Inside the Turkish ElectionWednesday, July 11, 2018
By: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor With Contributions from Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor On June 24, Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the passage of controversial constitutional amendments last year that began Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The victors in this election are to preside over the transition to this new form of government and begin to shape the operation of its revamped institutions. In accordance with its commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey formally invited the OSCE to observe the vote. This invitation paved the way for the OSCE’s first-ever full-scale deployment of election observers to Turkey. Although the OSCE observed previous elections in Turkey—including last year’s constitutional referendum—it had never done so with a full complement of hundreds of short-term observers that deploy all over the country to record their observations on election day. In the absence of short-term observers, OSCE observation missions rely primarily on a smaller cohort of long-term observers who spend as much as a month in the country monitoring every dimension of the campaign period and balloting. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) Altogether, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed 22 long-term observers and more than 300 short-term observers to observe the election across the country. Most STOs are drawn from cadres of experienced volunteers offered by individual OSCE participating States. In addition, the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE (OSCE PA) and Council of Europe (PACE) contributed 72 and 32 members of parliament and parliamentary staff, respectively, to serve as STOs. The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly participates in OSCE PA election observation missions. What follows is a first-person account from two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff who served as short-term observers during the Turkish elections. These observations are not an authoritative account of the conduct of the Turkish election, however. Readers interested in such an account should review the OSCE’s official statement of preliminary findings and conclusions. In the days before the election, experts from the OSCE’s ODIHR and the OSCE PA organize a series of in-depth briefings in Ankara to acquaint short-term observers with the context and process for the coming vote. In opening these briefings, Mr. Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Spanish parliamentarian tasked as the special coordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission, noted numerous ways in which this election was exceptional. Turks would be voting under a nearly two-year-old state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The state of emergency gave Turkish President Erdogan sweeping powers to rule by decree and authorized provincial governors to curtail basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Presidential decrees purged tens of thousands of civil servants from their work, shuttered over a hundred news outlets, blocked thousands of websites, and contributed to the arrest of scores of independent journalists, often on dubious national security charges. Sanchez Amor further commented that the transition to a presidential system and the country’s newly-approved election laws made this election especially complex. Most of the constitutional amendments approved in last year’s referendum would take effect after the election. The victorious presidential candidate, for instance, would be the first to assume unprecedented executive powers that international monitors and the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), criticized as undermining the separation of powers. Likewise, successful parliamentary candidates would take up seats in a somewhat neutered institution that is given no say in ministerial appointments and can be unilaterally dissolved by the president. One of the constitutional amendments abolished a previous prohibition on new electoral laws taking effect less than 12 months before an election. This meant that the June election would be governed by election regulations passed in November and March that President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had muscled through parliament without any opposition support. Opposition leaders sharply criticized provisions in the laws that allowed the government to relocate voting locations on security grounds, loosened rules governing the police presence around polling stations, and weakened protections against election fraud by admitting ballots that are missing a required polling station stamp. Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that one of the country’s major presidential candidates had been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 and was being forced to campaign from his jail cell. This treatment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was one of many restrictions severely disadvantaging the HDP. Campaign banners of two opposition parties stretched across a primary avenue in downtown Ankara. The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process. Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage. All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature. Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. Election authorities could also use the admission of unstamped ballots to artificially diminish HDP’s share of the vote. In addition, several briefers noted that deadly violence could be used to intimidate voters. Indeed, less than two weeks before the election a campaign-related altercation in the south left three HDP supporters dead, along with the brother of an AKP candidate for parliament. Many briefers noted that the pro-government media had cast the AKP as the victim of the melee, where in reality the fight had been instigated and escalated by the ruling party’s side. The opposition’s indictment of the fairness of the election was met by an AKP-led campaign to smear those who might tarnish perceptions of the credibility of the outcome. The OSCE observation mission was one of the targets of this campaign. The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country. It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation. We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day. Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls. We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for. The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.) Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day. Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process. With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station. An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow. Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC. Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote. This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials. Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities. Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters. In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds. At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after. As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through. Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room. After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time. Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results. The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation. Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated. Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations. Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots. In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank). U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members. Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour. The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process. Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary. Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference. A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation. After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board. Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square. It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level. The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended. Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote. Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!” The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance. During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system. In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality. The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.
