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Belarusian Regime Resolutely Dashes Any Hopes for Democratic Liberalization
Thursday, January 06, 2011

By Orest Deychakiwsky, Ronald McNamara, and Josh Shapiro
Commission Staff

Hints of any democratic progress in Belarus came to a screeching halt on December 19, 2010, in the aftermath of the country’s most recent electoral exercise, the latest in a long line of fundamentally flawed elections. The brutal and bloody election-night crackdown against political opposition supporters, including mass arrests of demonstrators, as well as candidates, who challenged the 16-year rule of Alexander Lukashenka, was unprecedented. Even the prospects of inducements from the EU and others failed to restrain a regime bent on maintaining power. The strong-arm tactics employed on election night, and since, confirm the nature of Lukashenka’s rule – one that perpetuates a pervasive, albeit subtle, climate of fear to squelch dissent.

The OSCE Election Observation Mission (EOM) post-election statement, issued on December 20, concluded that “Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments, although some specific improvements were made. Election night was marred by detentions of most presidential candidates, and hundreds of activists, journalists and civil society representatives.” The Helsinki Commission, the U.S. and European governments, as well as Western NGOs, condemned the regime’s violent campaign of repression and called for the release of jailed opposition presidential candidates, hundreds of peaceful protestors, and some two dozen journalists covering the demonstrations. Moreover, cyber police shut down numerous internet and social networking sites. Repressive actions have continued, including raids on opposition party offices, NGOs, individual residences of activists and journalists, and independent media outlets by police and the KGB.

Displaying his displeasure with the OSCE’s negative assessment of the elections, Lukashenka refused to extend the expiring mandate of the organization’s office in Minsk, effectively ousting the OSCE. The only other leader to order such an expulsion was Slobodan Milosevic. The development comes as neighboring Lithuania assumes the chairmanship of the Vienna-based 56-nation organization.

Helsinki Commission staff were part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s contingent to the EOM, headed by Tony Lloyd, a member of the British Parliament. We observed the balloting and vote count in Minsk and Polotsk, a historic city located 120 miles north of the capital. Our election-day observations were consistent with those of the 450 other OSCE observers representing 44 participating States deployed throughout the country. The voting process was assessed as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in the vast majority of observed polling stations, while the critical vote count was judged as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ in nearly half of the precincts observed, giving fresh currency to an adage attributed to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin: “It is not the votes that count, but who counts the votes.”

The vote count in Novopolotsk was decidedly non-transparent as both international and domestic observers (virtually all of the latter appeared to be so-called GONGOs, or government organized non-governmental organizations) were kept far enough away from the table on which the votes were being counted, making it impossible to see how the ballots were marked. When queried several times by Commission staff as to the reason, the precinct chairman politely insisted that it was a decision that he and other members of the election commission had made on the pretext of preventing observers from “interfering” in the counting process. Meanwhile, at a polling station in Minsk, staff were allowed closer access to the vote count, though were prevented from seeing what was written on each ballot. With an ambiguous way of counting votes, those in attendance had little clue as to how the chairman of the election commission counted ballots. An outspoken domestic observer was subsequently voted out of the polling station by election commissioners because he was a “nuisance to the vote count.”

While the run-up to the election had shown some procedural improvements and an easing of restrictions on normal political activity, the electoral machinery at every level remained firmly under the regime’s control. There were greater opportunities than in previous elections for candidates to speak on live television, and candidates were for the most part able to more freely meet with voters. This, however, did not translate into a level playing field for all candidates as the state-controlled media disproportionately favored Lukashenka. Very telling was the fact that only 0.26 percent of all precinct electoral commission members and 0.70 percent of territorial election commission members were from opposition political parties.

Clearly, even the limited improvements did not lead to a free and fair outcome, with only the margin of Lukashenka’s victory to be announced. A December 20 statement issued by the White House, citing the critical OSCE assessment, stressed: “The United States cannot accept as legitimate the results of the presidential election announced by the Belarusian Central Election Commission” issued earlier the day. Even regime-sponsored exit polls contradicted the official CEC results, giving a lower percentage of the vote to Lukashenka and higher percentages to Andrei Sannikau and Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, the leading opposition candidates who were victims of violence by the authorities and remain incarcerated along with several other contenders. Independent pollsters and analysts also gave Lukashenka far less of the vote than the nearly 80 percent he officially garnered, with some giving him less than the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a second round against a single opposition candidate.

