of international standards. The government restricts fundamental civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association. The democratic opposition operates in an exceedingly difficult environment. 

The Commission has been outspoken in championing democracy and human rights in Belarus, having held the overwhelming majority of Congressional hearings, public briefings, and meetings that have taken place on Belarus. A Congressional delegation (CODEL) to the 2017 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly summer meeting, hosted by Minsk, met with both President Lukashenko and the democratic opposition, and was the largest CODEL ever to visit Belarus. Commission staff has observed all elections in Belarus in the last two decades with only one exception.

Staff Contact: Rachel Bauman, policy advisor

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  • Ten-Member Congressional Delegation Demonstrates Ongoing U.S. Engagement With the OSCE

    By Bob Hand, Senior Policy Advisor Approximately 270 parliamentarians from across the OSCE region gathered virtually from February 24 – 26 for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Winter Meeting, the first statutory meeting of the Assembly held since the COVID-19 pandemic limited inter-parliamentary diplomacy to online gatherings.  The ongoing impact of COVID-19 on security, the economy, the environment and the human rights and democratic development of the 57 OSCE States remained the focus of the annual gathering.  Supported by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the U.S. Delegation remained actively engaged, fielding a bicameral, bipartisan delegation of 10 Members of Congress who participated remotely in the debates.  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) served as Head of the U.S. Delegation.   The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) is an independent institution of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) created in 1991 for parliamentarians to complement the inter-governmental work of the 57 participating States. Unlike other OSCE bodies, countries are represented based on population rather than each having a single seat at the table (the United States has the largest representation with 17 seats), and decision-making is based on a majority vote rather than consensus. The Annual Session each summer is the principal gathering, with a Winter Meeting in February and an Autumn Meeting in October to initiate and conclude the year’s work. Despite a busy congressional schedule, the members of the U.S. Delegation successfully raised critical country, issue, and institutional concerns, including the attempted poisoning and incarceration of Alexei Navalny, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the brutal crackdown in Belarus and corruption and authoritarian tendencies elsewhere in the OSCE region. Active U.S. engagement demonstrates the depth of U.S. commitment to European security, and reflects the importance of the OSCE PA as a vehicle for advancing U.S. interests and building support on issues like human trafficking, attacks on the media, manifestations of anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance, as well as country-specific concerns.  Such a large delegation of Members of Congress reflected the diversity of opinion in the United States, setting an example of openness and honesty for others to follow, deflecting accusations of double standards on U.S. performance, and strengthening the message on human rights concerns in other countries where the Members of Congress can and do express a united view. Improvising Engagement Amid Pandemic Since 2002, Winter Meetings have been held in Vienna, Austria to facilitate direct interaction among parliamentarians, OSCE officials, and diplomatic representatives of the OSCE participating States.  The Winter Meeting also allows the Assembly’s general committees to discuss work for the coming year.  The outbreak of the COVID pandemic in early 2020 forced the cancellation of the Annual Session scheduled for July in Vancouver and the Autumn Meeting scheduled for October in San Marino.  Without rules dealing with such situations, the OSCE PA Secretariat maintained inter-parliamentary engagement by organizing a dozen or more inter-parliamentary web dialogues from April into November to substitute for the traditional gatherings. While no replacement for traditional meetings, these unofficial events provided needed continuity and contact among delegates.  First the first time in the history of the OSCE PA, no annual declaration was adopted, but the then-Assembly President George Tsereteli provided summaries of the web debates on relevant issues, a record of dialogue even in the midst of pandemic. The OSCE PA resumed election observation where possible and responded to political impasse within the OSCE itself by issuing a “Call for Action” urging a reaffirmation of the organization’s once common purpose.    For 2021, the OSCE PA has been seeking to resume its regular meeting schedule, although conditions still required the Winter Meeting to be held remotely.  Five sessions were scheduled during hours that best accommodated participants across some 16 time zones, from Vancouver to Ulaanbaatar.     At the meeting of the Heads of Delegation, known as the Standing Committee, it was announced that the 2021 Annual Session would be unable to be held in person as planned in Bucharest, Romania, in early July.  As a result, the Standing Committee amended the Assembly’s rules of procedure to allow statutory meetings to go forward online, including permitting elections for OSCE PA officers and other decisions to be handled remotely. Maintaining Focus on Substantive Issues and Concerns Beyond scheduling and procedures, the Standing Committee also looked at substance. Following reports from current OSCE PA President Peter Lord Bowness (United Kingdom), Secretary General Roberto Montella (Italy), and OSCE PA Special Representatives appointed to address particular concerns, there were heated exchanges between Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as on Russian aggression against Ukraine and the brutal crackdown on protesting opposition in Belarus—issues that would be raised repeatedly throughout the meeting.  Sen. Cardin, attending not only as Head of Delegation but also as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, delivered a report on his activities, as did Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who serves as the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues.   “The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented health crisis in the OSCE region, exacerbated by pre-existing inequities and disproportionately impacting people of color. Heightened anti-Asian discrimination, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and violent attacks targeting diverse populations have followed… My report details a response to these developments, as well as the global racial justice movement spurred by the tragic death of George Floyd.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Head of U.S. Delegation, U.S. Helsinki Commission Rep. Smith noted, “Traffickers did not shut down during the pandemic—they simply adapted their methods. Meanwhile, vulnerable people were made even more vulnerable by both the virus and its deleterious impact on the global economy… As we worked to address these challenges, it was crucial to have information and recommendations based on real, concrete data.” The Joint Session of the General Committees effectively served as the opening plenary. President Bowness opened the session with a defense of principled-based dialogue, and guest speakers included Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister and this year’s OSCE Chair-in-Office, as well as Helga Schmid (Germany), the OSCE’s new Secretary General.  The chairperson outlined plans for 2021, asserting that the she will “prioritize the comprehensive concept of security across all three dimensions,” namely the Security, Economic and Human Dimension, which she argued “contributes to making the OSCE truly unique.”  The Secretary General expressed her hopes to provide needed support for the organization and its mission, and she credited the OSCE PA for bringing emerging security issues into the OSCE debate.      Sen. Cardin thanked the Assembly and its parliamentarians for their expressions of concern and support for the United States in light of efforts to delegitimize the November 2020 presidential elections and the related violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.  He also expressed support for the comments of Lord Bowness and the priorities announced by the Swedish Chair-in-Office, including to have the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in 2021. “We must challenge those who are seeking to weaken the OSCE or aren’t living up to their commitments. That’s our priority as parliamentarians … and we must as parliamentarians support the mission of the OSCE and help strengthen it through our actions and our capitals,” he said.  Finally, speaking on behalf of Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20), who was unable to attend, Sen. Cardin asked the Swedish chair about how the OSCE can engage Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to address outstanding issues and encourage a return to the Minsk Group settlement process to achieve a sustainable resolution of the conflict. Taking a Closer Look at the Security, Economic and Human Dimensions of OSCE Following the Joint Session, each of the three General Committees heard from OSCE officials in their respective fields, or dimensions, of OSCE work.  Presenters included the ambassadors serving as chairs of the counterpart committees of the OSCE’s Permanent Council and the head of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The three committees also heard from their respective rapporteurs on plans for drafting substantive reports that will be the basis of further activity at the Annual Session. Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the General (First) Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted the myriad of security and political issues confronting the OSCE during the past year, including the war in Ukraine, conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and political turmoil in countries of concern like Russia, Belarus, and most recently Georgia.  “Our engagement with critical issues in the OSCE space has been consistent and impactful,” he concluded. Speaking during the session, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Phil Reeker called the erosion of the European security environment the “biggest challenge we face today in the organization” and highlighted U.S. plans for the Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC) during its four-month chairmanship.  The Acting Permanent Representative of the United States to the OSCE and FSC chair, senior diplomat Courtney Austrian, was present for the discussion. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) took the floor during subsequent debate to condemn Russian violations of Helsinki Principles in its aggression in Ukraine.  He said that “Moscow must withdraw proxies in eastern Ukraine” and “respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” asserting that relevant sanctions will remain in place until that happens.  Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) also responded to an intervention on youth and drugs by a delegate from Belarus, arguing that citizens need to be given greater freedom if young people are to feel a commitment to the country. Three other Members of Congress participated in the session of the General (Second) Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment, which covered issues ranging from corruption to climate change.  Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) focused on addressing corruption. “It should come as no surprise to anyone … that legislatures have one of the most important roles to play in combating corruption—that of establishing a transparent and accountable legal and financial framework that empowers law enforcement officials and is maximally resistant to fraud,” he said.  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) said that the United States “is back” in efforts to combat climate change and noted recent U.S. legislation designed to address shell companies that support a global dark economy by sheltering “assets of thieves.”  Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) spoke about the devastating impact of the pandemic on women in the healthcare industry as well as on small business, and she expressed concern about risks to supply chains and business ties to both China and Russia.   Three Members of Congress also participated in of the General (Third) Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions.   Rep. Cohen asserted that human rights has reclaimed its place in U.S. foreign policy, and emphasized human rights in concerns in Russia, Belarus, and Hungary. He expressed particular concern about the poisoning and recent arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called for Belarus to release political prisoners and to hold elections with OSCE observers. Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) took the floor in a later debate, responding to a report on the OSCE’s observation of the U.S. general elections in November 2020.  He stressed the need for U.S. states that currently prohibit or restrict international observation to consider a more open approach and   concluded that “our election officials and state legislators should read this report,” along with “any American who cares about his or her country.  It is a broad snapshot of our entire electoral complex system that we have here.”  Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised concerns about discriminatory restrictions on religious assembly during the pandemic, as well as on the diminishing free media environment in many participating States. “Press freedom in the OSCE region has continued to decline as some governments are using economic, legal, and extra-legal tools to silence independent media and also to bolster loyal outlets and dozens of journalists are imprisoned in the OSCE region,” he said. “We’ve seen that in Russia, we’ve seen that in Belarus, we’ve seen that in Turkey, detaining scores of journalists in recent national protests.” There was one side event held in conjunction with the Winter Meeting, organized by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in cooperation with the Lithuanian Mission to OSCE. Seven panelists in two sessions highlighted how international instruments—such as the Moscow Mechanism, Magnitsky-like legislation, the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights, and the promotion of a universal criminal jurisdiction—could increase accountability of state actors, support Belarus’ democracy movement, and deny financial safe havens to Russian kleptocrats.  Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom chairman Vladimir Kara-Murza were among the event panelists. Assessing the Effort The virtual three-day, five-session Winter Meeting could not replace an in-person gathering in Vienna, a point frequently made by the parliamentarians themselves.  However, it did allow for a resumption of constructive debate in the general committees and interaction among parliamentarians and other OSCE institutions, paving the way for a return to more traditional work as the year progresses. The need to cancel the Annual Session planned for July in Bucharest was a major disappointment, but the adoption of rules governing such emergency situations now permit some continuity of effort.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: February 2021