Press Conference Following U.S. Congressional Delegation Meetings in BosniaTuesday, July 03, 2018
Thank you Madam Ambassador. We appreciate it very, very much. And this is indeed a bicameral and bipartisan delegation of members of the United States Congress and I am pleased to be here in Sarajevo for my fifth visit. This is a nine-member congressional delegation. It represents – as the Ambassador said – the bicameral U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I’m privileged to serve as chair. The Helsinki Commission and its members from the United States Congress have always cared about Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its first congressional visit here was in early 1991, before the conflict began. Commissioners returned when they could during the conflict, and have come back on several occasions after the conflict to assess and encourage recovery and reconciliation. This time, we come here first and foremost to let both the political leaders and the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina know the United States remains interested and engaged in the Balkans. The progress we want to see throughout the region must include progress here in Bosnia. We are committed to protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in line with the 1995 Dayton Agreement, and we support Bosnia’s aspirations for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Efforts to undermine state institutions, along with calls for secession or establishment of a third entity, violate the spirit and letter of the Dayton Accords and endanger the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the entire region, and they diminish the likelihood of progress for local families and job creators. We encourage the Bosnian government to undertake the necessary reforms to make integration a reality. The inability to make Bosnia’s government more functional, efficient, and accountable is holding this country back. It is the consensus of the international community that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are ill-served by their government’s structure. Bosnia should correct one glaring shortcoming. The discriminatory ethnic criteria that prevent some Roma, Jewish, Serbs in the Federation, Croats and Bosniaks in the Republika Srpska, and other citizens who do not self-identify with a group from seeking certain public offices is unacceptable and can easily be addressed. Bosnia’s neighbors are making progress, and we do not want to see this country fall further behind. In our meeting with Members of the Bosnian Presidency, we expressed our frustrations with the political impasse and often dangerous rhetoric. We urged stronger leadership and a more cooperative spirit in moving this country forward, together. This should include electoral reform now and a serious commitment to the additional reforms that are obviously needed in the near future. We are tired of the way ethnic politics dominates debate and makes decision-making such a difficult progress. We share this impatience with our allies and the people this country would like to move closer toward. This does not enhance the future of young people who want to stay and raise families in Bosnia, and it places a drag on efforts toward Euro-Atlantic integration. We encouraged international mission heads and the diplomatic community based here in Bosnia to defend human rights, democracy, the rule of law and all principles of the Helsinki Final Act in their important work. In these areas, there should be no compromises here in Bosnia that we would not accept elsewhere. Working together, the United States and Europe must deal firmly with those who seek to undermine those principles in any way, and that should include – for the worst offenders – coordinated sanctions on their ability to travel and on their individual assets. We also need to work with Bosnian officials to counter external forces that actively seek to make Bosnia even more vulnerable to internal instability than it already is right now. We are proud of the work between the United States and Bosnian officials thus far on countering terrorism. We hope Bosnia remains committed to prosecuting and rehabilitating foreign terrorist fighters through ensuring longer sentences for convicted terrorists. Second to sending a strong U.S. message, we come to hear the voices of the people. The Helsinki Commission and members of Congress regularly meet with diplomats and senior officials from Bosnia who visit Washington. Their views are important, and we have good discussions, and we had good discussions this time. However, we often wonder what the people of Bosnia truly think about their situation. To that end, we met here with citizens who continue to be denied their recognized right to seek certain public offices. We also heard the many concerns of non-governmental representatives. In Mostar, we met with a young leader whose organization is trying to find common ground among the people of that spectacular city, which is still divided in too many ways. It is deplorable that the citizens of Mostar have been denied their right to vote in local elections since 2008; we call on Bosnia’s political leaders to set aside the differences and work toward a compromise that resolves the impasse. We encourage all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina to give priority not to protecting ethnic privileges that keep them segregated from one another, but to promoting policies that will give them jobs, greater opportunity, a 21st century education, and the prosperity they want for their children and grandchildren. To succeed, Bosnian citizens must all move forward together. However, ethnic divisions continue to thwart needed cooperation. We sense that these divisions are not as deep as claimed by the political leaders who exploit them. They exploit them for power, in our judgment. And if there is one thing which should unite all Bosnians, it should be the desire to end the rampant corruption that robs this country of its wealth and potential. We hope that the upcoming Bosnian elections are not only conducted smoothly and peacefully, but their results reflect the genuine will of the people. Democracy is strengthened when voters cast their ballots based, not on fear, pressure or expectation, but based on their own, personal views regarding the issues and opinions of the candidates, their views and their character. The outcome must accurately capture these individual sentiments. We hope for progress on electoral reform, in line with accepted norms for free and fair elections, so that election results can be implemented and a government formed. We are dismayed at the lack of political diversity within some of the main ethnic groups in this country, and take issue with those who argue they are entitled to a monopoly in representing those groups. A third and final reason this delegation has come to Bosnia and Herzegovina is to remember —as American citizens and elected officials — why the United States of America should continue to care about Bosnia and Herzegovina, even when so many other crises demand attention. We are reminded, in that regard, of the upcoming anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica and the unimaginable pain and loss that lingers from that and other wartime atrocities. Some of us visited the War Childhood museum, reminding us as well of the innocence and vulnerability of civilian victims. We also remember past U.S. leadership in responding to the conflict. The address of this building is “1 Robert C. Frasure Street,” after one of three American envoys who lost their lives on nearby Mount Igman while seeking to bring peace to this country. Their work, and that of so many other American diplomats, soldiers and citizens who have continued their work to this day, cannot be left unfinished. Finally, we also witnessed the incredible beauty of the countryside, the vibrancy of places like Sarajevo and Mostar, and the generous hospitality of the people. Having been through so much, they deserve better than they have right now. We therefore leave here more committed than ever to this country’s future, and as confident as ever in our ability to work together to build that future. We support Ambassador Cormack here in Sarajevo and will continue to encourage our government in Washington to take further steps to encourage the good governance and prosperity that the citizens of this country deserve.