Given the unconscionable crackdown and fraudulent elections, hopes and expectations for even limited progress with respect to democracy and human rights have been thwarted. Through his repressive and undemocratic actions, Lukashenka has shown that he will not tolerate meaningful reform and that he will do whatever it takes to maintain absolute power. This overarching imperative clearly trumps improved relations with the United States and especially the European Union which were in the offing prior to election day, and could have resulted in badly needed financial assistance.

In a rambling two-and-a-half hour televised press conference the day after the election, Lukashenka belittled what he termed “mindless democracy” while boldly declaring his lack of fear. Despite his bravado, clearly the Belarusian leader fears the prospect of submitting to a vote in a genuinely free and fair electoral contest. Against the backdrop of a decade of rigged presidential and parliamentary elections and an illegal referendum, Belarus is regrettably no closer to restoring legitimacy to executive and legislative structures, and the prospects for meaningful change appear remote. To the detriment of the Belarusian people, the Lukashenka regime has, yet again, chosen the path of self-imposed isolation.

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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.

  • First Person: Wood Smoke and Expectation

    By Stacy Hope, Communications Director When I checked in to my hotel room in Yerevan, Armenia, on December 6, it smelled faintly—not unpleasantly—of wood smoke. I never did find the source, but to me, the smell of wood smoke in December has always been a harbinger of good things to come. It reminds me of cozy evenings with family by the fireplace, talking about the hopes and expectations we have for the new year, even if the weather is frigid and damp and other circumstances are less than ideal. It is the aroma of expectation. It seemed fitting that wood smoke welcomed me to Armenia for December’s historic elections. In April, Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who had served as the country’s president since 2008, resigned less than one week after taking office for what was perceived by many to be a de facto third term. His resignation was sparked by popular protests against Sargsyan and his Republican Party, led by opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan, who was later elected interim Prime Minister. On October 16, Prime Minister Pashinyan resigned abruptly, forcing the country’s first-ever snap parliamentary elections on December 9. I traveled to Armenia as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s election observation mission, organized in coordination with the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The OSCE PA observation mission included approximately 50 short-term observers from 17 of the OSCE’s 57 participating States. Our pre-election briefings featured briefings by analysts, civil society, members of the media, and party representatives. Parties in Armenian politics have traditionally been associated with specific personalities, rather than domestic or foreign policy. However, according to interlocutors, this campaign was different. While the personalities of party leaders still play an important role, for the first time a nearly equal focus was placed on policies. This was highlighted by the country’s first-ever televised parliamentary debate, which aired on Armenian public television on December 5 and generated widespread excitement throughout the country. Previous elections in Armenia had been marked by allegations of election fraud, including abuse of state resources, pressure on civil servants, outright vote-buying, and undue influence of the ruling party on the media. Among the media representatives in particular, there was a tangible sense of hope, accompanied by an equal amount of trepidation, that things were changing for the better. In the past, several speakers noted, they had been explicitly directed (“we received phone calls”) by the party in power as to which candidates should be covered, how, and for how long. Now, they noted, there were no phone calls. They were flying blind—coverage decisions were completely at their discretion, as long as they remained within the guidelines of the electoral code. That freedom was unprecedented, exhilarating, and a little bit intimidating. * * * On the morning of December 9, my election observation partner—a British parliamentarian—and I arrived before sunrise at our first polling station in Yerevan. In the city, streetlights turn off in the early hours of the morning, so we gingerly picked our way in near-blackness around potholes and through puddles to the front door of a local school. Upon our arrival, we were welcomed by the head of the polling station, an enthusiastic and competent woman who proudly showed us where voting would take place: the large hallway/common area on the second floor of the building. Like most of the polling stations we would visit throughout the day, it was staffed predominantly by women, many in their mid-to-late twenties. Another thing it had in common with most of the precincts we visited: it was totally inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair or who could not easily navigate stairs.  We remained at the first polling station to observe pre-election procedures as well as the first several voters. We then departed to observe 10 other polling stations, all of which were located in Armavir, the province directly to the west of the city. Outside a polling station in Armavir, where a full list of voters registered at that location was displayed publicly, in line with the electoral code. The polling stations in Armavir ranged from substantially urban to relatively rural and were generally located in schools or “cultural centers”—desolate-looking structures built during the Soviet era, which are still used for civic events, including elections. Throughout the day, we observed very few irregularities and an obvious commitment by poll leaders and workers to faithfully follow election procedures. In addition to our own observation, most of the polling stations we visited were being observed by representatives of each of the political parties, known as “proxies.” We also encountered a few citizen observers. My observation partner and our interpreter speak with a poll worker. One particularly charming ritual we observed in two of the polling stations we visited was the recognition by the poll workers and others in the polling station of first-time voters. When new voters cast their ballots, they were ushered to the center of the room by poll workers and awarded, to a round of applause, a commemorative pin. Almost without fail, the new voters blushed and hurried out of the polling station, embarrassed but unable to hide their smiles. At the end of the day, we returned to the school in Yerevan to observe the polling station’s closing and counting procedure. At some point during the very long day, the vibrant leader of the polling station had contracted a head cold and nearly lost her voice. (She offered us snacks—we offered her cough drops. Both offers were gratefully accepted.) Despite her illness, she persevered, counting by hand the more than 900 ballots cast in her precinct among the 11 political parties and alliances competing in the election. Observed closely by party proxies, the leader of a polling station in Yerevan sorts and counts ballots. I returned to my hotel room—still faintly scented with wood smoke—after midnight, hoping that the high expectations of many of the Armenians we met had been fulfilled. * * * In a landslide victory, Pashinyan’s MyStep alliance surged from just nine seats (7.8 percent of the vote) in 2017 to 88 seats (70.4 percent of the vote). The joint preliminary statement by international election observers from the OSCE, the OSCE PA, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament reflected my own impressions: that the December 9 election process respected citizens’ fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust. Almost without exception, other international observers shared my sense that the polling stations were efficiently and professionally run. The overall campaign featured open political debate, including in the media, and the lack of vote-buying or similar examples of election fraud meant that the elections were genuinely competitive. Election turnout hovered just under 50 percent—low by Armenian standards, but according to many election analysts, not entirely negative. The relatively low voter turnout (12 percent lower than in the previous election) could likely reflect a lack of the vote-buying and bribery that would encourage otherwise apathetic voters to turn out in droves. Peter Osusky, leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission, noted, “Now that voters have delivered their message, it is up to the political leadership of Armenia to ensure that this momentum is maintained.”

