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Activists Brief Commission on the War in Chechnya, Civil Society and Military Reform in Russia
Thursday, July 01, 2004

By John Finerty
CSCE Staff Advisor

The United States Helsinki Commission held a briefing entitled “The War in Chechnya and Russian Civil Society” on June 17, 2004 with representatives of one of the largest and most active nongovernmental organizations in Russia, the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia.

Valentina Melnikova, National Director of CSM, and Natalia Zhukova, Chairwoman of the Nizhny Novgorod Committee of CSM, briefed the Commission on their efforts to publicize and protest human rights abuses in the Russian military and the current state of civil society in Russia.

Helsinki Commission Senior Advisor Elizabeth B. Pryor opened the briefing, noting concerns that President Vladimir Putin’s verbal attacks on human rights organizations and their funding sources – delivered on May 26 during his annual State of the Federation address – may indicate future trouble for Russian NGOs perceived as politically hostile to the Kremlin.

Ms. Zhukova described the work of her committee and addressed the impact of Putin’s recent comments on the committee’s activities.  The Nizhny Novgorod Committee is one of 300 such bodies under the umbrella of CSM, comprising approximately 30 volunteer workers and handling nearly 2,000 requests for assistance from parents and soldiers annually.  “The problem is that most [people] have simply no idea of what’s going on in their military…because television is censored,” she said.

According to Zhukova, the Nizhny Novgorod Committee also provides assistance to approximately 700 deserters annually, precipitated by “beatings, harsh hazing on the part of officers and other soldiers, a criminal environment in the unit, lack of medical assistance, cases of extortion of money, [and] use of soldiers for slave labor.”   In cooperation with the Foundation for Civil Liberties, CSM provides mediation services with authorities and legal assistance to the military deserters and their families.

The Committee also works to ensure social protection for veterans of the Chechen wars with disabilities, lobbying and leading demonstrations in support of adequate allowances for wounded soldiers, and the families of those killed in action.

Regarding the recent condemnation of Russian NGOs by top military and administration officials, Ms. Zhukova noted, “I can’t say that we experience direct persecution.… But after the onslaught announced by the Minister of Defense and after the State of the Nation address by President Putin, we believe that we have to expect financial pressure.”

President Putin’s May 26 address, in which he accused some NGOs of serving “dubious group and commercial interests” rather than those of the Russian people, has been “viewed by the local authorities as an order,” according to Ms. Zhukova.  Since Putin’s speech, she noted, the local governor has revoked the Committee’s discount on their office rent, resulting in a tenfold cost increase.  Moreover, local funding has been depleted because “local businessmen have been so intimidated by the onslaught against us by the Ministry of Defense and by President Putin that we cannot expect anything from them,” she said.

Neither does CSM receive substantial financing from abroad, Zhukova maintains, “We serve the interests of millions of Russian soldiers and their parents, defending them from arbitrary rule and lawlessness of the authorities.”

Ms. Melnikova addressed the effects of the Putin administration on Russian civil society.  The Russian people, she asserted, have been deprived of both political opposition and independent media since Putin came to power.  She listed “the closed nature of the Chechen war, lack of information, [and] direct deceit of the population by the authorities,” as the negative effects of his administration’s actions.  As a result of Putin’s policies, she said, “The war in Chechnya has ceased to exist as far as the Russian public is concerned.” 

Through media controls and a vigorous propaganda campaign, she said, the Russian Government has led the people to believe “that what’s going on in Chechnya is a counterterrorist operation, that we are fighting Arab mercenaries and Al Qaeda units.”  “In reality, the Chechen problem has nothing to do with international terrorism or Islamic fundamentalism…. There is no trace of stabilization in Chechnya, and there are no attempts by the Russian authorities to strive for a peaceful resolution of the problem,” Melnikova stated.

Portraying the Russian military as a “decrepit, poorly managed, federally-corrupted structure,” she described the same grim situation as Ms. Zhukova.  In Chechnya, she charged, Russian officers force young men to become military criminals.  If they return from service alive, they are often psychologically or physically disabled, and abandoned by the government that sent them to Chechnya.

