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Bulgaria Holds Early Parliamentary Elections; OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission
Tuesday, May 28, 2013

By Helsinki Commission Staff

Country-Wide Street Protests Trigger Snap Elections

In early 2013, 30 Bulgarian cities were rocked by demonstrations. In some instances, violence erupted between demonstrators and police. In addition, in the months immediately preceding the elections, six people committed suicide by self-immolation in acts of public protest and desperation.

The street demonstrations were triggered by sharply rising electricity rates in a country widely described as the poorest of the EU’s 27 members. Discontent was further fueled by dissatisfaction with political leaders across the board and widespread corruption.

In February, following the street demonstrations, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned, paving the way for May 12’s early parliamentary elections.

For those elections, 8,100 candidates stood for seats in the 240-member unicameral National Assembly allocated by proportional representation from 31 multi-mandate constituencies (with a 4% threshold for both parties and coalitions to enter parliament). Altogether, 63 parties (38 outside of coalitions and 7 coalitions) were registered as well as two independent candidates.

The resulting ballot was roughly a yard long.

OSCE Mounts Full-Scale Election Observation Mission

The OSCE mounted a full scale Election Observation Mission (EOM) – the first in Bulgaria since 1997 and the first ever in an EU country.

Eoghan Murphy (MP, Ireland) was appointed by OSCE Chair-in-Office Leonid Kozhara to serve as Special Coordinator and leader of the short-term observer mission (parliamentarians and observers seconded by OSCE participating States). The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) long-term observer team was headed by Miklos Haraszti. Roberto Battelli (MP, Slovenia) headed the OSCE PA delegation. Andreas Gross (MP, Switzerland) headed the observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

On Election Day, there were 158 observers deployed from 39 countries.

Of an estimated 6.9 million voters (a number that, in any case, the OSCE and Council of Europe Venice Commission suggest may be high), 3,541,745 went to the polls. Voter turnout was at about 50 percent – the lowest turnout since the fall of communism – reflecting the voters’ antipathy even more than apathy.

Approximately 850,000 votes were cast for parties that failed to overcome the 4% threshold to get into parliament.

Reportedly 107,799 Bulgarian citizens voted abroad, with 63,152 votes cast in Turkey.

The Mysterious Case of the Extra Ballots

The administration of the elections on E-Day was largely unremarkable. It was, however, preceded by two separate but related wiretapping scandals suggesting that the Ministry of Interior had bugged journalists and state officials. The day before the elections, an “extra” 350,000 ballots were discovered in a printing house in Sofia. (A week after the elections, it was reported that more than 2,000 extra stamps for electoral commissions had also surfaced.)

In its preliminary findings, the Election Observation Mission drew particular attention to the alienation of voters, lack of confidence in the electoral process, concerns over ballot security (the “extra” ballots), and persistent allegations of vote buying or voter intimidation. (A final report from the Mission is forthcoming.)

Roma and Other Minorities in the Electoral Context

Bulgaria has a population of 7.36 million (from almost 8 million in the 2001 census and roughly 8.4 million in the 1992 census). This continuing drop reflects declining birth rates and labor migration to other parts of Europe.

The ethnic Turkish minority comprises 8.8 percent of the population. Almost 5 percent of the population self-identified as Romani on the last census, but Roma are estimated to be roughly 10 percent of the population. Last year, the Bulgarian Government estimated that 23 percent of the working age population is Romani.

The Bulgarian Constitution prohibits the formation of political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, which is contrary to OSCE and other international norms on freedom of assembly. The OSCE has criticized this restriction in previous reports on Bulgarian elections.

The Electoral Code stipulates that the election campaign must be conducted in the Bulgarian language only, also contrary to standards on free speech and minority language use set out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document. These restrictions also impede get-out-the-vote efforts.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms is, de facto, an ethnic Turkish minority party, although it has largely been allowed to function with a wink and a nod from the authorities. After the elections, it was reported that Lyutvi Mestan, head of the MRF party, was fined in Sliven for campaigning in Turkish.

Bulgaria's last two local and Presidential elections (which were held simultaneously in 2007 and 2011) were preceded by outbreaks of anti-Roma violence. In 2011, just a few weeks before the elections, 14 Bulgarian cities erupted into anti-Roma riots. In July 2012, the headquarters of the EuroRoma political party were firebombed, killing one man. The investigation has not produced any results.