  • OSCE Ministerial Council Appoints Top Leaders, Adopts Several Key Decisions Amidst Constraints of COVID-19 and Conflict in Europe

    By Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Foreign ministers of the 57 OSCE participating States convened on December 3 - 4, 2020, for the 27th OSCE Ministerial Council. For the first time, this annual gathering was convened in an entirely virtual format due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a turbulent year, which included managing not only the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but also the global anti-racism protests initiated following the killing of George Floyd; ongoing protracted conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine; fraudulent elections and systemic human rights violations in Belarus; and a renewal of active conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, consensus was achieved on many, but not all, draft decisions. The United States delegation to the Ministerial Council was led by Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. The delegation and included Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State George P. Kent, Michael Murphy, and Bruce Turner; Acting Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker; U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore; U.S Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex Johnson; and Helsinki Commission staff Robert Hand, Janice Helwig, Rebecca Neff, Erika Schlager, Shannon Simrell, Dr. Mischa Thompson, and Alex Tiersky. A Call to “Turn a Corner” from Crisis to Cooperation Leveraging the meeting’s virtual format, national statements were livestreamed, offering transparency of the proceedings. Albanian Prime Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Edi Rama opened the meeting by recalling the solidarity of the signatories of the Helsinki Final Act and Charter of Paris and requesting that ministers “turn a corner” and demonstrate the political will required to address the multiple and complex challenges faced by the organization and across the region. In his remarks, Deputy Secretary Biegun reaffirmed U.S. priorities for engagement at the OSCE, underscoring the commitment to European peace and security and highlighting key challenges facing the OSCE region including Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and the destabilizing effect of its flagrant violations of the OSCE’s foundational principles.  He called upon Belarus to hold accountable those responsible for its human rights violations and electoral crisis, urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to attain a lasting end to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and warned States against using COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict civil society, independent media, or public access to information. Finally, he expressed concern about the increasing number of political prisoners and the rise in cases of anti-Semitism, anti-Roma racism, and other forms of hatred and hate crimes in the OSCE region since the onset of the pandemic.  Consensus Achieved on Organizational Leadership, Preventing Torture, Countering Corruption, and More Despite the challenges inherent in virtual negotiations, consensus was achieved on 11 texts spanning all three OSCE dimensions of comprehensive security and supporting the organization’s internal governance. Ministers agreed on the appointment of the OSCE’s top four leaders: Helga Schmid (Germany) as Secretary General, Maria Teresa Ribiero (Portugal) as Representative on Freedom of the Media, Matteo Mecacci (Italy) as Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and Kairat Abdrakhmanov (Kazakhstan) as High Commissioner on National Minorities.  The decisions broke a months-long impasse after Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and others blocked the reappointment of the previous executives, leaving the organization leaderless since July. Participating States also reached consensus on several decisions that added to OSCE’s body of commitments. One such decision concerned the prevention and eradication of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, building on existing OSCE commitments. A version of the text was originally proposed in 2014 by Switzerland during their 2014 Chairpersonship of the OSCE. The initiative reflected the country’s historic leadership in the area of international humanitarian law and profound concerns regarding torture in the context of counterterrorism efforts.  The proposal was reintroduced over successive Ministerial Councils before its adoption in 2020.  The widespread use of torture and other horrific abuse by Belarusian authorities, documented by the November 2020 report under the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, added urgency to this decision this year.  As adopted, the decision includes explicit references to enforced disappearances and to incommunicado detention. Participating States also adopted decisions on preventing and combating corruption; strengthening co-operation to counter transnational organized crime; deepening cooperation with OSCE’s Asian Partners;  supporting the Transdniestrian settlement process (also known in the OSCE as the “5+2” format, which brings together representatives of Moldova, Transdniestria, the OSCE, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States); and selecting North Macedonia to chair the organization in 2023. Unfinished Business Unfortunately, participating States did not reach consensus on several other important drafts, including one co-sponsored by the United States and Belarus based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that would have set out new commitments for participating States to effectively combat human trafficking during times of emergency. Other proposals, including texts to modernize the Vienna Document (a wide-ranging confidence- and security-building measure that includes provisions requiring notification of significant military activities, as well as an exchange of information about armed forces, military organization, and major weapon and equipment systems), enhance public-private partnerships to counter terrorism, and counter trafficking in natural resources were scuttled by Russian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian intransigence.  Some drafts which did not reach consensus among all 57 states were turned into statements issued and signed by those countries that had supported their adoption. The United States signed onto nine such statements to support the concept of women, peace and security outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 1325; modernization of the politico-military framework of the Vienna Document; and a number of statements related to the OSCE’s role in addressing regional challenges like ending the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, improving human rights compliance by Belarus, countering Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia, and addressing challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.   The Albanian Chairperson, together with the OSCE’s 2019 Slovak Chairperson, and the OSCE’s three incoming Chairpersons (the “Quint”) issued two joint statements, one expressing concern about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and another reaffirming the principles enshrined the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Side events highlight continuing challenges The Ministerial Council’s four side events highlighted priority areas for participating States and for the Parliamentary Assembly. Due to the virtual format, events on the Belarus Moscow Mechanism report, human rights violations in Crimea, combatting human trafficking during the COVID-19 crisis, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s call for renewed political will to address contemporary challenges, attracted hundreds of participants. Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent closed the Moscow Mechanism side event by promising to maintain a focus on the situation in Belarus, to support efforts to hold authorities accountable for torture and other human rights violations, and to ensure the voice of the Belarusian people is heard in determining their country’s future. At a side event organized by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly titled “A Call to Action: Reaffirming a Common Purpose,” Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) affirmed the strong bipartisan support in the United States for the OSCE, and recognized it as vital forum to promote security, defend human rights and encourage democratic development in all OSCE countries. He argued that greater political accountability rather than organizational reform would make the OSCE more relevant and effective in the years ahead. “It remains the responsibility of the participating States to hold each other to account. In the face of repression at home or aggression abroad, the OSCE will succeed as a multilateral forum as long as those who are true believers stand united in defending the ten Helsinki principles and forthrightly raise violations in this forum.” ​ Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member, U.S. Helsinki Commission, OSCE MC 2020 Side Event on “A Call to Action” Due to challenges related to convening during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGO network Civic Solidarity Platform did not organize its annual Civil Society Conference, which had been held in conjunction with each OSCE Ministerial Council since its first convening during the 2010 OSCE Summit in Astana. Instead, the network organized a series of webinars in December to maintain focus on key issues of concern. 2021: OSCE’s Swedish Chairpersonship “Back to Basics” Looking ahead to its 2021 Chairpersonship, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that Sweden will work to get “back to basics:” defending the European security order, contributing to resolving conflicts, and upholding the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security with a special focus on human rights, democracy, and gender equality.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: December 2020