Chairman Wicker Acts to Protect Religious Freedom in Europe and Central AsiaMonday, June 11, 2018
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.539) urging President Trump to take action against some of the worst violators of religious freedom in Europe and Central Asia. Key targets of the legislation include the governments of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Russia, as well as Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine. “Our founding fathers made religious freedom a cornerstone of our country, and President Trump carries that legacy forward by making religious freedom a cornerstone of his presidency. This resolution is a blueprint for action in a region where governments have often attacked religious freedom instead of protecting it. When governments take steps toward improvement, as Uzbekistan has done, we should support and bolster their efforts,” said Chairman Wicker. Helsinki Commissioner Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) is the lead co-sponsor of the resolution. Other original co-sponsors of S.Res.539 include Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. John Boozman (AR), and Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), along with Sen. James Lankford (OK). S.Res.539 targets governments of participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that have not complied with specific OSCE commitments to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. The resolution urges President Trump to: Re-designate Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as “Countries of Particular Concern”—nations that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom such as torture, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention—and take actions required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 Designate Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey as “Special Watch List Countries” for severe violations of religious freedom, and designate Kazakhstan if it continues to tighten restrictions on religious freedom Block entry to the United States and impose financial sanctions on individual violators in these countries, including but not limited to: Turkish officials responsible for the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been unjustly jailed since October 2016 Kremlin officials responsible for Russia’s forcible, illegal occupation of Crimea Russian-led separatist forces in Ukraine Instruct the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, former Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback, to develop a U.S. government strategy that promotes religious freedoms in these countries, especially prioritizing support for ongoing reforms in Uzbekistan S.Res.539 is supported by prominent international religious freedom advocates, including: Dr. Thomas Farr, President of the Religious Freedom Institute, and founding Director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom Dr. Kent Hill, Executive Director of the Religious Freedom Institute, and Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (2001-2008) The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention Frank Wolf, former U.S. Representative (VA-10), and Distinguished Senior Fellow, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative Nina Shea, Director, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom Dr. Daniel Mark, Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (2014-2018; Chairman 2017-2018), and Assistant Professor of Political Science, Villanova University Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom (2013-2016), and Program Director for Cardus Law Dr. Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Member of Parliament, Grand National Assembly of Turkey (2011-2015) Dr. Elijah Brown, General Secretary, Baptist World Alliance Dr. Byron Johnson, Director, Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University Dr. Daniel Philpott, Professor of Political Science, Notre Dame University Dr. Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota
Helsinki Commission Observation of Russia’s Presidential ElectionsTuesday, May 22, 2018
Presidential elections were held in the Russian Federation on March 18, 2018; incumbent Vladimir Putin took about 76 percent of the votes cast among eight candidates, with a voter turnout topping 67 percent. These lopsided results were unsurprising in a country where the current regime has steadily and systematically decimated the democratic norms that gained a foothold in the 1990s. Nevertheless, international observers traveled to Russia under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to provide an authoritative assessment of electoral conditions and to encourage Russia to adhere to its OSCE commitments. The Russian Federation, along with the 56 other OSCE participating States, has committed to hold free and fair elections, as well as to invite international observers. An OSCE presence also indicated an ongoing willingness to support democratic development by engaging not just the government but all players in Russian society. Despite a variety of official efforts to suppress critics and marginalize opposition, independent and democratic forces remain active in Russia. Based on an December 21, 2017, recommendation to deploy a comprehensive OSCE observation mission for the Russian election, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed a Moscow-based core team of 13 experts supplemented by 60 long-term observers deployed throughout the country. On election day, 481 observers from 44 countries visited more than 2,000 polling stations. The election day deployment included a 101-member delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), including two Helsinki Commission staffers who were the only U.S. government officials to observe the elections. They observed in Istra and other towns northwest of Moscow and in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor
Democracy DeferredWednesday, May 09, 2018
After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013. As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.
Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in AzerbaijanWednesday, May 02, 2018
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEMOCRACY DEFERRED: THE STATE OF ELECTIONS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS IN AZERBAIJAN Wednesday, May 9, 2018 10:30 a.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013. As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission will examine these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Audrey L. Altstadt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts – Amherst Emin Milli, Director, Meydan TV Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now Additional panelists may be added. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.
How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky ActTuesday, March 13, 2018
The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.
Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions ProcessWednesday, March 07, 2018
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.