In answer to a question by Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) regarding the recently enacted Russian legislation on alternative military service, Melnikova called the alternative civil service law “inadequate.” She noted that it requires that soldiers serve terms double the length of ordinary military service, perform tasks that do not serve civil society, and often work hundreds of miles away from home. 

The panelists requested that Chairman Smith raise such issues as the fate of a bill regarding civilian control of the armed forces, which has been introduced in the State Duma, and the possibility for a second amnesty for military deserters when he meets with the Speaker of the State Duma at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in early July.

Chairman Smith indicated that U.S. officials have, in past meetings with Russian leaders, raised concerns about violent hazing of military conscripts.  In response, Melnikova provided Smith with recent copies of “The News of the Committee of the Soldiers’ Mothers,” featuring vivid photographs of soldiers that had suffered serious injuries as a result of such hazing.  “Russian officers do not treat their soldiers as human beings,” she said, “therefore, everything goes on as before.”

Regarding the international community’s response to the Chechen conflict, Melnikova claimed: “There is not enough pressure exerted on Mr. Putin. … Ten years of war have infuriated both the Russian military and the Chechens to such an extent that we don’t see any possibility of peaceful resolution....  But I think Russia’s partners simply have to exert pressure on Putin to make him make at least some tentative steps toward peace, maybe offer some intermediate negotiations, maybe seek some mediation efforts on the part of governments or nongovernmental organizations.  At least something has to be done.”

Ms. Melnikova further criticized “the active connivance of the leaders of Western countries, including the United States” as one of the key reasons for the continued restriction of human rights in Russia.  She voiced concern that Washington leaders now believe “that the Russian people don’t need democracy…. That the West supports the anti-democratic policies of the Russian authorities is simply absurd,” she said.

She concluded by stating that the CSM “advocates and conducts a social campaign for military reform, for abolition of conscription and for the [establishment] of a professional armed force,” as well as for peace in Chechnya and the expansion of civilian control over the military.  The CSM provides direct aid to more than 50,000 soldiers and their families annually.

Finally, Melnikova argued that the “legal slavery, chaos, and corruption at all levels of the Russian military compromises not only Russian civil society but also the strategic objectives of Russia’s allies, including nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  Absent democracy,” she said, “there can be no safe Russia.”

Asked about recent attacks on nongovernmental organizations by Putin administration officials, Melnikova mentioned that Putin’s criticisms were preceded by comments by the Minister of Defense and Deputy Minister of Justice to the effect that NGOs were pursuing subversive or illegal activities.  Although she hopes that NGOs will not be targeted by the national authorities, she said that the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky has tempered her optimism.

Responding to questions about funding from Russian oligarchs, Melnikova stated, “Oligarchs dread to touch us [because] there is always a chance that the authorities can charge any businessman with any crime and throw him in prison, and they know it.”

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission Intern Christen Broecker contributed to this article.

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These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Following reports that U.S. immigration authorities have cited such politically-motivated INTERPOL requests to detain some individuals and consider removing them from the United States, the TRAP Act formally codifies strict limitations on how INTERPOL requests can be used by U.S. authorities. The TRAP Act further declares that it is the policy of the United States to pursue specific reforms within INTERPOL and use its diplomatic clout internationally to protect the rights of victims and denounce abusers. The bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State, in consultation with other relevant agencies, to provide Congress with an assessment of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, what the United States is doing to counteract it, and how to adapt United States policy to this evolving autocratic practice. The State Department would also be required to publicly report on the abuse of INTERPOL in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights to create a transparent, public record of these violations of the rule of law. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commission members Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) are also original co-sponsors.