  • Retrospective on the 116th Congress

    By Emma Derr, Max Kampelman Fellow “For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia. While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished.” ​ Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In the OSCE region, 2019 and 2020 were marked by unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for racial justice, systematic human rights issues, and ongoing regional conflicts amidst U.S. presidential, Congressional, and regional and local elections. Through these crises, U.S. Helsinki Commission leadership worked tirelessly to ensure that human rights and comprehensive security continued to be promoted through the United States’ foreign and domestic policy agendas. 2020 also marked the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris, which set unprecedented commitments to human rights, providing an opportunity for OSCE participating States to reflect and bolster human rights commitments during such a crucial time. Through hearings and briefings, legislative activities, public statements and reports, and engagement with other foreign policy actors, the Helsinki Commission has focused on human rights and security challenges both in the United States and abroad to advance the commission’s priorities in the 116th Congress: principled foreign policy; human rights at home; parliamentary diplomacy; and safe, inclusive, and equitable societies. Additional policy focuses include regional security, election observation, OSCE engagement, and anti-corruption work. View a comprehensive list of activities in the Helsinki Commission's report on the 116th Congress.  Principled Foreign Policy From respect for sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states to human rights and fundamental freedoms, commitments undertaken by OSCE participating States underpin peace and stability in the OSCE region and form the basis of comprehensive security for all people. The Helsinki Commission strives to ensure that the protection of human rights and democratic development are central to a principled U.S. foreign policy. During the 116th Congress, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans attracted particular attention, given the ongoing human rights and regional conflict issues in those countries. Belarus Following over two decades of authoritarian rule supported by the Kremlin, a political crisis erupted in Belarus in the summer of 2020. After August 9 elections, the Alexander Lukashenko regime claimed victory, and the country saw an unrelenting crackdown by Belarusian authorities on peaceful protests, civil society, and the media. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994. Unprecedented crowds continue to protest the election. Ahead of the election, Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested as last-minute candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) called on President Lukashenko “to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” After the elections and in reaction to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Lukashenko regime, Chairman Hastings wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requesting that the U.S. administration revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. “The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.” ​ Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission After the invocation by 17 OSCE participating States of the Moscow Mechanism to report on human rights concerns in Belarus and subsequent investigation, Professor Wolfgang Benedek—the selected rapporteur—joined the Helsinki Commission for a podcast to discuss his findings, including evidence of fraudulent elections, systematic human rights violations, and a general situation of impunity for perpetrators. Regional Security and Stability In May 2020, following reports that the Trump administration planned to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, Chairman Hastings urged Congress to support the United States’ allies and partners in Europe, as “withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty can only benefit Putin’s continuing campaign of aggression against Russia’s neighbors.” Chairman Hastings also authored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2021 Fiscal Year to reflect support for the Open Skies Treaty and stated his regret in November when the U.S. withdrew from the treaty. The Helsinki Commission held a joint hearing in November 2019 with the House Foreign Affairs Committee concerning the importance of the Open Skies Treaty for security and stability in Europe and released a podcast on the treaty’s benefits, the complexity of execution, and current challenges in implementation. In July 2019, for the first time in its 43-year history the Helsinki Commission convened outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to Baltic Sea regional security and emphasize its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. The commission also held a briefing to discuss the potential use of energy, specifically oil and gas projects, to achieve foreign policy goals, as well as the extent to which energy independence can reduce the ability of hostile actors to destabilize the European region by threatening to cut off access to energy supplies. Turkey, Hungary, Ukraine/Crimea, and the Balkans In April 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act to address arbitrary arrests which contribute to Turkey’s deteriorating respect for human rights under President Erdogan. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing on recent developments in Hungary concerning a steady erosion of freedom, the rule of law, and quality of governance. Later that year, the commission reported on an amendment to the Hungarian religion law, which continues to discriminate against people on the basis of their faith. In late 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker successfully pressed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to stop the blockage of the European Union version of the Magnitsky Act. The U.S. Magnitsky Act allows the use of sanctions as a tool to target alleged human rights abusers and corruption, and its European counterpart would do the same. In May 2020, Co-Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cardin urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to work with the European Union’s High Representative to advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions.  Following a mob attack in October 2019 on a Jewish community center providing office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Chairman Hastings and Ranking Member Cardin called the Hungarian government to take action during this “alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups.” In 2020, the commission released a report detailing the escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions against civil society as Orban continues to consolidate power in Hungary. In December 2019, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Commissioner Rep.  Emanuel Cleaver II (MO-05) introduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act in the House of Representatives, and Co-Chairman Wicker introduced the act, cosponsored by Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), to the Senate. The act, which would combat Russia’s religious freedom violations in the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine, unanimously passed in the House of Representatives in November 2020 and awaits Senate action. In July 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing about reunifying societies divided by war, genocide, and other tragedies in areas such as the Balkans, as well as promoting reconciliation and healing for Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution who continue to seek justice worldwide. Twenty years after two U.S. citizens were brutally murdered in Serbia in the aftermath of the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, their brother Ilir joins the Helsinki Commission to share his family’s fight for justice in the face of inaction by Serbian authorities. Election Observation In 1990, all OSCE participating States pledged to hold free and fair elections and to invite international observers. OSCE election observation missions often are undertaken jointly by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). These election observation missions have been recognized as one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage States’ commitment to democratic standards and have become a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to provide feedback on the election processes to the benefit of candidates and voters alike. Commissioners and staff have observed well over 100 elections since 1990, and in 2020 alone, the OSCE has been invited to observe elections in nearly 20 OSCE participating States, including the United States. In 2019, the commission held a briefing focused on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues such as voting technology and security. In addition, the use of disinformation to influence elections has become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States. Ahead of the 2020 general elections, the commission held a briefing on the intersections and influences of disinformation and COVID-19 on the electoral process. Election observation is an important way to help monitor these effects on the workings of democracy. A limited election observation mission was deployed by the OSCE to observe the 2020 general election in the United States. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the OSCE team was confident it produced a thorough, impartial, fact-based assessment that concluded the elections were free and fair, as well as “competitive and well managed despite legal uncertainties and logistical challenges” posed by the pandemic and the polarized political climate. OSCE Institutions and Policy During the past two years, the Helsinki Commission hosted hearings featuring both the Albanian and Slovakian OSCE Chairs in Office, as well as the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir, to discuss OSCE institutional priorities such as human rights violations, conflict resolution, and the safety of journalists. In January 2020, the Helsinki Commission welcomed OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, in her first appearance before Congress, to address challenges in the OSCE region related to human rights and democracy.  In December 2020, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “U.S. Priorities for Engagement at the OSCE,” where Ambassador Philip T. Reeker U.S. State Department Senior Bureau Official, who has been serving in the role of Acting Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia since March 2018, emphasized that the United States is focused on upholding Helsinki Final Act commitments and pushing all participating States to live up to their own commitments to these principles. Human Rights at Home Like all other OSCE participating States, the United States must also examine how well—or how poorly—it is living up to its own OSCE commitments. In the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission took a hard look at human rights at home. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home.” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman, U.S. Helsinki Commission In summer 2020 the Helsinki Commission launched a series of hearings focused on restorative justice related to public monuments and memorials, the safety of journalists, and implications of domestic human rights issues for U.S. leadership. The commission also convened political and civil rights leaders to discuss the impact of George Floyd’s tragic death on the need to shape policies that confront and prevent racism and racist acts. The Helsinki Commission dealt at further length with the safety of journalists and freedom of the media in the United States. In the aftermath of attacks on journalists covering protests calling for racial justice, Chairman Rep. Hastings expressed the need to take an “honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) supports networks that reach more than 350 million people across the world, many of whom otherwise would not have access to independent, unbiased news. When USAGM failed to renew J-1 visas for foreign Voice of America (VOA) journalists, Chairman Rep. Hastings, Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, and Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33) demanded that U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack provide a detailed explanation and called for new policies to protect the personal security of VOA journalists working under the USAGM. Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Societies Civil rights are human rights, and advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. Anti-racism initiatives have always been a priority for the commission, but they found particular focus in 2020 in conjunction with the exposure of systemic racism in police brutality and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on minority populations.  Commissioners looked inward to the United States’ own domestic policies, as well as outward to other OSCE countries, to develop ideas and policies that promote principles of social inclusion, empowering diverse populations and enhancing the ability for everyone to fully participate in society. Over the past decade, Chairman Hastings has drawn attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans, recognizing their fight for inclusion. In March 2019, he introduced legislation establishing a strategy to protect the collective history and achievements of people of African descent and to promote the human rights of people of African descent worldwide, and a year later, he introduced a bill to implement a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan. “Across the globe we find racial disparities between those of African descent and other populations in education, employment, health, housing, justice, and other sectors. At the same time, hate crimes and racial profiling targeting black populations are increasing,” said Chairman Hastings. “A global strategy ensures we are monitoring whether countries around the world are providing equal protections and opportunity to all within their borders.” Chairman Hastings also collaborated with other Helsinki Commissioners to address racism globally. In July 2020, Chairman Hastings, along with Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), Rep. Cleaver, Rep. Veasey, and 35 other Members of the United States Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus Chair, called for a sweeping plan of action following the European Parliament’s Juneteenth Day resolution supporting protests against racism and police brutality. Chairman Hastings and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (NY-05) also issued a statement regarding foreign affairs funding for diverse, global anti-racism programs, commemorating John Lewis’ yearly leadership in securing these appropriations requests. In September, Chairman Hastings and other Helsinki Commissioners joined members of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee and Subcommittee on Human Rights to discuss combating racism and systemic discrimination on both sides of the Atlantic. In October, Ranking Member Cardin joined the office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities for an online event that evaluated the applicability of the 2006 Recommendations on Policing in Multi-Ethnic Societies, highlighted relevant legislation, and discussed structural changes to address discriminatory police violence. Ahead of International Roma Day in 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted a discussion about racism against Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Europe who have historically faced enslavement and continue to battle discrimination. The conversation focused on the state of Roma rights in Europe, as well as resolutions introduced by Helsinki Commission leaders to celebrate Romani American heritage. Reports from nearly every corner of the OSCE region suggest that minority groups have been impacted especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an extended episode of "Helsinki on the Hill" takes an in-depth look at the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable populations, such as the Roma, and the role of governments in addressing that impact. In December 2019, the Helsinki Commission convened a hearing to focus on public diplomacy initiatives that cultivate leaders who espouse democratic principles, including inclusive and representative governance. The commission also released a podcast discussing how to achieve equitable and inclusive democracies  through political inclusion and economic empowerment. Guests discussed their experiences on the front lines of the fight for greater diversity and inclusion in Europe, and in the transatlantic policymaking space more broadly.  Members of the Helsinki Commission have long supported diversity and inclusion efforts in international affairs including through the annual Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN) workshop, a hearing about the state of diversity and inclusion in Europe, and a new transatlantic democracy program for youth “On the Road to Inclusion.” In March 2020, Chairman Hastings introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act, calling for the creation of a transatlantic institute focused on strengthening democratic principles and values in the West, as well as pioneering inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges that would empowering individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. The commission also supports diversity in the diplomatic corps. Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker, and Ranking Member Cardin joined bipartisan Congressional efforts to support annual funding for State Department and USAID diversity fellowship programs, as well as study abroad opportunities. Parliamentary Diplomacy Parliamentary diplomacy advances comprehensive security and democratic institutions in the OSCE region and acts as a tool to promote safe, inclusive and equitable societies. Commissioners have championed the development of parliamentary assemblies for regional organizations throughout the world and participate regularly in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which offers opportunities for engagement among parliamentarians from OSCE participating States. The Helsinki Commission organizes bicameral U.S. delegations to OSCE PA meetings throughout the year. With 17 of 323 seats, the United States has the largest representation in the assembly. In the 116th Congress, commissioners explored ways to defend human rights, hold the Kremlin accountable, and maximize cooperation with OSCE Mediterranean partners at OSCE PA meetings. Commissioners visited Hungary, Tunisia, Israel, and Morocco in bipartisan delegations aiming to strengthen shared principles, and Commissioners reported on these visits at OSCE PA meetings as well. Co-Chairman Wicker led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 28th Annual Session of the OSCE PA in July 2019 in Luxembourg. At this annual session, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Cardin, who also serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, hosted a U.S. side event in his capacity as Special Representative on the topic of adopting an action plan to counter hate and foster inclusion. Following a two-day seminar organized by Helsinki Commission and the OSCE PA in February 2020, Future Leadership for Political Inclusion in the OSCE Region: A Seminar for Young Parliamentarians, nearly 20 young legislators from OSCE participating States issued a joint declaration emphasizing the important role young people must play in addressing human rights and security challenges across the world. The commission hosted OSCE PA officials for a briefing in December of 2019 to share a parliamentary perspective on the priorities and objectives of the Albanian chairmanship of the OSCE amid regional conflicts and resistance to democratic reforms in some countries in the OSCE region. The commission also regularly hosts hearings, convenes panels, and participates in events related to parliamentary diplomacy, highlighting the important role the OSCE PA and other parliamentary assemblies play in holding governments accountable to standards of cooperation and human rights. Corruption During the 116th Congress, the Helsinki Commission promoted efforts to combat corruption in the OSCE region, recognizing it as a threat to democracy, security, and human rights. The commission’s work focuses on authoritarian kleptocracy, a form of autocratic government that relies on financial globalization and secrecy to steal and maintain power. Members of the Helsinki Commission introduced the Rodchenkov Act, the Kleptocrat Exposure Act, the Combating the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA), the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act, the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, and the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act. The Rodchenkov Act passed through both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Trump on December 4, 2020. The act establishes criminal penalties for doping schemes, provides restitution for victims, protects whistleblowers from retaliation, and shares information with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Passage of the bipartisan legislation was spearheaded by Co-Chairman Wicker and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) in the Senate and former Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26) in the House of Representatives. “This legislation is a great bipartisan accomplishment for the rights of athletes, the protection of whistleblowers, and our common goal of keeping criminals out of international sports,” said Co-Chairman Wicker.  The commission also organized briefings to draw attention to issues like money laundering and official corruption, as well as to share best practices on innovative corruption policies.