Boris Nemtsov: 1959-2015Wednesday, February 28, 2018
On February 27, 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was brutally murdered on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge directly in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Three years after Nemtsov’s assassination, the Helsinki Commission examined the investigation into Nemtsov’s murder to shed light on the circumstances of the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia. The Helsinki Commission probed reasons why the plaintiffs were denied the opportunity to a fair trial, the effects Russian propaganda has had on Russian citizens in the suppression of information about the case, and the impact of sanctions resulting from the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act. The Commissioners heard testimony from Zhanna Nemtsova, daughter of Boris Nemtsov; Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom; and Vadim Phrokhorov, Lawyer for the family of Boris Nemtsov. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the witnesses and commended Ms. Nemtsova for her courageous activism against gross human rights violations in Russia. Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), the Helsinki Commission’s ranking senator, highlighted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to suppress democracy in Russia, as well as the Kremlin’s use of military force in Ukraine, interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and involvement in the deaths of political opponents like Mr. Nemtsov. Sen. Cardin also praised Russian citizens who side with democracy and emphasized that “[members of the Helsinki Commission] are on the side of the Russian people.” Rep. Christopher Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, discussed how the Magnitsky Act is a breakthrough and a “very useful tool against repressive regimes.” He also asked the panelists for recommendations on actions the United States can and should take to further transparency on the investigation, and expressed interest in initiating a procedure to establish a special representative for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in July of 2018. “And, so, for Boris himself, we need [...] all parties responsible to be held to account — total transparency,” Rep. Smith said. Ms. Nemtsova, the first to testify, criticized Russian authorities for failing to classify the murder as politically motivated. She also explained how the Russians want to end public debate on sensitive political issues. “You probably are aware of what [the Russians] are afraid of most,” she said. “They’re afraid of the sunshine. My father’s case is one of the sensitive issues, and that’s why it’s important to bring it to the sunshine.” Ms. Nemtsova also criticized the investigative committee for not identifying the individual that orchestrated the murder. In closing, she noted that the Government of Russia has tried—but failed— to erase her father’s memory, and urged the Commissioners to appoint a special representative to oversee the investigation at the July 2018 Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Berlin, Germany. During his testimony, Mr. Kara-Murza reiterated the importance of the Boris Nemtsov plaza-naming ceremony that took place on February 27, 2018, exactly three years after his murder. The District of Columbia renamed a section of Wisconsin Avenue, in front of the Russian Embassy, to honor Boris Nemtsov’s legacy. “It is important for those who continue to hold remembrance marches [...] for people who continue Boris Nemtsov’s work by exposing government corruption. You can kill a human being, but you cannot kill what he stood for,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza noted that experts frequently blur the line between a country and a regime and urged political leaders in Western democracies to “not equate Russia with the regime that is ruling it.” He concluded by urging the Commissioners to initiate a process, similar to the appointment of a special rapporteur, under the auspices of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session being held in July 2018. Mr. Prokhorov reiterated how Russian authorities refused to recognize Boris Nemtsov’s murder as politically motivated and that the evidence led to the inner circle of Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya. “The problem is not that the investigation of the suspects is difficult or impossible. Our principal concern is that the investigative authorities are not willing to make any effort to do so,” Mr. Prokhorov said. Mr. Prokhorov stated that the Russian authorities breached the family of Boris Nemtsov’s right to a fair trial and how “none of the organizers or masterminds have been identified or persecuted to date.” He concluded by urging western political leaders, diplomats, and public figures to engage Russian counterparts in dialogue regarding Boris Nemtsov’s murder when given the opportunity to do so.
Nemtsov Murder Investigation Under Scrutiny at Upcoming Helsinki Commission HearingWednesday, February 21, 2018
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: BORIS NEMTSOV, 1959-2015: SEEKING JUSTICE, SECURING HIS LEGACY Wednesday, February 28, 2018 3:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 138 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce022818 Three years after Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge in front of the Kremlin, and one day after the unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Helsinki Commission will examine the outcome of the official investigation and trial into his assassination. An officer of the Russian Interior Ministry with links to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was convicted of pulling the trigger; four others were sentenced as perpetrators. Gen. Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee has declared the case “solved.” Yet, three years on, the organizers and masterminds of the Nemtsov assassination remain unidentified and at large. The United States has sanctioned both Kadyrov and Bastrykin for gross human rights violations under the Magnitsky Act. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has appointed a Special Rapporteur to assess the status of the case and report on its shortcomings. At this hearing, the Commission will consider whether similar oversight is needed within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This hearing will also examine the particular importance of Boris Nemtsov’s legacy of public and competitive politics as Russia looks to Vladimir Putin’s fourth official term in office. Witnesses scheduled to testify include: Zhanna Nemtsova, Daughter of Boris Nemtsov Vadim Prokhorov, Lawyer for the Nemtsov family Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chairman, Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom
Presidential Elections in KyrgyzstanTuesday, January 16, 2018
Kyrgyzstan’s presidential elections on October 15, 2017, provided for an orderly transfer of power despite curbs on political opposition and media freedom in the run-up to the election, as well as allegations of administrative pressure on voters, vote-buying, and other irregularities during the electoral process. The OSCE Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions stated that the elections “contributed to the strengthening of democratic in-stitutions by providing for an orderly transfer of power from one elected president to another. The election was competitive, as voters had a wide choice and candidates could, in general, campaign freely, although cases of misuse of public resources, pressure on voters, and vote-buying remain a concern….While televised debates contributed to greater pluralism, self-censorship and limited editorial coverage of the campaign signaled deficiencies in media freedom.” Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: U.S. Helsinki Staff
Religious Freedom Violations in OSCE Region Topic of Upcoming Helsinki Commission BriefingThursday, November 09, 2017
