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Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election
The Outcome Was Never in Doubt
Thursday, May 31, 2018

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.

Candidates for President of Azerbaijan | April 2018During 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

Voting in Progress | Azerbaijan Elections | April 2018On 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. 

Vote tallying | Azerbaijan Elections | April 2018For 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.

Election Aftermath

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.”

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  • FIRST PERSON: UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS

    By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs   “Why aren’t you doing your job?!” An unexpectedly tense early morning on July 21, 2019—Election Day in Ukraine: the polling station was more than 30 minutes late in opening. The shouted reprimand came from a voter, an older man who was one of several Kyiv residents who had been present and seeking to vote at this school in the center of the Ukrainian capital since well before 8:00 a.m., when the polls for the national parliamentary elections were supposed to open. His indignation was directed at the beleaguered leadership of the local polling station, who struggled to organize their work and follow the extensive procedures required to meet Ukrainian law and international best practices. *** As an official election observer representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I was at the polling station to observe the extent to which those best practices were followed. With my capable interpreter Natalya beside me, and in partnership with my experienced observation team partner Latvian MP Aleksandrs Kiršteins, I had arrived days earlier on the invitation of the Ukrainian government for a series of preparatory briefings. On Election Day, we would follow a prescribed plan of observation as part of a larger team of more than 800 international observers spread across Ukraine (with the exception of illegally occupied Crimea, and the Donbas region under the occupation of Russian-controlled forces, where holding a free and fair election would be impossible). *** The disorganized polling station was the first stop of the day for our team. While this was my first time serving as an election observer, I didn’t need the extensive and detailed procedural checklist and questionnaire provided by the OSCE to know that something was seriously amiss. My Latvian colleague confirmed, based on his extensive observation experience, that the situation was extremely unusual. The key problem seemed to be that the leadership of the team responsible for proper running of the polling station (the chair and the secretary, among others), recently had been replaced and the newcomers had little experience with their assigned duties. It was clear that they had done precious little preparation to be able to effectively direct the work of their team on Election Day. We had been warned during the extensive pre-election briefings provided by the OSCE that many local election officials across Ukraine had been replaced. The experts were concerned that this loss of institutional memory had the potential to hamper the operations of local electoral bodies—a warning that, in our case, proved prescient. At 8:45 a.m., a full 45 minutes after its scheduled opening time and to the relief of several increasingly agitated voters and local observers, the polling station finally began to process votes. Judging that tensions at the school building had de-escalated and the situation had achieved some normalcy, we dutifully finalized our observation—promptly reporting our findings to the OSCE election experts compiling statistics from other teams deployed across the country—and moved on to observe voting procedures at several other polling stations. Before leaving, given the challenges at the polling station, we resolved to return in the evening to observe closing procedures and the counting of the vote. *** We spent much of the rest of the day visiting several polling stations in the west of Kyiv. Contrary to our first observation, all the other polling stations we visited were extremely well-organized, with experienced and well-functioning teams of officials ensuring an orderly and transparent voting process. The civic pride demonstrated by the election officials and voters in properly exercising their democratic choice was evident in each location we visited. We witnessed voters of all ages casting their ballots in serene conditions, which we learned from other observation teams was largely the norm across Ukraine that day. *** As the afternoon turned to evening, it was time to return to our initial polling station to assess closing procedures and the start of the counting of ballots. With the station closing as planned at 8 p.m. on the dot, we were quietly hopeful that the morning’s problems had been resolved. Our optimism quickly proved misguided. The election officials were even more poorly directed by their leadership than they had been in the early hours of the day. After two hours of inconclusive progress toward beginning a count of actual ballots, the procedures ground to a halt in a cloud of remonstrations among several hard-working poll workers and local observers on one hand, and the polling station’s leadership on the other. In what I understood to be an extremely unusual development, the majority of the poll workers essentially sidelined their grievously underperforming leadership on the spot in order to better organize themselves. At this point, we needed to return to our home base to report on our observation, leaving behind several other international and local observers to witness what surely would be a long and challenging night of tabulation of ballots. *** As we returned to the hotel, I reflected on the day’s remarkable events. It struck me how counterintuitive some might find it that we had been allowed to witness the poor performance by the leadership of this particular polling station. After all, who wants to air their dirty laundry in front of international observers taking careful note of every discrepancy? It was then, for the first time, that I truly understood the key purpose of our election observation mission. OSCE participating States like Ukraine make the choice to invite international observation missions to their elections precisely because only in providing full transparency can a fair judgment on the electoral process be made. In other words, our observation and reporting of the procedural imperfections we witnessed only underlined the relatively excellent performance witnessed by observation teams in the vast majority of other polling stations across Ukraine. Only through the full transparency provided by impartial external observers using a standardized methodology can the people of Ukraine be sure that their electoral process, to the maximum extent possible, allows for the full and fair expression of their democratic choice. I feel honored to have been able to play even a very small part in this extremely consequential democratic process, and to help an OSCE participating State hold itself accountable to its commitment to the rule of law. I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to serve as an election observer.

  • OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

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

  • The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

  • International Election Observation in the U.S. and Beyond

    In 1990, the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pledged to hold free and fair elections. Election observation is one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage countries to uphold their commitment to democratic standards, and is a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.  Since the 1990s, the OSCE has been invited to observe approximately 250 elections in countries throughout the OSCE region, including the United States and Russia. In addition to the OSCE, the United Nations, Organization for American States, European Union, and other multilateral organizations routinely participate in international election observation.  Civil society actors—including U.S.-based organizations like the National Democratic and International Republican Institute, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the Carter Center—also observe elections around the world with the common goal of upholding democratic standards.  The briefing focused on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues like voting technology and security.

  • International Election Observation to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: INTERNATIONAL ELECTION OBSERVATION IN THE US AND BEYOND Why It Matters Wednesday, June 19, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission In 1990, the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pledged to hold free and fair elections. Election observation is one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage countries to uphold their commitment to democratic standards, and is a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.  Since the 1990s, the OSCE has been invited to observe approximately 250 elections in countries throughout the OSCE region, including the United States and Russia. In addition to the OSCE, the United Nations, Organization for American States, European Union, and other multilateral organizations routinely participate in international election observation.  Civil society actors—including U.S.-based organizations like the National Democratic and International Republican Institute, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the Carter Center—also observe elections around the world with the common goal of upholding democratic standards.  The briefing will focus on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues like voting technology and security. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) will offer opening remarks. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Gerardo de Icaza, Director, Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation, Organization of American States Laura Jewett, Senior Associate and Regional Director for Eurasia Programs, National Democratic Institute Richard Lappin, Deputy Head, Elections Department, OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Tana de Zulueta, Head of ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission to 2018 U.S. Mid-Term Elections Additional panelists may be added.

  • Chairman Hastings on Political Crisis in Moldova

    WASHINGTON—In light of the current political crisis unfolding in Moldova, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I am watching developments in Moldova with concern. Moving the goalpost because one party doesn’t like the outcome of an agreement does not reflect the commitment to democracy we expect to see in an OSCE participating State. I applaud the formation of a democratically legitimate coalition and look forward to supporting the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the Moldovan people.” National elections in Moldova in late February resulted in a parliament split almost equally between three major parties—the Socialist Party, the Democratic Party, and the ACUM bloc. According to the Moldovan constitution, a new parliament has a maximum of three months after its election is certified to form a government. The Moldovan elections were certified on March 9. For the past three months, the parties negotiated unsuccessfully to form a coalition government. On June 8, just before the deadline for dissolving parliament and calling new elections, last-minute negotiations produced an agreement between the Socialist and ACUM parties. However, the agreement was immediately challenged by the Democratic Party, and the new coalition was declared illegal by Moldova’s Constitutional Court on the grounds that negotiations had exceed the three-month deadline. Most Moldovans thought the three-month deadline would fall on June 9. The Constitutional Court argued that three months means 90 days, making the deadline June 7. The court’s ruling is now under review by the European Commission for Democracy through Law, also known as the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

  • A New European Parliament – How Will EU-U.S. Relations Change?