  • Simulating a Baltic Security Crisis

    By Brittany Amador, Intern On August 29, 2019, U.S. Helsinki Commission personnel, joined by Congressional staff from several relevant offices, participated in a simulated security crisis in the Baltic region centered on the U.S. and NATO response to a hypothetical act of Russian aggression. The event followed the Helsinki Commission’s historic field hearing on Baltic Sea regional security, where members of Congress convened senior Allied and partner leaders from Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden, and Finland, as well as the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Mission to NATO, to better understand current and evolving security threats in the region.  Participants in the simulation. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs and Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Mission to NATO, led the simulation. Ambassador Heffern, who currently serves as a Distinguished Fellow of Diplomacy and Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University, was assisted in the facilitation of the game by Andrew Carroll, an officer with the United States Air Force who recently completed his Max Kampelman Policy Fellowship at the Helsinki Commission. 2d Lt Andrew Carroll describing the parameters of the simulation. During the three-hour event, attendees played the roles of various regional actors, and debated possible actions in response to realistic scenario inputs. Participants were provided immediate feedback on their strategic decisions, knowing in real time the impact of their simulated actions. The scenario underlined the challenges and opportunities inherent in any response to a security crisis in the Baltic Sea region. Ambassador (ret.) John Heffern explaining tactical movements.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Probe Autocratic Abuse of Interpol

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: TOOLS OF TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION How Autocrats Punish Dissent Overseas Thursday, September 12, 2019 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As modern technology has allowed political dissidents and human rights defenders to operate from almost anywhere on the planet, repressive regimes have searched for opportunities to reach those who threaten their rule from afar.  To silence dissent from abroad, autocrats often turn to the International Criminal Police Organization, known as INTERPOL, to file bogus criminal claims seeking the arrest and extradition of their political targets. This abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices and Diffusions enables autocratic governments to harass and intimidate their opponents thousands of miles away, even within free and democratic societies. The U.S. Helsinki Commission will convene an expert panel to highlight how autocrats today use INTERPOL and other means such as surveillance, abduction, and assassination to punish dissent overseas. Witnesses will suggest how the United States and other democratic nations can defend against these threats to the rule of law domestically and internationally. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Alexander Cooley, Director, Columbia University's Harriman Institute for the Study of Russia, Eurasia and Eastern Europe; Claire Tow Professor of Political Science, Barnard College Sandra A. Grossman, Partner, Grossman Young & Hammond, Immigration Law, LLC Bruno Min, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor, Fair Trials Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research, Freedom House Additional witnesses may be added.

  • A Push to Let the U.S. Charge Foreign Officials With Bribery

    One of the hallmarks of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act has been that it cannot be used against a foreign official who demands or takes a bribe for helping a company win a contract or retain business. A bill introduced in Congress this month seeks to change that. Called the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, the legislation would expand the prohibition on bribery to foreign officials who demanded or solicited bribes. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’s prohibition on paying bribes abroad is limited to companies in the United States and those acting in this country. It has always excluded the foreign official who takes the bribe, and courts over the years have reaffirmed that. In United States v. Castle, a 1991 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that two Canadian officials could not be prosecuted for a conspiracy to violate the F.C.P.A. because Congress exempted foreign officials. In United States v. Hoskins, a 2018 ruling, the federal appeals court in Manhattan held that a foreign national who was never in the United States could not be prosecuted under the foreign bribery law because “Congress did not intend for persons outside of the statute’s carefully delimited categories to be subject to conspiracy or complicity liability.” The bill, which has both Democrats and Republicans as sponsors, would put the prohibition on a foreign official’s accepting a bribe under the federal anti-bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201, rather than the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The proposal would also make it a crime for a foreign official “otherwise than as provided by law for the proper discharge of official duty” to demand or accept anything of value for being influenced in the performance of official responsibilities. But putting the prohibition under the federal anti-bribery statute would subject it to the limitations the Supreme Court placed on the law in its 2016 ruling in McDonnell v. United States. That case overturned the conviction of a former governor of Virginia by rejecting a broad reading of what is an “official act.” The justices explained that it must involve “a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit, administrative determination or hearing.” They found that “merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event or contacting an official — without more — does not count as an ‘official act.’” Favoring a business by arranging meetings or contacting other foreign officials to help it win a contract may not rise to the level of an “official act,” especially if the foreign official who received the bribe did not have the direct authority to decide who should be awarded a contract. So the potential limitations on the federal bribery statute could be read into prosecutions of foreign officials for accepting bribes that violated the F.C.P.A. The F.C.P.A. also contains two defenses that were added in 1988. One is the “local law” defense, which allows a defendant to show that under the written laws and regulations of the place where the bribe occurred that it was not illegal. Another defense permits small “facilitation payments” to obtain routine government action in the country. In both situations, a foreign official could argue that these defenses should preclude liability for accepting a payment. A greater potential issue for the Justice Department if the legislation becomes law is whether a foreign official will be brought to the United States to face a criminal charge. If the person is still in office, a foreign government may be reluctant to send the person to America. But a criminal indictment would most likely limit where the foreign official could travel. The person would need to avoid countries that have an extradition treaty with the United States. The Department of Justice has not been without tools to punish foreign officials who engage in bribery. The money-laundering statute allows a foreign official receiving money through bribery, misappropriation or theft of public funds to be charged with a crime. Federal prosecutors could also use the Travel Act, which prohibits traveling into the United States to engage in bribery. Both statutes, though, require either travel to the United States or a financial transaction using the United States financial system. The new legislation would make it much easier to pursue a foreign official. The Justice Department would not have to show a connection to the United States beyond a payment by an American company. Whether it would result in an increase in prosecutions is a different question. Still, simply charging the official could have the effect of identifying who was responsible in a country for accepting illegal bribes. That should make it easier for American companies and their employees to demand fairness from foreign officials rather than being extorted for payments.