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM VIOLATIONS IN THE OSCE REGION: VICTIMS AND PERPETRATORS Wednesday, November 15, 2017 2:00PM Russell Senate Office Building Room 385 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission All 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have committed to recognize and respect religious freedom as a fundamental freedom. However, some OSCE countries are among the worst perpetrators of religious freedom violations in the world. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are currently designated by the U.S. State Department as “Countries of Particular Concern,” a designation required by U.S. law for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that Russia also be designated as a CPC and includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey in its list of “Tier 2” countries that “require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by governments.” This briefing will happen just two days after CPC designations are due on November 13 (U.S. law requires the State Department to issue new CPC designations no later than 90 days after releasing its annual International Religious Freedom report). Panelists – including a representative from a frequently targeted religious group – will discuss religious freedom victims, violators, and violations in the OSCE region. The conversation will include recommendations for what governments and the OSCE institutionally should do to prevent and respond to violations. The intersection between security, a chronic justification for violations, and religious freedom will be featured. The following panelists will offer brief remarks, followed by questions: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State Dr. Daniel Mark, Chairman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Dr. Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, and Scholar, Under Caesar’s Sword (a global three-year research project investigating how Christian communities respond when their religious freedom is severely violated) Philip Brumley, General Counsel, Jehovah’s Witnesses
Belarus: 25 Years after Signing the Helsinki Final ActMonday, November 06, 2017
In July 2017, Belarus hosted the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Annual Session. However, two decades ago, the OSCE PA refused to even recognize the legitimacy of Belarus’ putative elected representatives. What has changed? Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, and Michael Newton, Intern
Organization Profile: Forum 18Friday, October 27, 2017
The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 recognizes religious freedom as a “human right and fundamental freedom.” Participating States of the OSCE “will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.” The Helsinki Commission promotes and defends the religious freedom of people in the OSCE region, particularly prioritizing the cases of individuals and communities whose religious freedom has been violated and laws and policies that conflict with the Helsinki Final Act. Forum 18 is a news organization dedicated to reporting on violations of religious freedom in several OSCE participating States, including in Central Asia and the South Caucasus; Russia; Belarus; and Turkey. Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Nathaniel Hurd interviewed the editors of Forum 18 by email to learn more about their work and views about religious freedom in the countries they cover. According to the editors, “The mission of Forum 18 is to provide original, reliable and detailed monitoring and analyses of threats and actions against the freedom of religion and belief of all people, whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism), in an objective, truthful and timely manner.” Violations of Religious Freedom in the Former Soviet Union Forum 18 focuses its work on the states of the former Soviet Union, which the organization considers the worst violators of freedom of religion in the region. “The worst violators of freedom of religion and belief in the territories Forum 18 monitors – governments – target anyone and any religious community they see as actually or potentially outside their control,” the editors noted. “Azerbaijan, for example, claims to be ‘an example of tolerance’ yet has repeatedly closed Sunni Muslim mosques. A 2014 police list of banned books [in Azerbaijan] includes Islamic texts by theologian Said Nursi, Jehovah's Witness texts, and the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible used by Christians and Jews. Police have long confiscated these texts and others during raids on Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, and Baptist private homes and meetings of people exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. There are many prisoners of conscience, especially human rights defenders and journalists. On July 3, 2017 Shia Imam Sardar Babayev was jailed for three years for leading mosque prayers because he was educated abroad.” “The reality of freedom of religion and belief violations by governments in these territories and the necessity of documenting them is why we were founded,” noting that they work to protect the freedom of everyone whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism). “Our founders and staff were and are totally convinced as a matter of Christian conviction that everyone with no exceptions – including people who would completely disagree with the Christian faith – must…be able to freely exercise the freedom of religion and belief, and related rights such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly…Our personal experience in the territories we monitor and other states (such as the former East Germany), as well as our own convictions, make us committed to Forum 18’s work of monitoring and analyzing governments’ violations of their international human rights law obligations.” In addition to its work on Azerbaijan, Forum 18 is also focusing on Uzbekistan’s raids, fines, jailing, and torture of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the increasing number of prisoners of conscience being jailed in Kazakhstan for exercising freedom of religion and belief, including alleged adherents of Muslim missionary movement Tabligh Jamaat, Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov, and Seventh-day Adventist Yklas Kabduakasov. Kazakhstan has also banned all mosques outside state control; expressions of non-Sunni Hanafi Islam; and discussion of faith by people without state permission, or not using state-approved texts, or outside state-approved locations. Kazakhstan’s persecution of atheist writer Aleksandr Kharlamov is also of concern. In Russia, Forum 18 actively monitors the government’s “anti-extremist” nationwide ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as “anti-extremist” prosecutions, fines and jailing of Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, including cases like that of Muslim Yevgeny Kim, who in in June 2017 was sentenced to three years in prison. Forum 18 is also concerned about nationwide religious literature bans, with the possessors of such texts being liable to criminal prosecution. Accuracy and Objectivity Are Key “Our overriding editorial objective is to as accurately as possible present the truth of a situation, both implicitly and explicitly,” note the editors of Forum 18. “It is vitally important that we cross-check information with local people, including religious communities and other human rights defender organizations where these exist. It is equally vital that in our published articles we carry the views of local people and human rights organizations – this enables local people to make their views on human rights violations known.” “Similarly, we always seek the comments of relevant officials, such as public prosecutors, police and secret police officials, within the country being written about,” they continued. “Every article we publish includes information on all the sources used, even if some have to be described as remaining anonymous for fear of state reprisals.” According