On April 8, 15 Romani civil society organizations withdrew from their advisory role with the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues, effectively deeming the government’s work in this area and the consultative process to be a sham.

There were no Roma in electable positions on the lists for any of the leading parties. As a result, the National Assembly produced by the May 12 elections will be the first Bulgarian parliament since the fall of communism to have no Romani MPs.

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    Mr. Speaker, yesterday I chaired a hearing of the Helsinki Commission that examined the Russian government’s repeated violations of its international security, economic, and human rights commitments.  In accord with the three dimensions of security promoted by the OSCE and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, the Commission looked at Russia’s respect for the rule of law through the lens of three ‘‘case studies’’ current to U.S.-Russian relations—arms control agreements; the Yukos litigation; and instances of abduction, unjust imprisonment, and abuse of prisoners.  Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act.  At stake is the hard-won trust between members—now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.  In respect of military security, under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum Russia reaffirmed its commitment to respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and existing borders. Russia also committed to refrain from the threat or use of force or economic coercion against Ukraine. There was a quid pro quo here: Russia did this in return for transferring Soviet-made nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil to Russia.  Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. It appears these are not isolated instances. In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments such as the Vienna Document and binding international agreements, including the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF), and Open Skies treaties.  In respect of commercial issues, the ongoing claims regarding the Russian government’s expropriation of the Yukos Oil Company are major tests facing the Russian government. In July 2014, GML Limited and other shareholders were part of a $52 billion arbitration claim awarded by the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  In response, the Russian government is threatening to withdraw from the ECHR and seize U.S. assets should American courts freeze Russian holdings on behalf of European claimants, while filing technical challenges that will occupy the courts for years to come. All of this fundamentally calls into question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms such as that of the Hague.  I note that U.S. Yukos shareholders are not covered by the Hague ruling for their estimated $6 billion in losses. This is due to the fact that the United States has not ratified the Energy Charter Treaty, under which European claimants won their case, as well as the continued absence of a bilateral investment treaty with Russia. This has handicapped U.S. investors in Russia’s energy sector, leaving them solely dependent of a State Department espousal process with the Russian government.  We were all relieved to learn that Mr. Kara-Murza is recovering from the attempt on his life—by poisoning—in Russia earlier this year. His tireless work on behalf of democracy in Russia, and his personal integrity and his love of his native country is an inspiration—it is true patriotism, a virtue sadly lacking among nationalistic demagogues.  Sadly, the attempt on Mr. Kara-Murza’s life is not an isolated instance. Others have been murdered—most recently Boris Nemtsov—and both his and Mr. Kara-Murza’s cases remain unsolved.  In other cases, such as the abductions, unjust imprisonments, and abuses of Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov, and Eston Kohver, we are dealing the plain and public actions of the Russian government. Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot and elected parliamentarian, was abducted by Russian government agents, imprisoned, subjected to a humiliating show trial, and now faces 25 years in prison for allegedly murdering Russian reporters—who in fact were killed after she was in Russian custody.  Meanwhile, a Russian court has sentenced Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov on charges of terrorism. Tortured during detention, Sentsov’s only transgressions appear to be his refusal to recognize Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and his effort to help deliver food to Ukrainian soldiers trapped on their Crimean bases by invading Russian soldiers. And the kidnaping and subsequent espionage trial against Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver demonstrates the Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.  The Magnitsky Act that I had the honor to co-sponsor was in part meant to address human rights abuses such as these. It sanctions those involved in the abuse, and works to discourage further human rights violations while protecting those brave enough to call attention to their occurrence. It troubles me greatly to hear that the Administration’s listings of sanctioned individuals has thus far only targeted ‘minor players,’ rather than those who pull the strings.  