  • Europe Whole and Free? The Future of the OSCE

    On November 20, the Woodrow Wilson Center, in cooperation with the U.S. Helsinki Commission, hosted “Europe Whole and Free: The Future of the OSCE.” The event discussed a divided Europe and the responsibility of the United States to help obtain peace on the continent. The event featured Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), as well as other leading voices on European security and cooperation. The event celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, which was signed by 34 heads of state and government during a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe Summit (CSCE) held in the French capital from November 19 to 21, 1990. The political agreement charted a path forward following Cold War confrontation and ushered in a new era as states made an unprecedented commitment to domestic individual freedoms, democratic governance, human rights, and transnational cooperation. By institutionalizing the CSCE as a platform to realize peace and security, this process created the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which today is the world’s largest regional security organization, comprising 57 participating States. Participants delved into the history of the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris, acknowledging that these agreements hold particular importance as milestones of European and transatlantic cooperation. They also expressed optimism concerning transatlantic cooperation under President-elect Joe Biden and stressed the importance of continuing dialogue regarding Charter of Paris commitments. “I think Joe Biden recognizes that U.S. involvement globally is going to be in the United States’ interest,” said Sen. Cardin. “You’re going to see a president who will embrace those allies that share our values, but he’ll engage all of the countries. But he’ll be anchored in our values, which, by the way, are the Helsinki Final Act values and reinforcing the Charter of Paris.” As democracy and human rights are systematically challenged in the OSCE region, Robert Ryberg, Deputy Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden and incoming OSCE Chair-in-Office, noted that recent developments in Ukraine and Belarus demonstrate that nearly all serious challenges to the OSCE region’s security stem from situations where the fundamental principles of Helsinki and Paris are not respected. Many speakers pointed out the need for accountability within the OSCE and reinvigorated political investment from participating States in order to realize Chart of Paris ideals. “As no one participating in that Paris Charter could predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, which at that time was literally only a year away, we cannot yet see the contours of the world that will emerge from the lockdowns that we are seeing now and this disruption that the coronavirus has really brought to the entire world,” said Rep. Aderholt. “Whatever the future holds, I believe that a revitalized OSCE will be a powerful asset for our leaders as they navigate in a new era and as we continue to call upon all governments to respect inalienable rights.” Speakers also called for a reinvigoration, and in some cases reform, of the OSCE, as well as the promotion of multilateralism, as avenues to continue the vital work of the OSCE.   Photos Courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France​ 

  • A Parliamentary Perspective on the 30th Anniversary of the Charter of Paris

    On November 20, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the French Delegation to the OSCE PA hosted a commemorative event celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Speakers reflected on the momentous document and discussed how to the OSCE can continue to provide value within today’s complex international framework. The Charter of Paris was signed by 34 heads of state and government during a Summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in the French capital from November 19 to 21, 1990. The political agreement charted a path forward following Cold War confrontation and ushered in a new era as states made an unprecedented commitment to domestic individual freedoms, democratic governance, human rights, and transnational cooperation. The agreement led to the institutionalization of the CSCE as well as the regularization of its meeting, setting the stage for the transformation of the ongoing conference to an organization, the OSCE, in 1995.  This included the founding of the Parliamentary Assembly in 1991.  As the Charter of Paris turns 30, speakers reflected on its history and expression of hope for unity, stability and peace – goals which seemed attainable at the time but appear more distant today. Ann Linde, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden and incoming OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, stressed the OSCE and OSCE PA’s critical role in resolving challenges that threaten the OSCE region’s collective security, such as Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the post-election crackdown in Belarus. OSCE PA President George Tsereteli said, “it is clear that we as politicians and parliamentarians need to work very hard.” He encouraged his colleagues to confront crises in democracy and strive to realize Charter of Paris commitments. Participants of the event acknowledged the need to strengthen participating States’ commitments to the charter’s ideals through cooperation and dialogue. These calls for action were within the context of current geopolitical conflicts, as well as an effort to find ways to reach consensus with Russia. “The OSCE has become the premier international organization promoting human rights… It is a proud record, but it’s a record that can be improved. The OSCE needs to work on openness, access to non-governmental organizations. But the problem within the OSCE states today is principally noncompliance of the states with the principles, not the deficiencies in the organization itself,” said Helsinki Commission Ranking Member and OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, Sen. Ben Cardin. “Every state can do better,” Cardin said. “So, let us on this 30th anniversary of the Paris Charter remember our mission to build, consolidate, and strengthen democracies as the only system of government of our nations. You cannot be neutral in democracy.”

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: November 2020

  • What’s Washington’s role in Belarus?

    The United States should lift up Belarusian civil society, according to experts, and slap tougher sanctions on mid-level government officials abusing protestors. The Trump administration should widen sanctions against human-rights abusers in Belarus and ramp up support for civil-society groups monitoring president Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown, according to former State and Treasury department officials. Lukashenko purged his political opponents from the ballot in mid-August and unleashed security forces against civilians protesting the election. The crackdown has not cowed Lukashenko’s opponents, who have called for his ouster every weekend for the past two months. Over 100,000 people protested in Minsk on Sunday. The United States penalized senior members of Lukashenko’s inner-circle last week in an effort to push the embattled leader to negotiate. The State Department announced in September that the United States no longer recognizes Lukashenko’s government, and coordinated the sanctions with wider penalties from Europe. Both the Trump administration and European Union officials could be doing more to support the protestors, experts told National Journal. “I think both the U.S. and the EU need to go much further than they have so far, in terms of the number of people that they sanction,” said Michael Carpenter, director at the Penn Biden Center, who called for sanctions against “mid-level” Belarusian officials directly responsible for the human-rights abuses. Belarus-specific sanctions date to the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004, and a Bush-era executive order that sets out guidelines for penalizing officials responsible for undermining democracy. Lawmakers added further penalties in 2011. The Trump administration targeted eight people Friday, including the head of Belarus’s elections and the chief of Belarus’s security forces, and the European Union sanctioned 40 people. The United Kingdom and Canada also announced sanctions over the weekend, including against Lukashenko himself. The sanctions are only one part of Belarus policy, experts stressed, which is ultimately supposed to push Lukashenko to negotiate. Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mediate the negotiations on Tuesday. Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, predicted that Merkel would take up the challenge—but would have to act quickly. Russian President Vladimir Putin might accuse the EU of meddling in Belarus’ government should the talks drag, Dempsey told National Journal. “If Merkel does take on this mediating role, it’s got to be incredibly sophisticated and it’s got to be very fast,” said Dempsey. The United States may not play a direct role in mediating the talks, but the Trump administration might put more pressure on Lukashenko by targeting mid-level officials inside his government. Former State Department sanctions coordinator Daniel Fried told National Journal that the State Department and OFAC could craft an executive order to authorize “status-based” penalties: those which authorize Treasury to target specific people based on their employment. Officials could then work with Belarusian civil society to identify targets, like “the plainclothes cops roughing up dissidents.” “Putting this into legislation is hard as hell, and then it’s not as flexible,” said Fried. “It’s far better to let OFAC do it, in coordination with the State Department.” Lawmakers have remained largely hands-off on Belarus, besides offering statements in support of those protesting against Lukashenko. In July, the Senate passed a resolution condemning the arrest of opposition candidates and political protesters. The chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee separately called out Lukashenko’s handling of the election in early August, and later in the month issued a joint statement calling for sanctions against those responsible for human-rights abuses. The upper chamber might support Belarus policy by advancing Trump’s ambassadorial nominee to Belarus, several former officials and experts told National Journal. The United States and Belarus haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2008. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced career State Department official Julie Fisher favorably out of committee in late September. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy voted against the nomination, and argued that sending the ambassador to Belarus during the crackdown would reward Lukashenko. Some experts disagreed, and said having an ambassador in Minsk could help the United States coordinate policy with civil-society groups and would send an important signal to domestic opposition. Sen. James Risch told Murphy that the State Department believed having an ambassador to Minsk was “the best way to help the Belarusian people.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not respond to emailed questions about Fisher’s nomination; Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesperson Suzanne Wrasse told National Journal that McConnell has “a number of priorities,” and that ambassadorial nominations were “on the list.” While former officials agreed that ramping up support for civil society groups and sanctioning mid-level Belarusian officials could be effective at prodding Lukashenko to negotiate, they disagreed over whether also to target large state-owned firms that form the backbone of the Belarusian economy. Carpenter, Fried, and other former Obama administration officials suggested that penalizing the companies could end up hurting protestors, many of whom work on the factory floors. The Lukashenko government has close ties with heavy industry, however, and a few lawmakers told National Journal they support lifting waivers granting them access to the U.S. market. Rep. Alcee Hastings asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in mid-August to cancel sanctions waivers for several Belarusian companies. Hastings led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election-monitoring mission for Belarus’s 2006 presidential election, and now heads the Helsinki Commission, a congressionally-created agency that coordinates OSCE policy on Capitol Hill. The Treasury Department has not responded to Hastings’ letter. “Providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system is unacceptable, and the sanctions announced on individuals last week by the Treasury Department are a step in the right direction,” said Hastings in a statement to National Journal. “However, Lukashenko himself has long been a prime candidate for Global Magnitsky sanctions, and failing to include him among the sanctioned individuals is a severe oversight.” Last fall, the state-owned Belarusian oil company Belneftekhim retained lobbyist David Gencarelli to push for the continuation of a licensing exemption allowing the company to purchase “crude oil with delivery to the refineries in the Republic of Belarus.” The Treasury Department extended relief to Belneftekhim and other heavy-industry players, giving them continued access to the American market until April 2021. “What we’ve seen over the years with Lukashenko is he’s a very skillful player juggling between the U.S. and Europe, which is a natural market for Belarus, and Russia,” said Sofya Orlosky, senior program manager for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. The EU has similarly sought to keep Lukashenko from sliding into Putin’s orbit, periodically lifting and reimposing sanctions on his government for human-rights abuses. The bloc suspended financial penalties in 2016 after Lukashenko granted “amnesty” to a number of political prisoners, which Orlosky said normalized Lukashenko’s undemocratic behavior. “There’s been, as it were, a limit to the severity of sanctions in the past, because the argument was made at least implicitly that we don’t want to alienate Belarus too much or throw them into Russia’s arms,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus. The Trump administration has pursued normalization with Minsk for the past several years, prior to Lukashenko’s crackdown. The State Department’s top political official, David Hale, met with Lukashenko in Minsk in September 2019, and stated afterward that the U.S. was ready to exchange ambassadors “as the next step in normalizing our relationship.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February for the same purpose. The difference now, according to Gould-Davies: The legitimacy of Lukashenko’s regime “is basically broken.” Very few people support the government, aside from people working directly for the state, which undercuts calls for moderation in the West. “He enjoys no significant support outside of those who actually work for the state,” said Gould-Davies.