  • House Majority Leader, Helsinki Commissioners Decry Efforts to Shutter Community Center in Hungary

    WASHINGTON—Following renewed efforts by authorities in Hungary to shutter the Aurora Community Center in Budapest, House Majority Leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) issued the following statements: “During my visit to Budapest earlier this summer, I saw firsthand the important resources Aurora provides to the community,” said Majority Leader Hoyer. “The latest attempt by Hungarian authorities to shut down Aurora speaks volumes about the country’s shrinking space for civil society. On the thinnest of pretexts, the rule of law in Hungary is being hijacked to serve one party's political interests.” “Aurora nurtures a vibrant community of civil society groups and has become a symbol of independent organizations in Hungary,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Unfortunately, such activism is viewed as a threat by those in power, who—through constant legal harassment—are attempting to permanently close Aurora’s doors. Aurora and organizations like it should be protected, not targeted.” “In a time when those who spew hate and divisiveness seem to be ascendant, initiatives like Aurora that build inclusive societies and strengthen democracy are needed more than ever,” said Rep. Moore. “I was honored to visit the center and meet with its president, Adam Schonberger, with my colleagues earlier this year.” Majority Leader Hoyer, Sen. Cardin, and Rep. Moore visited the Aurora Community Center in Budapest in July, en route to the 2019 OSCE PA Annual Session in Luxembourg. Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to other small civil society groups in Budapest, including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities repeatedly have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord. Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs.  In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.” In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech.  Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that makes handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison.  Hungary will hold municipal elections on October 13.

  • Representatives Jackson Lee, Curtis, Malinowski, and Hudson Introduce Foreign Extortion Prevention Act