to Forum 18, the organization’s efforts have resulted in “significant respect and usage among victims of human rights violations, human rights defenders (including journalists), diplomats, intergovernmental organizations, academics and others.” “Accuracy is in itself an effective advocacy for human rights by countering with accurate information the false information presented by repressive regimes, who often seek to conceal their human rights violations,” the editors said. The Worst of the Worst? When asked which of the countries Forum 18 monitors should be considered the “worst of the worst,” the editors noted that developing such a ranking is difficult. “Territories where serious…violations take place are places where people have a strong incentive to not discuss the state’s violations, for fear of state reprisals, making any reliable ranking of territories difficult,” they observed. “Because in all the territories Forum 18 monitors governments violate individuals’, informal groups’, and communities’ freedom of religion and belief apparently as part of a declared or undeclared policies of increasing state control of society – even in states such as Georgia in the south Caucasus – we think it is best for readers to judge for themselves which countries are the worst violators of freedom of religion or belief at any one time,” the editors added. Similarly, Forum 18 finds it difficult to rank the individual cases monitored by the organization. “In our view, each one of these cases where a government has violated an individual’s or group’s freedom of religion and belief can fairly be described as compelling. We think this view is reinforced by the individual cases being part of a much broader pattern of intentional, systemic government violations of the human rights of everyone they rule.” One case Forum 18 has followed close is that of Protestant Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov in Tajikistan, who was jailed for three years for allegedly “singing extremist songs in church and so inciting ‘religious hatred.’” The regime has threatened family members, friends, and church members with reprisals if they reveal any details of the case, trial, or jailing. Cooperation is Key Cooperation is vital to the Forum 18 approach. “Cooperation in defense of human rights for all is both right in principle and more effective than competition,” the Forum 18 editors argue. “It is important to cooperate with others – including in our case providing accurate information – to help responses to violations of freedom of religion and belief and interlinked other fundamental freedoms to be as effective as possible. Our work with victims of freedom of religion and belief violations and other human rights defenders convinces us that this approach is the right one to follow.” Twitter: @Forum_18 Facebook: @Forum18NewsService
Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-KarabakhWednesday, October 18, 2017
Last year, the worst outbreak of violence over Nagorno-Karabakh in more than two decades erupted as the so-called Four Day War in April 2016 claimed approximately 200 lives and demonstrated that the conflict is anything but “frozen.” The Line of Contact separating the parties sees numerous ceasefire violations annually and each one risks igniting a larger-scale conflict that could draw in major regional players, such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Since 1997, the United States, France, and Russia have co-chaired the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the principal international mechanism aimed at reaching a negotiated solution to the conflict. The U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted two former United States Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group process as well as a renowned, independent expert on the conflict to assess the current state of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Group format, and the prospects for achieving a lasting peace. Magdalena Grono, an expert from the International Crisis Group, underlined the serious potential for further flare-ups in the fighting, which could have severe humanitarian impacts and draw in regional powers. She contextualized the recent clashes and assessed that the conflict was among the most deadly, intractable and risky in Europe. According to her assessment, the conflict is beset by two worrisome trends: deteriorating confidence between the parties and in the settlement process itself as well as increasingly dangerous clashes due in part to the deployment of heavier weaponry. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh discussed the role of the Minsk Group in the settlement process while voicing his concern that positions have hardened on all sides. Growing tensions have created risks not only of intentional but also accidental conflict, he said. The Ambassador outlined the limits of the Minsk Group’s mandate, underscoring that it is charged with helping the sides find a solution rather than imposing one from the outside. He lamented that the recent meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents apparently failed to achieve agreement on certain confidence and security building measures (CSBMs). In order to stem further escalation, he noted the importance of implementing CSBMs and establishing a direct communication channel between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. He concluded by calling on the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan to demonstrate the political will to work toward a resolution, for instance by preparing their populations for the compromises that will inevitably be required to achieve peace. Ambassador James Warlick asserted that while this was a time of significant danger, peace remains within reach. He urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to engage together on principles that they know can lead to peace, saying that meetings without progress undermine confidence in negotiation efforts. Citing past negotiations, Ambassador Warlick laid out six elements that will have to be part of any settlement if it is to endure. The Ambassador concluded by underlining that it is up to the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to take the first step toward peace by considering measures, even unilateral ones, that will demonstrate their stated commitment to making progress, reducing tensions, and improving the atmosphere for negotiations.
in the news
Kyrgyzstan election: A historic vote, but is it fair?Sunday, October 15, 2017
For the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan, an elected president is due to peacefully hand over power after elections take place on Sunday. But critics say the political environment in Central Asia's "island of democracy" is deteriorating. Here's a look at the issues there - and who's likely to come out on top. Elections in Central Asia are usually easily predictable - the incumbent or the ruling party's candidate wins the vote with an overwhelming majority. But the vote in Kyrgyzstan offers a real competition and choice. Nearly 60 people applied to run in the race, 13 of whom were registered to stand. Two later dropped out. The incumbent, President Almazbek Atambayev, must leave office after six years. Under the Kyrgyz constitution, he may only serve one term. In neighbouring states, laws have often been changed to allow the incumbent to run again but this did not happen in Kyrgyzstan. President Atambayev also promised not to go for the prime minister's job in order to stay in power. Although one of the main candidates - Sooronbay Jeenbekov - is from the president's party, he is not guaranteed to win the vote. He faces a strong opponent - Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and a former prime minister. Some candidates made the unusual move of endorsing their opponents after the campaign started. Experts say that they went through all the trouble of getting into the race in order to increase their political influence. They try to build a greater support base, which they