  • U.S., EU Sanction Belarus in Coordinated Western Action

    Lukashenko government lashes out, saying no ‘self-respecting’ state would agree to demands posed by the West. The U.S. and European Union imposed sanctions against Belarus officials on Friday, part of a coordinated effort by Western allies to censure the authoritarian regime over accusations of political repression and rigging elections. The EU reached an early morning deal to advance a sanctions package against more than three dozen Belarusian individuals deemed responsible for suppressing protests and for election fraud. Hours later, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted eight senior figures in longtime President Alexander Lukashenko’s government or associated with his rule. Among those blacklisted were Interior Minister Yuriy Khadzymuratavich Kareau and top election commission officials. The EU’s action against Belarus, together with a joint statement reprimanding Turkey for drilling in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece, was meant as a broader message of mounting concern that Europe’s eastern periphery, a region that once held hopes for a spread of democracy, is increasingly turning back to its authoritarian past. Divisions within the EU stymied an attempt to sanction Turkey during a summit this week, but officials said the bloc could approve punitive actions in the future. The EU was able to move forward with its Belarus sanctions package, originally promised in August, after Greece and Cyprus secured the statement calling for Turkey to halt its drilling. While the U.S. sanctioned Mr. Lukashenko in 2006, the EU declined for now to include the Belarussian leader himself in their action. Officials said the president, who previously was the subject of EU sanctions that were lifted in 2016, still could be targeted again later. The EU sanctions came into effect Friday afternoon. Mr Lukashenko’s interior minister was also one of the highest-profile names on the EU sanctions list. The Belarus foreign ministry condemned the sanctions and said the government also enacted its own sanctions list, which won’t be made public. It said it may also reconsider its participation in joint programs with the EU and could cut diplomatic ties if further EU sanctions are levied. “The sanctions were introduced as a punitive measure…for the fact that Belarus did not comply with a set of ultimatum requirements that no self-respecting sovereign state would satisfy,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. The statement didn’t address the specific allegations of election-rigging and violent political repression. The U.S. and EU sanctions follow the imposition of sanctions on Mr. Lukashenko and seven senior figures in his government by the U.K. and Canada on Tuesday, a sign of widening discontent in the West over ongoing repression of peaceful protests against his purported victory in a disputed election. Western officials have accused Mr. Lukashenko and his allies of multiple human rights violations in detaining and allegedly torturing protesters following the Aug. 9 vote, which Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents and Western governments say was rigged in his favor to extend his more than a quarter-century in power. The EU has called for a rerun of the presidential elections with international supervision. It has warned it could add additional sanctions if Mr. Lukashenko refuses to enter dialogue with the opposition. The U.S. sanctions targeted officials the Treasury Department said run government offices responsible for the political repression, human rights abuses and election fixing. Besides the top two Interior Ministry officials, the Treasury also blacklisted the two leaders of Interior’s Internal Troops, Yuriy Henadzievich Nazaranka and Khazalbek Bakhtsibekavich Atabekau. “The Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations to choose their own leaders and peacefully exercise their rights have been met with violence and oppression from Belarusian officials,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The Trump administration declined for now to revoke a special license giving the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus access to the U.S. financial system, as urged by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a government body that advises administrations on sanctions. While the EU’s Belarus sanctions had broad support, the bloc has been deeply split over how to respond to Turkey’s increasingly frequent flexing of military muscle in the region, including its unilateral moves to explore and drill for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey says it has the right to seek energy resources in the region. With respect to Turkey, the EU leaders settled on diplomacy for now, issuing the joint statement but threatening sanctions if Ankara didn’t show willingness to improve ties. Western diplomats said tensions between Ankara and Athens this summer rose to levels not seen since the 1970s, when Turkey and Greece came close to a direct military conflict over Cyprus. Greece and Turkey are North Atlantic Treaty Organization members. However, Turkey has for now suspended its energy activities in waters claimed by Greece but not by Cyprus. Separately, Turkey and Greece reached an agreement Thursday, mediated by NATO, to take measures to avoid an air or naval clash in the eastern Mediterranean, including a hotline between the two countries. European diplomats have also grown alarmed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to send troops into Libya and Syria, its unconditional support for Azerbaijan in renewed fighting with Armenia and its acquisition of advanced weaponry from Russia. On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said France had clear evidence that jihadist fighters were leaving Syria to go to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh via Turkey. Mr. Macron had earlier criticized Ankara for what he called its bellicose comments against Armenia over its conflict with Azerbaijan. —Ann Simmons in Moscow contributed to this article.