  • Helsinki Commission Chair Chris Smith Shines Light on Egregious Rule-of-Law Abuses by Russian Government

    WASHINGTON—At a Congressional hearing today, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, spotlighted the many recent violations of the rule of law committed by the Russian government. “Forty years after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, we face a set of challenges with Russia, a founding member of the organization, that mirror the concerns that gave rise to the Helsinki Final Act,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who called the hearing. “At stake is the hard-won trust between members, now eroded to the point that armed conflict rages in the OSCE region. The question is open whether the principles continue to bind the Russian government with other states in a common understanding of what the rule of law entails.” “Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in the Donbas region not only clearly violate this commitment, but also every guiding principle of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.  It appears these are not isolated instances.  In recent years, Russia appears to have violated, undermined, disregarded, or even disavowed fundamental and binding arms control commitments,” Smith continued. “[I also] question Russia’s OSCE commitment to develop free, competitive markets that respect international dispute arbitration mechanisms...[and recent government actions] demonstrate Russia’s readiness to abuse its laws and judicial system to limit individual freedoms both within and beyond its borders.” Witness testimony highlighted case studies corresponding to each of the three dimensions of comprehensive security established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE): politico-military security; economic and environmental security; and human rights and fundamental freedoms. Tim Osborne, executive director of GML Ltd., the majority owner of the now-liquidated Yukos Oil Company, said, “It is clear that the Russian Federation is not honoring its obligations and commitments under the rule of law or in a manner consistent with the Helsinki process.  Russia’s tendency, more often than not, has been to ignore, delay, obstruct or retaliate when faced with its international law responsibilities…Russia cannot be trusted in international matters and that even when it has signed up to international obligations, it will ignore them if that is what it thinks serves it best.” “Russia had engaged in the uncompensated expropriation of billions of dollars of U.S. investments in Yukos Oil Company,” observed former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Ambassador Alan Larson. “American investors—who owned about 12 percent of Yukos at the time of the expropriation—have claims worth over $14 billion, and they are entitled to compensation under international law even though they have no option for bringing claims directly against the Russian Federation.” Vladimir Kara-Murza, a well-known Russian activist and the coordinator of the Open Russia Movement, said, “Today, the Kremlin fully controls the national airwaves, which it has turned into transmitters for its propaganda…the last Russian election recognized by the OSCE as conforming to basic democratic standards was held more than 15 years ago.” “There are currently 50 political prisoners in the Russian Federation,” Kara-Murza continued. “These prisoners include opposition activists jailed under the infamous ‘Bolotnaya case’ for protesting against Mr. Putin’s inauguration in May 2012; the brother of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny; and Alexei Pichugin, the remaining hostage of the Yukos case.” “A clear pattern emerges when one looks at Russia’s implementation of its arms control obligations overall,” observed Stephen Rademaker, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and Nonproliferation. “Should Moscow conclude such agreements have ceased to serve its interest, it will ignore them, effectively terminate them, violate them while continuing to pay them lip service, or selectively implement them…Russia believes that this is how great powers are entitled to act, and today Moscow insists on acting and being respected as a great power.” Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a panel of lawmakers including Commission Co-Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Representative Robert Aderholt (AL-04).

  • Europe's Refugee Crisis: How Should the US, EU and OSCE Respond?

    This hearing, held on October 20, 2015, discussed possible responses to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Witnesses, including representatives from the American and Serbian governments, the UNHCR, the European Union, and non-profit groups working with refugees, highlighted the scale and intensity of the crisis.  Many of the witnesses also emphasized the need for cooperation among governments and between governments and non-profit organizations in addressing this crisis.