    By Andrew Carroll, Kampelman Fellow On June 6, 2019, the European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington, D.C, in cooperation with the Delegation of the European Union (EU) to the United States, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and the EU Congressional Caucus, convened a panel discussion on the May 2019 EU Parliamentary elections, and the future of the EU-U.S. relationship.      New EU Ambassador to the U.S. Stavros Lambrinidis opened the event, which was held on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, by reflecting on the heroism and sacrifice of those who helped construct the rules-based system of freedom and order underpinning continued peace and security in Europe. Their contributions, he noted, are directly tied to last month’s European Parliamentary elections, which he hailed as a triumph for democracy following record voter turnout among EU Member States.  Dr. Mischa Thompson, Helsinki Commission director of global partnerships, policy, and innovation, delivered remarks on behalf of Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20). Chairman Hastings’ statement discussed the symbolism of the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, stating it was a “stark reminder of the power of allied U.S. and European strength in the face of threats to democracy.”  His comments also emphasized the close bond the U.S. shares with Europe, highlighting programs such as the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN), which supports emerging leaders for the long-term prosperity of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. Three European alumni of the TILN program were elected to the European Parliament in May. In the discussion that followed, moderated by Paul Adamson, Chairman of Forum Europe, panelists Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Daniel Hamilton of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, Kathleen McNamara of Georgetown University, and Antoine Ripoll of the European Parliament Liaison Office stressed the enduring importance of the U.S.-EU relationship amidst the changing political landscapes.  The panelists stressed security and economic ties, as well as the need to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. Congress and European Parliament on policy matters ranging from trade to counterterrorism and data privacy.  Speakers commented on the dramatic increase in voter turnout in the EU’s newest Member States in Central and Eastern Europe. They also noted the new composition of the European Parliament, which not only reflects losses by mainstream political parties, but also the entrance of new players; 60 percent of new MEPs have not previously held office in the body.  Discussants later fielded questions on subjects including EU defense integration, trade and investment, and U.S.-EU common policy towards China.      

  • Why Moldova Matters

    Though typically viewed as a state torn between Russian influence and the West, Moldova faces not only external problems but also serious internal challenges. Following February elections marked by corruption and vote-buying, Moldova’s deeply divided parliament now must attempt to form a governing coalition. In addition, five years after Moldova signed an accession agreement with the European Union, questions remain about whether the country is willing—or even able—to undertake the comprehensive reforms required to join the EU. This briefing explored these and other issues against the background of the continuing Transnistria dispute and Moldova’s precarious role in the region. Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman opened the briefing by posing questions to the room: “Will Moldova’s deeply divided parliament be able to form a governing coalition? What influence will Moldova’s oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc have on the process of forming a government? And is there real political will in Moldova, especially right now after elections, to become a full-fledged member of the EU? And finally, what’s going on in the breakaway Russian region of Transnistria?” Dr. Cory Welt, Specialist in European Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, jumped in first to provide context for the conversation. Welt explained, “According to international and domestic observers, Moldova’s recent parliamentary elections were democratic but somewhat flawed. And these flaws included allegations of vote buying and the misuse of state resources. Nonetheless, the outcome of the elections appears to reflect longstanding domestic divisions within Moldova, between what you might characterize as a European-leaning majority and a Russian-leaning minority.” Jamie Kirchick, Journalist and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, reflected on his experience observing the 2018 elections in Moldova. Kirchick also spoke to the main question of the briefing, saying, Moldova “matters because the United States has been committed to a policy of a Europe whole, free and at peace, really since the end of the Cold War, and consolidating democracy and good government. And Moldova is a pretty sore spot. It’s the poorest country in Europe. It’s the site of very high corruption. It’s the site of Russian influence. It’s the site of a lack of territorial integrity. And we’ve seen now that there are three nations in this region – Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova – that all have Russian troops stationed on them. And this is something that should certainly concern the United States and its democratic allies.” H.E. Cristina Balan, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States maintained that while Moldova has seen hard times, the country is working to improve. She highlighted its strong partnership with the U.S., fight against antisemitism, and growing economy as signs of development. Ambassador Balan concluded with a call to action, saying, “Of course, there is so much more work to be done, including addressing corruption issues, including increasing our national defense capability, including resolving the Transnistrian conflict, and many others. There is a lot of work to be done.” The questions from the audience were largely posed to Ambassador Balan and allowed for a deeper exploration into the economic and political realities of life in Moldova and the relationship, or lack thereof, with Russia.