  • ONGOING TRANSATLANTIC ENGAGEMENT THROUGH THE OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY

    Mr. HUDSON. Madam Speaker, I rise today to highlight my recent efforts to engage with our allies across Europe to address the current political turmoil in Belarus and seek a way forward. On September 23, I joined a video call of the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA), where I serve as Chairman the Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Joining us for the discussion were the Head of the Belarusian delegation to the OSCE PA, Mr. Andrei Savinykh, and the leader of the Belarusian opposition and former presidential candidate, Ms. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Ms. Tikhanovskaya shared with us the long struggle of the people of Belarus for their rights under President Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year authoritarian rule. The fraudulent presidential election on August 9, in which Lukashenko claimed he ``won'' with over 80 percent of the vote, led thousands of Belarusians across the country to come out into the streets. They risk physical harm and imprisonment to demand free and fair elections and the release of political prisoners. Unfortunately, these individuals have been met with brute force from the authoritarian regime. They continue to injure and detain protestors, journalists, and even bystanders on a massive scale. Instances of torture in detention have been reported, and some have been killed. Lukashenko is clearly afraid for his political future. In another desperate move, he recently held an illegal, early "inauguration'' in an attempt to consolidate his illegitimate power. I strongly condemned Lukashenko's violent repression of Belarusians and express solidarity for their desire to choose their own leadership in a democratic and transparent manner and to exercise their fundamental freedoms without fear of violent repercussions or harassment. During our meeting, I noted two particular cases that we in the United States are watching closely. U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov, who was in Belarus visiting family, was unjustly detained in July and languishes in a Belarusian prison since the end of July. We are concerned for his welfare and I called for his release. I also mentioned that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Minsk-Mogilev, Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, has been denied re-entry to Belarus after a visit abroad, even though he is a citizen. He has openly criticized the government's use of violence against peaceful people, including the detention of priests and clergy, and we fear that this too is a political act on the part of Lukashenko and an infringement on religious freedom. The future of Belarus belongs to its people, and, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emphasized, this path should be ``free from external intervention.'' Indeed, my colleagues in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly understand that it is not our place to choose the leadership of Belarus, but to use the unique role of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly as a representative body to foster authentic dialogue, prevent and resolve conflict, and hold each other accountable. As an OSCE participating State, Belarus has an obligation to abide by the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, including those on human rights and fundamental freedoms. I am pleased that 17 participating States of the OSCE, including the United States, have invoked the Moscow Mechanism, which will establish a mission of independent experts to look into the particularly serious threats to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in Belarus. The report that the mission issues will hopefully offer us greater insight into the situation in Belarus and recommendations for future actions. It is a privilege, through the U.S. Helsinki Commission, to represent the United States Congress in the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE. The Parliamentary Assembly provides Members of Congress with a unique, bipartisan opportunity to work with our friends and allies to help resolve pressing global issues while promoting our shared values. Because the Parliamentary Assembly includes representatives of Belarus and our European allies, it is uniquely suited to address the human rights and security implications of the moment in Belarus. Madam Speaker, please join me today in calling for an end to violence and mass detentions in Belarus and recognizing the importance of continued Congressional engagement with the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE.

  • Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: ALBANIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE Responding to the Multiple Challenges of 2020 Thursday, September 17, 2020 1:00 p.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2020, Albania holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—with a multi-dimensional mandate and a 57-country membership stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. This year, the OSCE has faced the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic and the clear urgency of action against racism, while maintaining its necessary focus on other longtime concerns often impacted by these developments.  These concerns include Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine and threats to other nearby or neighboring countries; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; and political leaders in Belarus as well as in Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and other OSCE countries seeking to undermine democratic institutions and stifle dissent in every sector.  Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Vulnerable communities, including migrants, are targets of discrimination and violence.  Uncertainties in the Western Balkans and Central Asia remain.  The recent decision of some countries to block reappointments of senior officers at key OSCE institutions undermines the organization at a time when effective contributions to security and cooperation across the region are so deeply needed. The Helsinki Commission regularly holds a hearing allowing the annually rotating OSCE chairmanship to present its priorities for the year and to exchange views on current issues. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who holds his country’s foreign affairs portfolio, will appear at this hearing to discuss the performance of the OSCE thus far in 2020 and to share his views in advance of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting scheduled for early December.

  • Chairman Hastings Asks Treasury Secretary to Revoke Access to U.S. Financial System for Largest State-Owned Companies in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus. The letter, which follows the violent suppression of peaceful protests in Belarus after the country’s fraudulent presidential election on August 9, reads in part: “As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime… “Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to [Belarus’] March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action.” During the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, Chairman Hastings led the OSCE’s short-term international election observation mission of more than 500 observers; its report noted that the “arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression, and raise doubts regarding the authorities' willingness to tolerate political competition.” The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, I request that you revoke General License No. 2G with respect to Executive Order 13405, which authorizes access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus.  As President Alexander Lukashenko violently suppresses peaceful protests in the Belarus and flouts international election commitments, it is unacceptable for the United States to be doing business with this brutal regime. For the March 2006 presidential election in Belarus, I served as Special Coordinator of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chair-in-Office, where I led the international election observation mission of more than 500 observers and declared that those elections were not free and fair.  At that time, President Lukashenko failed to live up to international commitments by arbitrarily preventing 19 international observers from joining the mission, enforcing a pattern of intimidation against voters and opposition candidates, as well as manipulating state media.  I am sad to see that nothing has changed in more than a decade and the reach of President Lukashenko’s regime has consequently done even more irreparable damage to the Belarusian people. Ahead of Belarus’ presidential election on August 9, Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, has once again authorized crackdowns on opposition protestors, journalists, and civil society activists.  Over 1,300 people were arbitrarily detained in the course of the campaign.  Still more are being detained in protests following the election.  The president disqualified or jailed his top three competitors, hoping to ensure victory.  Belarus also failed to extend a timely invitation to international observers, preventing impartial monitors from the OSCE from observing the election process, which increases the likelihood of large-scale fraud. Lukashenko underestimated, however, how much the public would rally around the wife of an intended presidential candidate who was unjustly imprisoned.  As an opposition candidate and everyday citizen concerned for the future of Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has mobilized thousands across Belarus to demand change in their country, starting with free and fair elections.  Tikhanovskaya and her family are now safely in refuge under the protection of the Lithuanian government for fear of what might become of them now that the fraudulent election results have been announced. Executive Order 13405—Blocking Property of Certain Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus—was originally issued in June 16, 2006 in reaction to the aforementioned March 2006 elections and subsequent repression of protests.  It targets the human rights abuses that have sadly become characteristic of the Lukashenko regime and which he is committing now more aggressively than ever as he attempts to squash fair political competition. There has never been a more appropriate time to fully implement this Executive Order and consider expanding its principle objectives with additional executive action. The people of Belarus have demonstrated through these protests their deep desire for democracy and their refusal to be silenced.  It is incumbent upon us to stand with them.  At the very least, this means that we should not be inadvertently providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system. Sincerely, Alcee L. Hastings Chairman