  • December 1, 1991

    By Alexa Zouboukos, Intern On December 1, 1991, 84 percent of eligible voters in Ukraine exercised their democratic rights in a referendum on independence and the election of their president, peacefully transferring power after the long struggle of the Cold War. If the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled a symbolic end to the war, then Ukraine partaking in the democratic process was a concrete outcome. Three U.S. Helsinki Commission staffers sent to monitor the elections—Orest Deychakiwsky, Michael Ochs, and Heather Hurlburt—reported on the implementation of regulations that we recognize in today’s U.S. elections. Some of these regulations included the collection of a certain number of signatures for a candidate to be placed on the ballot, campaign finance laws, and the methodology for marking and counting ballots. Despite many accounts of a free and fair election, however, there were also indicators of information suppression. Helsinki Commission staff noted that there were reports of pro-independence literature being withheld from Crimea and Mykolaiv. Limits to the free flow of information were not the only threat Ukrainians faced, but also “dark warnings by Mikhail Gorbachev, by the central Soviet media and, to some extent, Russian media about the difficulties and dangers Ukrainian independence would pose to Ukrainians themselves, to their neighbors and to international stability.” These threats to the will of Ukrainian people did not dampen their spirits; in fact, according to the report, “many Ukrainians later told Helsinki Commission staff that such attempts to intimidate them only made them more determined to see their cause through to the end.” Ukrainian citizens demonstrated this determination through a landslide referendum. Three-quarters of participants voted in favor of independence. Helsinki Commission staff also observed a distinct feeling of festivity at polling stations, reinforced by the testimonies of Ukrainians previously imprisoned in Siberia who said that this day was the realization of a long-held dream of independence from the Soviet Union. Ukrainians were aware that there would be greater struggles ahead, but also recognized that these could be opportunities to exercise their new sovereignty. December 1, 1991 did not mark the end of Ukraine’s conflicts with Russia, but it did finally allow Ukrainians to exercise rights that were long suppressed under the Soviet yoke.