use to negotiate a favourable deal with stronger candidates before pulling out of the race. Politicians can easily change sides, because it's not ideology or a political platform but their own personality that they use to appeal to the voters. Observers say that over the last couple of years the political climate in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating. The Helsinki Commission wrote that "the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government's treatment of political opposition, civil society and human rights defenders". President Atambayev has demonstrated increasing intolerance to criticism. The Sentyabr TV station which opposed him was closed last year for extremism, and activists say that there were blatant procedural violations during the trial. Several popular independent media outlets were sued and heavily fined for insulting the president. The government also tried to intimidate critics on social media. Security services identified Facebook users who criticised the president, and gave them warnings. Several political opponents of President Atambayev have also been sent to prison. Earlier this year, leaders of the opposition People's Parliament movement were jailed for allegedly plotting a coup. Omurbek Tekebayev, a former ally of President Atambayev who turned into a prominent critic, was sentenced to eight years in prison for corruption and fraud and subsequently barred from running for the presidency. Experts saw this case as politically motivated. The atmosphere got particularly tense following a major diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It started last month after a meeting between the president of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Mr Babanov. In an unusually harsh speech, President Atambayev accused his Kazakh counterpart of interfering in Kyrgyzstan's affairs, and warned them of worse to come. "I will speak differently if our neighbours don't come to their senses," he said. Since the beginning of the campaign, there have been numerous reports of violations by various candidates. There have been reports of people going house-to-house with a list of names and addresses and offering money to citizens if they vote for Mr Jeenbekov. Mr Babanov was also accused of vote-buying, and the Central Elections Committee issued him three warnings for violation of campaign rules. The Babanov team complained that security services were putting pressure on their candidate by recording their meetings and conversations and arresting his supporters. An influential MP, Kanatbek Isakov, was detained and charged with an attempt to organise a coup. Security services denied any political motive for the arrest, but Mr Babanov said that Mr Isakov had been arrested because he endorsed him. Despite all this, many voters feel encouraged by the fact that there are several strong candidates. In their view, this will ensure that the outcome is not rigged. "Our politicians know that the people will rise if there are serious violations, so they won't go into that," said one voter in the second city, Osh. Kyrgyzstan has experienced two major uprisings that ousted presidents in the past. And in both cases, rigged elections fuelled the protest mood.
Systematic Attacks on Journalists in Russia and Other Post-Soviet StatesWednesday, October 04, 2017
Representative Steve Chabot, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, opened the briefing with a statement highlighting the importance of a free and independent press in Russia and Eastern Europe, saying that it was more important now than ever to counter an increasingly bold Vladimir Putin and the spread of Kremlin-backed media. The Congressman affirmed support for the Broadcasting Board of Governors and how their work helps foster a greater independent press in the region. Jordan Warlick, U.S. Helsinki Commission staffer responsible for freedom of the media, introduced the panelists: Thomas Kent, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Amanda Bennett, Director of Voice of America (VOA); Nina Ognianova, Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Karina Orlova, Washington correspondent for Echo of Moscow. Thomas Kent summarized the work and reach of RFE/RL in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He outlined the pressures that RFE/RL journalists face in the region covering the issues that matter to local people. Kent described the plight of several RFE/RL journalists who have been either attacked or detained due to their work, including Mykola Semena in Russian-occupied Crimea and Mykhailo Tkach in Ukraine. He added that reporting on corruption is often the most likely cause for attacks on journalists and that social media has expanded the reach of journalists work in the region. Amanda Bennett discussed the work of Voice of America in the region and its efforts to expand freedom of speech in the region. She outlined the vast audience of VOA broadcasting and emphasized that the Russian government has directly attacked VOA reporters. Bennett stated that VOA’s mission in Russia and the former Soviet Union, as with other regions around the world, was not only to provide high quality content to the audience and journalists alike, but also help foster an independent media, free from harassment. Representative Adam Schiff, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, gave remarks about the importance of an independent media in the former Soviet Union. He noted that journalists are often the first to suffer a backlash from authorities, as they investigate and report on issues that regimes do not want to draw attention to. Representative Schiff told the panel that he, along with then-Congressman Mike Pence, reestablished the House Freedom of the Press Caucus not long before the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. He thanked the panelists for the work to not only highlight attacks and harassment against journalists in the region, but also their efforts to protect and assist them and to further press freedom. Nina Ognianova highlighted numerous cases that the Committee to Protect Journalists had worked on in recent months with specific discussion of the situations in Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan. Ognianova detailed the case of the harassment and temporary flight of Russian reporter Elena Milashina following her work on the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. Also listed were the cases of Belarus-born journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car bombing in Kyiv in July 2016, the abduction and detention of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli for his investigation of President Ilham Aliyev’s assets in Georgia, and the concerning claims of slander against journalists by the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Providing the audience with a firsthand perspective, Karina Orlova described her decision to flee Russia due to her work as a journalist. Karina spoke of how her Radio Echo of Moscow talk show garnered unfavorable attention from Chechens, following discussion of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on 7 January, 2015, and the magazine’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Ramzan Kadyrov directly threatened her station and her editor, Alexey Venediktov, right after the show. She detailed threatening phone calls from self-described Chechens her that labeled her as an enemy of the state. Karina raised other incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists, such as the attack on Oleg Kashin, which was directly ordered by the Governor of Pskov, and a lack of action to bring the perpetrators to justice. She also spoke of censorship by the Russian authorities, particularly towards any journalists that refer to the annexation of Crimea. Karina emphasized that sanctions against the Russian state and elite are working, despite claims to the contrary. Although some journalists are unfortunately forced to self-censor due to safety concerns, Karina refuses to do so herself.