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) today introduced the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act. The legislation, developed with the support of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, will criminalize extortion by foreign officials, enabling the Department of Justice to indict such officials for demanding bribes to fulfill, neglect, or violate their official duties. Currently, only paying or offering a bribe abroad is illegal under U.S. law. “Transnational kleptocrats pose a serious national security threat to the United States. They act as agents of U.S. adversaries, undermining the rule of law internationally and in their own countries, and accessing elite circles and levers of power in democracies through strategic graft and corruption. U.S. prosecutors have been able to indict such individuals under criminal statutes such as wire fraud, mail fraud, and the Travel Act; however, these laws were not designed to tackle the problem of transnational kleptocracy, and each contain deficiencies which make it less than ideal for prosecuting foreign extortion. We cannot leave our prosecutors without the legal tools they need to protect the rule of law,” said Rep. Jackson Lee. “U.S. businesses abroad are regularly targeted by foreign extortionists. Transnational kleptocrats hide under the veneer of officialdom and abuse their power to warp the regulatory environment, attempting to co-opt or eliminate legitimate job-creators and entrepreneurs who follow the rules. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act would protect U.S. businesses from these individuals by punishing the demand side of bribery. Currently, a business being extorted for a bribe can only say ‘I can’t pay you a bribe because it is illegal and I might get arrested.’ This long-overdue bill would enable them to add, ‘and so will you,’” said Rep. Curtis. “Americans who pay bribes overseas can be prosecuted—with this bill, our prosecutors will be able to go after the foreign officials who demand those bribes. We’re giving the Justice Department a powerful new tool to fight the kleptocracy that impoverishes people and empowers dictators around the world,” said Rep. Malinowski. “Pursuing the extortionists is crucial to ending the entire system of international bribery. Even if a kleptocrat cannot be immediately extradited, a U.S. indictment serves as a play-by-play of the crime committed that can be used to support additional measures—such as sanctions—and can force transnational criminals to think twice before traveling abroad to spend their ill-gotten gains. Moreover, a U.S. indictment can help the forces of the rule of law in other countries to root out corruption by pressuring the domestic government in question to charge the individual,” said Rep. Hudson. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act will bring U.S. laws in line with international best practices. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which maintains the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention—a key international mechanism for fighting foreign bribery—has recognized the importance of criminalizing transnational extortion in a recent report. In addition, countries including the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have already criminalized foreign extortion. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, endeavors to counter corruption and malign influence in all its forms. Current and former Helsinki Commissioners have sponsored and cosponsored other anti-corruption legislation such as the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act (H.R. 3843), the Kleptocrat Exposure Act (H.R. 3441), and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835/S.259).

  • Hastings and Wicker Condemn Police Crackdown on Russian Pro-Democracy Protesters and Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny

    WASHINGTON—Following violent police crackdowns on protesters during a weekend of pro-democratic demonstrations in Moscow, as well as the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny days before the protest and his subsequent hospitalization, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “We condemn the extraordinary use of force by riot police against peaceful protesters in Moscow seeking a free and fair electoral process. Ahead of the upcoming September 8 municipal elections, we hope that the citizens of Russia will be able to exercise their rights to participate freely in the democratic process, including voicing their opinion about the transparency of the system of voting and nomination of candidates. “We also are concerned about the health of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on Wednesday, July 24, and subsequently hospitalized following an unknown ‘allergic reaction.’ We will be monitoring the situation closely.” Last weekend, thousands of Russian people took to the streets of Moscow to protest the exclusion of several opposition candidates from the ballot for upcoming City Duma municipal elections on September 8. On July 24, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested, reportedly for his plans to lead the protests. On Sunday, July 28, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh announced that Navalny suddenly had been hospitalized while in government custody.