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Condemns Fraudulent Election Results, Violence Against Protesters In Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Following the August 9 presidential election in Belarus and ongoing violence against protesters across the country, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “From the earliest stages of campaigning, Alexander Lukashenko has ruthlessly suppressed his political opponents, independent media, and ordinary citizens advocating for change. This electoral 'victory' was accomplished through blatant manipulation and fraud, as well as threats and violence. The United States stands with the people of Belarus, who have a right to make free choices about their country’s future and to protest peacefully.” In June and July 2020, longtime president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko eliminated his main political competition through disqualification or imprisonment. Numerous protestors, supporters of opposition candidates, and journalists were arrested in the lead-up to the election. Belarus’ Central Election Commission stated on August 9 that more than 80 percent of voters voted for Lukashenko, with opposition candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, who drew unprecedented crowds to her rallies, receiving about 10 percent of the vote. Experts consider these numbers to be highly inaccurate. Following the election, protests across Belarus have been marked by mobile internet shutdowns, police violence, and mass arrests. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Co-Chairman Wicker Commends Decision by Belarus to Refuse Extradition of Jehovah’s Witness to Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the April decision by the Prosecutor General of Belarus to reject the Government of Russia’s request to extradite a Russian national to face criminal charges for being a Jehovah’s Witness, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I commend the government of President Alexander Lukashenko for releasing Nikolai Makhalichev and rejecting the Kremlin’s request to extradite him. If forced to return to Russia, Mr. Makhalichev would face detention, a criminal trial, certain conviction, and imprisonment—merely for practicing his sincerely-held religious beliefs. “In keeping with Belarus’ OSCE commitments and other international obligations, Belarusian authorities should continue to resist the extradition of Mr. Makhalichev to Russia, allow him to move freely, and respect his human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of whether the Government of Belarus grants him refugee status or another country gives him legal protection.” Background Amendments in 2006 to Russia’s Federal Law on Countering Extremist Activity criminalized a wide range of religious activities as “extremist,” without precisely defining extremism or requiring that such activities have a violent element. The Russian Government invoked the law as it began relentlessly targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses, a peaceful faith community, with investigations, raids, arrests, detention, trials, the closure of local congregations, website and literature bans, and more. In July 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld an earlier ruling in favor of the Ministry of Justice that Jehovah’s Witnesses are an “extremist” group, criminalizing and effectively banning their activities, and ordering their property to be seized and liquidated. Since then, Russian authorities have conducted criminal investigations into at least 333 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including Makhalichev; courts have convicted at least 32 of them. The authorities have engaged in raids, detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, property confiscations, and even torture. In February 2020, Belarusian police detained Makhalichev, citing the criminal charges against him in Russia. He then applied for refugee status in Belarus. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office formally requested extradition in March. The Belarusian Ministry of Interior is currently adjudicating Makhalichev's refugee application. In September 2019, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing highlighting how the Kremlin and other autocratic governments engage in transnational repression against people they perceive as hostile to them: using tools such as INTERPOL to request arrest and extradition, and sometimes even surveilling, abducting, and assassinating targeted persons on foreign soil. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L Hastings (FL-20), Co-Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act to combat such threats. Like all participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Belarus have repeatedly committed themselves to recognizing, respecting, and protecting freedom of religion or belief. In December 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo redesignated Russia for the Special Watch List of countries that have committed severe violations of religious freedom, per the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. Since 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended designating Russia as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Belarusian law authorizes the government to grant refugee status to a foreigner if he or she has a “well-founded fears of being persecuted in the country of his/her citizenship for the reason… of…religion,” and prohibits the government from expelling the applicant to that country, even if the government denies, revokes, or otherwise removes their refugee status. The law also requires the government to give foreigners requesting refugee status or related legal protection access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

  • First Person: Nothing Unusual

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor Election day began like every November day in Belarus: black. Without the time change that makes a late-autumn morning in DC bearable, darkness enveloped Belarus until almost 9:00 a.m. We would be rising much earlier than that to observe the opening of the polls for the November 17 parliamentary election. This was my second election observation, after the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election in March 2019. That election was widely considered free and fair—a great achievement for a new democracy plagued by a Soviet legacy. In Belarus, the last election generally considered free and fair was the 1994 election of President Alexander Lukashenko, who remains in power, with essentially complete control over the government, 25 years later.   Most Belarus-watchers suspected that much of the number-fudging was done before the arrival of election day observers. Early voting took place throughout the week before election day, providing an opportunity to inflate turnout numbers. Multiple opposition candidates could not even make it on the ballot due to selectively-imposed restrictions and technicalities applied to stamp out the competition well before voting took place. Neither I nor the other members of my election observation team (two diplomats already in Minsk: one from the U.S. Embassy, and one from the Swedish Embassy), expected many surprises from the conduct and outcome of the elections. The day started smoothly enough, with a standard, albeit sparsely attended, opening. As we moved on to other polling stations throughout the day, the conditions were mainly the same: observers registered with the chair of the election commission for that precinct and were seated at a table specifically for observers, both national and international. Sign directing voters to polling sites in Belarus. Because the vast majority of OSCE PA observers remained in the Minsk region, and we had traveled a few hours northeast to Vitebsk, we came across only Belarusian observers, whether from trade unions, political parties, or other groups. The observer tables were far enough away from the action that in most cases we could not see much of the voter sign-in and identification check process. When we asked to see the voter lists, we were denied in multiple instances. This was startling for me; in Ukraine, we wandered freely throughout polling stations and had access to everything. Nevertheless, the mood was festive and the people friendly. Music—from disco to Soviet favorites to patriotic tunes—played in the background at several polling places. We received candies in one location and a proud explanation of the region’s main industry in another. A few photos were taken with us, and at one polling place a neighboring observer remarked how interested she was that I had come all the way from the United States just for the election in Belarus! Despite the fun and frivolity, it became clear to us by the end of the day that, though we had seen no gross violations in conduct, the whole process lacked the transparency I had witnessed in Ukraine, or that should be expected in any OSCE country committed to democratic norms.   Nowhere was this more apparent than during the count. As usual, we were confined to the observers’ table just far enough from where the action was taking place to limit real observation. The mobile voting, early voting, and election day ballots were collected and counted in one pile, silently. Because we could not fully see or hear the count, there was no way of knowing whether it was accurate, even though the precinct chairwoman came over occasionally to riffle through the marked ballots for us. By only 9:15 p.m.—the polls had closed at 8—the count was finished and a winner declared. Votes being counted at a polling site. Our next step was to follow our companions from the polling station to the District Election Commission, where they would deliver the results protocol and election materials. After watching a few deliveries from around the area and encountering many familiar faces from earlier in the day, we decided to head back to the hotel, arriving at a remarkably early 10:30 p.m. Though it was still a long and exhausting day, many such elections, including the one I’d observed in Ukraine, had counts lasting long into the night. The next morning’s results were both surprising and unsurprising. It was no great shock to see that the reported turnout was over 77 percent—suspiciously high for elections to a body with no real power. According to the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, the OSCE International Election Observation Mission noted that early voting turnout in particular (35.77 percent) seemed inflated compared to the reports of observers. More disturbingly, not a single opposition candidate was elected (there had been two in the previous parliament). That Lukashenko would not permit even a semblance of pluralism calls into question the seriousness of his seeming attempts to court the West when faced with a revanchist and controlling Russia—a topic which the U.S. Helsinki Commission explored in a hearing held shortly after the election. Observers would be wise to watch the trajectory of the country as Lukashenko navigates his tricky relationships with the West and Russia. Ultimately, stability—in large part the stability of his own job—will be first in his mind as the 2020 Belarusian presidential election swiftly approaches. A major political upheaval is not likely in the cards. When my colleague stationed in Grodna asked a young independent observer if he’d seen anything interesting or unusual during election day, the observer responded, “Unusual? No. Nothing unusual. This is Belarus. There has been nothing unusual for 25 years.”

  • Not-So-Good Neighbors

    As a new generation of political leaders in Belarus seeks to forge closer ties with the West, the Kremlin has stepped up influence and disinformation campaigns designed to erode Belarusian sovereignty and exploit the strong historical, cultural, and economic ties between the two nations. Expert witnesses examined how Russia most effectively penetrates Belarusian society, and the extent to which Russia’s disinformation and hybrid tactics are influencing the political landscape at a pivotal moment. Speakers also decoded Russia’s tactics in Belarus and explored how the United States can help promote the sovereignty of Belarus.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russian Influence in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: NOT-SO-GOOD NEIGHBORS Russian Influence in Belarus Wednesday, November 20, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As a new generation of political leaders in Belarus seeks to forge closer ties with the West, the Kremlin has stepped up influence and disinformation campaigns designed to erode Belarusian sovereignty and exploit the strong historical, cultural, and economic ties between the two nations. Expert witnesses will examine how Russia most effectively penetrates Belarusian society, and the extent to which Russia’s disinformation and hybrid tactics are influencing the political landscape at a pivotal moment. Speakers will decode Russia’s tactics in Belarus and explore how the United States can help promote the sovereignty of Belarus. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Sofya Orlosky, Senior Program Manager for Eurasia, Freedom House Franak Viačorka, Research Media Analyst (Contractor), U.S. Agency for Global Media Brian Whitmore, Senior Fellow and Director of the Russia Program, CEPA Andrei Yeliseyeu, Head of Monitoring Unit, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS); Research Director, EAST Center  

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