  • Lies, Bots, and Social Media

    From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts examined the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explored options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Computational Propaganda

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing:   LIES, BOTS, AND SOCIAL MEDIA What is Computational Propaganda and How Do We Defeat It? Thursday, November 29, 2018 10:30 a.m. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder.  What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices.  At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts will examine the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explore options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Matt Chessen, Acting Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow and Director, Technology Policy Program, The German Marshall Fund of the United States Nina Jankowicz, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Kennan Institute

  • Interview with Georgia Holmer, Senior Adviser for Anti-Terrorism Issues, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

    By Yena Seo, Communications Fellow Georgia Holmer, an expert on counterterrorism policy, recently visited the Helsinki Commission offices to discuss her portfolio at the Anti-Terrorism Issues Unit in the Transnational Threat Department at the OSCE Secretariat. At the OSCE, she oversees policy support and capacity building work on preventing and countering violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism (VERLT). Ms. Holmer gave a short interview on her position at the OSCE and explained why she sees a human-rights based approach to counterterrorism to be critical. Holmer, who has worked on counterterrorism issues for over 20 years, observed that she “lived through an evolution in the U.S. government’s approach to terrorism that was quite extraordinary.” After spending 10 years as a terrorism analyst for the FBI, Holmer helped build analytic capacity at the Department of Homeland Security and taught classes on understanding radicalization. Later she directed the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program at the United States Institute of Peace, where she helped develop a strategic approach to violent extremism that harnessed peacebuilding tools. “We went from approaching terrorism as a security threat in which operations needed to be disrupted to realizing that there also had to be something done to prevent people from joining these groups and movements in the first place,” Holmer explained. “Not only did we begin to understand and address the root causes of terrorism but increasingly there was a realization that repressive measures in counterterrorism could actually exacerbate the problem. Upholding human rights as part of the effort to counter terrorism is necessary and can contribute to preventing violence in the long term.” Holmer acknowledged some of the pitfalls and counterproductive measures to be avoided in counterterrorism: a lack of due process and clear legislation, abusive treatment in detention facilities, and stigma and censorship against certain religious and ethnic groups can also fuel terrorist agendas and draw more people to violent extremism. These ideas led Holmer to pursue a degree mid-career in international human rights law at Oxford University. In 2017, Holmer was offered a position at the OSCE, and was drawn to its comprehensive approach to security. “I thought, here is a chance to work for an organization that had both a counterterrorism mandate and a human rights mandate. I think it’s a necessary marriage.” She sees the work she does in the prevention of VERLT to be directly relevant to human rights. “Programs to prevent radicalization that leads to terrorism not only ensure security, but they also help build more inclusive, resilient and engaged communities. This can also be understood inversely – upholding human rights is a pathway to preventing terrorism.” Holmer was further drawn to the OSCE because of its operational focus, pointing to the organization’s robust field operations presence. She stressed that the organization’s “on-the-ground presence” – particularly in the Western Balkans and Central Asia – allows it to develop close working relationships with governments and policymakers, giving it “a different level of reach.” For example, OSCE field missions in Dushanbe and Skopje have helped to convene stakeholders for important discussions, coordinate funders, and organize external partners for project implementation. Holmer considers the OSCE’s structure a strength when it comes to countering violent extremism. Holmer explained that because the OSCE is a political organization, its structure and activities invite states and other stakeholders to exchange ideas frankly. The OSCE’s annual counterterrorism conferences allow participating States to share opinions in a productive and meaningful manner. The OSCE frequently convenes policy makers and practitioners from its participating States to discuss measures to prevent radicalization leading to terrorism. Various seminars, workshops, and conferences have introduced concepts of prevention and helped advance the role of civil society in countering violent extremism. Holmer observed that while there is no “one-size-fits-all solution,” the organization regularly emphasizes the sharing and implementation of good practices. She also added that sharing good practices is only effective when efforts are made to tailor responses and approaches to a specific context. Measures to prevent need to incorporate an understanding of the nature of the threat in any given environment. She said the ways that individuals radicalize and the dynamics that influence people to become engaged in violent extremism differ. “What works in a rural village in Bosnia-Herzegovina versus what might work in Tajikistan might be completely different.” Holmer believes that through her role as Senior Adviser, she can continue working with member states to pursue “good practices” in the prevention of VERLT and support anti-terrorism within a human rights framework. “The aim of our work at the OSCE is to support participating states with the tools, the policy and legal frameworks they need to address these complicated challenges.” For more information, contact Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor for Global Security and Political-Military Affairs.

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