  • INVASION AND REVISION

    By Annie Lentz, Max Kampelman Fellow The Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted for more than nine years, began with the December 1979 invasion following a Soviet-orchestrated coup and the subsequent appointment of Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal as president of a communist Afghan government. The coup was a direct violation of international law and global norms as Afghanistan was—and remains—a sovereign and independent nation. In June 1981, two Mujahideen insurgent coalitions—one moderate, one fundamentalist—formed to combat Soviet influence over the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. These new groups contributed to an increase in organized, effective guerilla attacks against Soviet forces, leading to the eventual Soviet withdrawal from the country following their failure to quell the Mujahideen insurgency.  Four years earlier, the Soviet Union signed a collection of international agreements—including the Helsinki Final Act—committing to respect the rights of sovereign nations. By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the Soviet Union and 34 other countries pledged to refrain from exercising the threat or use of force, to observe the rights of peoples to self-determination, and to accept international principles of conduct, all commitments that the Soviet Union violated by invading Afghanistan. On July 22, 1981, during the early stages of the Soviet-Afghan war and shortly after the mobilization of the new Mujahideen coalitions, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing, “Soviet Violation of Helsinki Final Act: Invasion of Afghanistan,” to examine how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not only a violation of international law but also of the terms of the Helsinki Final Act. Then-Chairman Rep. Dante Fascell chaired the hearing, saying, “The Soviet invasion has clearly undermined the spirit and intentions of the principles embodied in the Final Act. Most importantly the invasion of this formerly independent state has severely damaged the international climate and has done great harm to East-West relations.” Rep. Don Bonker, then-Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, noted, “There is hardly a single international agreement, treaty, rule of law, custom or civilized behavior that the Soviets have not violated during their bloody occupation and suppression of the Afghan population.” He went on to urge the Reagan administration to use U.S. allies to convince the Soviets that an independent Afghanistan was in the best interest of all parties. Prior to the Helsinki Commission hearing, the international community’s response to the Soviet Union had been growing more severe. On top of escalating sanctions and embargoes which exasperated tensions from the Cold War, in 1980, the U.S. led a boycott of the Summer Olympics hosted in Moscow. In 1984, the Soviet Union did the same to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The retaliatory actions continued through the end of the war, deepening the strain between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Despite the signing of the Geneva Accords (1988), an international agreement aimed to resolve the situation in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen refused to accept the terms and continued fighting until Soviet forces (or the Soviet military) withdrew in 1989. The conflict resulted in upwards of two million civilian casualties and forced 5.5 million Afghans to flee as refugees. The failure of Soviet forces to win the war or quell the Mujahideen insurgency is thought to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The failure to win the Cold War proxy battle having an extensive impact on Soviet politics and the perceived legitimacy of the Soviet government. The Soviet-Afghan War left the Afghan government in ruins. It would take years for significant progress to be made, and even then, the deteriorated state of the government and the economy left the country susceptible to extremist groups. In 1999 the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1267 to combat terrorist entities in the country, including the Taliban, which can trace its origins to the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War. Unfortunately, the UN’s efforts proved insufficient, allowing for the rise of Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. For the past few decades, the Helsinki Commission has worked closely to promote human rights and security in Afghanistan, holding hearings to support the country’s progress and recovery. The Commission has also worked to ensure the U.S. upholds its own international commitments. The Russian Government remembers the conflict differently. The Kremlin is using the 30th anniversary of Soviet troop withdraw for political gains, passing legislation this year to subsequently justify the conflict. Such legislation continues Vladimir Putin’s trend of historical revisionism and deepens the divide between the Kremlin’s political narrative and history.

  • Representatives Keating and Fitzpatrick Introduce Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Bill Keating (MA-10) and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) today introduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act. The CROOK Act will establish an anti-corruption action fund to provide extra funding during historic windows of opportunity for reform in foreign countries as well as streamline the U.S. Government’s work building the rule of law abroad. “Russia and other authoritarian states have weaponized corruption, and exposing and countering that malign influence needs to be a priority. For too long, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian politicians and oligarchs have acted with impunity, manipulating U.S. and European financial systems to move and disguise their ill-gotten gains. Their illicit funds are being used to control key economic sectors, fund political parties and organizations that advance Russian interests, and manipulate political processes and policies. The CROOK Act will help prevent Russian and other forms of kleptocracy from eroding democracy, security, and rule of law,” said Rep. Keating. “To counter the weaponization of corruption, the United States must double down on its work to promote the rule of law abroad. However, opportunities for the establishment of the rule of law are rare and success requires that the United States act quickly when reformers come to power and seek to root out corruption. The United States also must take a whole-of-government approach to ensuring that resources are being used effectively and that different U.S. Government agencies are not acting at cross-purposes,” said Rep. Fitzpatrick. The anti-corruption action fund established in the legislation will be funded by 5 percent of fines and penalties imposed pursuant to actions brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). This way, a portion of the monies obtained under the enforcement of the FCPA will be recycled back into further international anti-corruption work. The legislation also establishes several complementary mechanisms to generate a whole-of-government approach to U.S. efforts to strengthen the rule of law abroad. These include an interagency taskforce, the designation of embassy anti-corruption points of contact, and a consolidated online platform for easy access to anti-corruption reports and materials. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, endeavors to counter corruption and malign influence in all its forms. Helsinki Commissioners have sponsored and cosponsored other anti-corruption legislation such as the Kleptocrat Exposure Act (H.R. 3441) and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835). All House Helsinki Commissioners are original cosponsors of the bill. This includes Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04). Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Tom Suozzi (NY-03), and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) are also original cosponsors  of the legislation.

  • OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir 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 hearing: STATE OF MEDIA FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION Thursday, July 25, 2019 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room HVC-210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Journalists working in the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) are facing increased risks to their lives and safety. According to a new report released the Office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media, in the first six months of 2019, two journalists have been killed and an additional 92 attacks and threats—including one bombing, three shootings, and seven arson attacks—have targeted members of the media. In his first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir will assess the fragile state of media freedom within the OSCE region. Mr. Desir also will address the number of imprisoned media professionals as well as the violence, threats, and intimidation directed toward female journalists. The hearing will explore the threat posed by disinformation and online content designed to provoke violence and hate.  Following the hearing, at 5:00 p.m. in Room HVC-200, the Helsinki Commission will host a viewing of the documentary, “A Dark Place,” which details the online harassment of female journalists working in the OSCE region.

  • Delegation Led by Co-Chairman Wicker Demonstrates U.S. Commitment to Countering Kremlin Aggression and Preserving Stability in Europe

    WASHINGTON—From July 4 to July 8, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led the largest bipartisan, bicameral U.S. delegation in history to the 2019 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) Annual Session in Luxembourg. The participation of 19 members of Congress showed the deep U.S. commitment to European security and to countering Kremlin aggression and anti-democratic trends across the 57-country OSCE region. “The size of our delegation for this Parliamentary Assembly is a clear demonstration of the importance that the Americans place on this institution and its mission,” said Sen. Wicker ahead of the official opening of the event, which brought together approximately 300 parliamentarians from North America, Europe, and Central Asia. Sen. Wicker, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Luxembourg by House Majority Leader and former Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD-05); Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04). Other participants included Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Sen. Rick Scott (FL), Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Rep. Tom Cole (OK-04), Rep. Val Demings (FL-10), Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC-03), Rep. Garret Graves (LA-06), Rep. Tom Graves (GA-14), Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01), Rep. Billy Long (MO-07), Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), and Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01). In the opening plenary, Rep. Hoyer, a founder of the OSCE PA, reminded the delegates of the OSCE’s commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms, and democratic governance. Rep. Moore then spearheaded the passage of a resolution on protecting and engaging civil society that was originally introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20). The assembly also adopted a second U.S. initiative on educating children to avoid human trafficking introduced by Rep. Smith, who serves as OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Fourteen of the 16 amendments proposed by the U.S. delegation were adopted, including those holding the Kremlin accountable for the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; criticizing Moscow for abusing INTERPOL diffusions to harass Kremlin critics abroad; expressing concern about the overreliance of European countries on Russia for energy supplies; and seeking to protect those who report hate crimes from retaliation.  During the annual session, Sen. Wicker and Rep. Smith co-hosted a presentation to raise awareness and encourage reporting of efforts to entice children into being trafficked. Sen. Cardin, who serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, hosted a discussion on best practices to combat hate in society. Prior to attending the annual session, Co-Chairman Wicker convened the first-ever Helsinki Commission hearing held outside of the United States. In Gdansk, Poland, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders briefed members of Congress on their approaches to enhancing security in the region. High-level defense officials from Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia also provided regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. Hearing participants included Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, Deputy Commander, United States European Command; Douglas D. Jones, Deputy Permanent Representative, United States Mission to NATO; Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of National Defense, Republic of Lithuania; Maj. Gen, Krzysztof Król, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces; Janne Kuusela, Director-General, Defense Policy Department, Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Finland; Jan-Olof Lind, State Secretary to the Minister for Defense, the Kingdom of Sweden; and Kristjan Prikk, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defense, the Republic of Estonia. The hearing underscored America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies.

  • BALTIC SEA REGIONAL SECURITY

    For the first time in its 43-year history, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, convened outside of the United States for a field hearing to underscore America’s commitment to security in the Baltic Sea region and its unwavering support for U.S. friends and allies. At this historic hearing, held less than 80 miles from Russia’s border, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders outlined America’s collaborative approach to enhancing security in the region. High-level officials from Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia provided regional perspectives on the evolving security environment in and around the Baltic Sea. Against the backdrop of the location of the first battle of World War II, panelists discussed regional maritime threats—including Kremlin aggression—and possible responses; the current effectiveness of NATO’s deterrent posture in the Baltics; the transatlantic security architecture; and hybrid and emerging threats.

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