  • Smith Calls for Action on Worst Refugee Crisis in Europe since WWII

    WASHINGTON—At a hearing convened today by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, Chairman Chris Smith (NJ-04) and other lawmakers scrutinized actions being taken to deal with Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II by the United States, European governments, regional bodies like the OSCE and the EU, and civil society. The Commission also reviewed recommendations on developing a long-term solution to the crisis. “The European crisis requires a response that is European, national, and international. There must be effective coordination and communication directly between countries as well as through and with entities like the OSCE and European Union,” said Rep. Smith, who called today’s hearing. “There is real human need and desperation. Refugees are entrusting themselves to smugglers and where there is human smuggling there is a higher risk of human trafficking,” he continued. “There is also the real threat that terrorist groups like ISIS will infiltrate these massive movements of people to kill civilians in Europe and beyond. I am deeply concerned that the screening at many European borders is inadequate and putting lives at risk. All of us must be responsive to the humanitarian needs without compromising one iota on security.” Smith said that “given the disproportionate number of men fleeing to Europe and potentially soon to the United States – currently only 14 percent of the refugees and migrants arriving via the Mediterranean Sea are women, 20 percent are children, and the remaining 65 percent are men – robust vetting is essential. We must ensure that lone wolf terrorists don’t turn into wolf packs.” Smith noted that during the conflict in Kosovo, he travelled to Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia and was at the McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to welcome some of the 4,400 people brought from there to the United States. A refugee – Agron Abdullahu – was apprehended and sent to jail in 2008 for supplying guns and ammunition to the “Fort Dix 5,” a group of terrorists who were also sent to prison for plotting to kill American soldiers at the Fort Dix military installation. Given Secretary Kerry’s announcement in September that the United States intended to resettle at least 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016, including at least 10,000 Syrians, and at least 100,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017, “The United State and Europe must be on high alert to weed out terrorists from real refugees,” Smith said. He added, “ISIS has committed genocide, mass atrocities, and war crimes, against Christians and other minorities. Religious and ethnic minorities often have additional risks and vulnerabilities even as refugees and should be prioritized for resettlement.”   Witnesses testifying at the hearing focused on the root causes of the refugee crisis as well as the current measures being put into place to help mitigate the humanitarian impact and ensure that security and economic challenges are addressed. In addition, witnesses emphasized the importance of a shared and coordinated response by all actors involved to ensure a long-term solution to the crisis. “It’s a very challenging situation,” said Anne Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration. “The scale of this migration is much bigger than before.” “The US government has a three-pronged approach: strong levels of humanitarian assistance; active diplomacy; and expanded refugee resettlement,” she continued. “Without our support, more people would be making the dangerous journey to the north.” “Europe is facing its biggest refugee influx in decades. UNHCR is calling upon the European Union to provide an immediate and life-saving response to the thousands of refugees as they are crossing the Mediterranean and making their way through Europe,” said Shelly Pitterman, Regional Representative to the United States and Caribbean, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Europe can no longer afford to continue with this fragmented approach that undermines efforts to rebuild responsibility, solidarity and trust among states, and is creating chaos and desperation among thousands of refugee women, men and children. After the many gestures by governments and citizens across Europe to welcome refugees, the focus now needs to be on a robust, joint European response.” “The ongoing refugee crisis is not a European crisis. It is a global crisis, fueled by conflicts, inequality and poverty, the consequences of which unfolded in Europe but the roots of which are far away from our continent,” noted EU Ambassador to the United States David O’Sullivan. “The EU and its Member States are firmly committed to the promotion and protection of the human rights of migrants. Despite the influx, we do not remove or return genuine refugees, we respect the fundamental rights of all persons arriving in the EU, and we invest major resources in saving lives at sea.” Djerdj Matkovic, Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia to the United States, said, “The OSCE region is witnessing the largest refugee influx in decades. Apart from being a significant economic challenge, this is a process with potentially very serious security implications and the cause of concern in regards to the respect for human rights… As the presiding country [of the OSCE] Serbia recognizes the importance of this issue and is trying to provide more active and concrete approach of the OSCE in addressing it. In light of this bleak security situation and looming instability, it is paramount that all the mechanisms that were designed and adopted by the participating States to oversee the implementation of commitments are strong and functioning.” Sean Callahan, chief operating officer of Catholic Relief Services, observed, “As global leaders in international humanitarian and refugee response, the US and Europe must find new and creative ways to help to alleviate this suffering and protect the vulnerable.  Pope Francis has led in this effort to do more by asking every Catholic parish in Europe to reach out and assist the refugees; he reminds us of our moral obligation to help the stranger... Despite efforts by [international NGOs] like CRS, local civil societies, governments, and non-traditional donors, the despair of so many refugees indicates that assistance must move beyond short-term band-aids to longer-term solutions.” Chairman Smith was joined at the hearing by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Senator John Boozman (AR), Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Representative Michael Burgess (TX-26), Representative Randy Hultgren (IL-14), and Representative Joe Pitts (PA-16).

  • Helsinki Commission Announces Hearing to Examine Europe's Refugee Crisis

    Europe is experiencing an enormous refugee crisis. An estimated half a million migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2015; as many as 50 percent are Syrian refugees.  Thousands more join them each day, and many of the European nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are struggling to cope.

    As the regional security organization in Europe, how can the OSCE use its tools, standards, and commitments to help manage the humanitarian crisis and ensure that security and economic challenges are addressed? What has the US government done, and what should it be doing? The hearing will examine the reasons for the current crisis; relevant OSCE and other European agreements, commitments, and structures; the response of the OSCE, the EU, and the US; potential security issues related to the ability of extremists to infiltrate the refugee stream; and the potential for refugees to become victims of human trafficking.

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