Helsinki Commission Advisor Observes German Elections in BerlinFriday, September 29, 2017
By Scott Rauland, State Department Senior Advisor On September 24, 2017, over 50 parliamentarians and staff from 25 countries fanned out across Germany as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) team that was invited to observe German parliamentary elections. This marked the first time that an OSCE PA Election Observation Mission (EOM) has deployed to Germany. Although the OSCE PA does not have the resources to observe every election, the organization tries to be present in major elections that are politically important. I was pleased to represent the U.S. in that effort as the State Department’s Senior Advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Members of the OSCE PA team were briefed by German government officials, representatives of the major political parties, political analysts, and other experts in the two days leading up to the election. On election day, members of the OSCE PA observation mission visited over 300 polling stations in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Duesseldorf, just a fraction of the more than 90,000 polling stations located in Germany in 299 constituencies. In a press conference held on September 25, George Tsereteli, the Special Coordinator for the EOM, noted, “Germany has once again demonstrated that its commitment to democracy is undiminished. Highly competitive and well-run, these elections were an opportunity for voters to express their choice in a process that benefits from and is based on broad trust among society.” One sign of that trust was the almost complete absence of election observers from any of the participating political parties at the 14 polling stations my team visited in Berlin – all six major parties seemed to be relatively confident that the elections were being administered fairly. While the OSCE PA team was in Germany at the invitation of the German government, and although the public has the right to observe the voting process in Germany, my observation team was denied access to one of the polling stations we had hoped to observe. That incident was thankfully the exception amongst the 300 polling stations visited by the OSCE PA EOM, but was a reminder that efforts to promote transparency in the conduct of elections must be ongoing, even in countries where the commitment to democratic elections is high. With more than 4,800 candidates running, and numerous strong political parties, Germany’s 61 million voters had a wide range of options to choose from. Women represented slightly less than 30 per cent of candidates, but played a prominent role in leadership positions in parties’ campaigns. “This was the first time we’ve deployed a full observer team to Germany, and the welcome of our mission by all German officials and political parties that we met is a positive signal that the country is ready to pay continued attention to democratic processes,” said EOM Head of Mission Isabel Santos. “Changing political cultures in many countries and new challenges such as cyber attacks mean that we must all dedicate time and effort to preserving democratic systems.”
Helsinki Commission, House Freedom of the Press Caucus to Hold Briefing on Attacks on Journalists in Russia, Post-Soviet StatesWednesday, September 27, 2017
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the House Freedom of the Press Caucus today announced the following joint briefing: “SYSTEMATIC ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS IN RUSSIA AND OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES” Wednesday, October 4, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center SVC-208 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is an essential pillar of democracy, keeping governments accountable and citizens informed. Autocratic regimes seek to intimidate and silence the press by systematically targeting journalists. A muzzled independent media is powerless to prevent the domination of the state-driven news narrative and public misinformation. Today, journalists in Russia and post-Soviet states risk intimidation, harassment, arrest, and even murder for their work. Those who criticize the government or investigate sensitive issues like corruption do so at their own peril. More often than not, cases remain unresolved and victims and families do not see justice. This briefing will address key questions regarding journalists in Russia and other post-Soviet states: their important role and impact; concerns over their rights, safety, and protection; and future support and promotion of media freedom in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) region. Opening remarks will be provided by the Co-Chairs of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) The following panelists are scheduled to speak: Thomas Kent, President and CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Amanda Bennett, Director, Voice of America Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists Karina Orlova, Washington DC Correspondent, Echo of Moscow
Kyrgyzstan: Prospects for Democratic Change and the Upcoming Presidential ElectionTuesday, September 26, 2017
Two weeks before the upcoming presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan—potentially the first peaceful transfer of power under regular circumstances in the region—campaigning is in full swing. On October 15, Kyrgyz citizens will participate in democratic elections, though serious concerns remain. This briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Everett Price. In his remarks, he positively noted the current president’s decision to respect his constitutionally-determined term limit and hold regularly-scheduled elections for his successor. He cautioned, however, that the country’s weak political institutions and the ruling party’s abuse of administrative resources could undermine the fairness of the vote. He also observed that the disqualification of certain opposition candidates and restrictions on journalists have adversely affected the election climate. Dr. Erica Marat from the National Defense University discussed the political situation on the ground in Kyrgyzstan and reviewed the political background of the two main candidates, Atambayev loyalist Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Kyrgyz billionaire, Ömürbek Babanov. Anthony Bowyer, Senior Program Manager for Europe and Eurasia at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), reviewed ongoing electoral monitoring efforts in Kyrgyzstan, underscoring the importance of these elections for the region and U.S. interests therein. Finally, Freedom House representative Marc Behrendt offered his insight on Kyrgyzstan’s enduring interethnic tensions and poor human rights record, offering a sobering reminder of the work that remains to be done in order for the Kyrgyz Republic to become a full-fledged democracy. During the briefing, questions pertaining to Russian influence over the country and its politics, as well as other regional, geo-political considerations were also highlighted as part of a general discussion of Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development and the trajectory of Central Asian politics.
On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018.
While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election.
The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent.
Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints.
Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan.
By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor
and Jordan Warlick, Office Director
Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access
From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion.
For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win.
During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million). Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency.
Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained.
Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners.
One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev. He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister.
Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations.
Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers.
A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.”
Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book
On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m.
The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process. The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail.
While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely.
One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere. One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand.
Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands.
Citizen “Observers” in Name Only
During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible.
We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing. They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped.
The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin
While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed.
For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process.
Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles.
We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled.
One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place.
In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities.
We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent.
In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.”
“Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said.
The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures.
At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently.
Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.”
The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement.
“A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”