  • Moldova Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON— The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: WHY MOLDOVA MATTERS Tuesday, June 4, 2019 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 121 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Though typically viewed as a state torn between Russian influence and the West, Moldova faces not only external problems but also serious internal challenges. Following February elections marked by corruption and vote-buying, Moldova’s deeply divided parliament now must attempt to form a governing coalition. In addition, five years after Moldova signed an accession agreement with the European Union, questions remain about whether the country is willing—or even able—to undertake the comprehensive reforms required to join the EU. This briefing will explore these and other issues against the background of the continuing Transnistria dispute and Moldova’s precarious role in the region. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Jamie Kirchick, Journalist and Visiting Fellow, Brookings Institution Dr. Cory Welt, Specialist in European Affairs, Congressional Research Service H.E. Cristina Balan, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States

  • Power and Politics

    At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists explored the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019. This briefing also explored implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption.

  • Ukrainian Elections Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: POWER AND POLITICS Implications of Ukraine’s Presidential Elections Thursday, May 9, 2019 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists will explore the state of institutional resilience and political context for the election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy as Ukraine’s next president on April 21, 2019.  This briefing will explore implications for transatlantic engagement and opportunities for reforms on issues related to the rule of law, media freedom, and corruption. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement Natalie Sedletska, Journalist and Host, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Ukrainian Service Additional panelists may be added.

  • First Person: #UkraineElections2019

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative   Bright morning sunlight streamed through the windows of School No. 119 in Odesa as the first ballot was cast for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine. We, along with our third team member, a Danish parliamentarian, had arrived an hour earlier to watch as a stern but amiable middle-aged woman—who seemed especially proud to speak Ukrainian to her Russian-speaking electoral commission colleagues—instructed them on proper procedure for the day. The ballot boxes must be sealed properly, privacy in the voting booths maintained, proper identification verified, and voter lists checked and double checked. Coffee, tea, and small talk were in good supply to combat the grogginess of a morning made even earlier by the switch to daylight savings time shortly after midnight on election day. This election, with 39 candidates vying for the presidency, required the longest ballot in Ukraine’s history at 80 centimeters (more than two and a half feet) long. Not only did this present a printing challenge, but we saw numerous voters seeming to wonder just how many folds would be needed to easily deposit their ballot through the narrow slot and preserve the secrecy of their selection. Ukraine’s election law is surprisingly strict in this regard and imposes criminal penalties on voters who deliberately reveal their selections, whether by showing someone personally, taking a picture of their ballot, or bringing someone else into the voting booth with them. Notably, we observed no incidence of anyone deliberately violating ballot secrecy. We were among over a thousand foreign observers of the election invited by the Government of Ukraine, consistent with its OSCE commitments. We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election. Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014. In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

  • Helsinki Commission Marks Fifth Anniversary of Illegal Referendum In Crimea

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the illegal Russian-organized referendum in Crimea, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Five years ago, the Government of Russia tried to legitimize its illegal occupation of Crimea by organizing a fake referendum in Ukrainian territory.  By orchestrating this so-called vote, the Kremlin blatantly flouted international law. By definition, citizens living under armed occupation lack the freedom to determine their collective destiny.  “This tragic anniversary also reminds us of the suffering this occupation continues to inflict on innocent Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee Crimea, as well as on those who remain behind. Ethnic minorities such as Crimean Tatars and activists who object to the illegal Russian occupation, including Oleg Sentsov, are targets of persecution and violence by the Government of Russia. “We will not forget; Crimea is Ukraine.”  Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014. Since then, the Helsinki Commission has hosted numerous hearings and briefings on the war in Ukraine, including an April 2014 hearing with then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; December 2015 and November 2016 briefings on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea; an April 2017 briefing on Oleg Sentsov and Russia's human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens; a May 2017 hearing on the growing Russian military threat in Europe; and briefings with Alexander Hug, then-Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

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