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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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(Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.)  Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day. Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process. With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station.  An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow.  Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC. Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote.  This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials. Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities.  Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters. 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Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after. As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through.  Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room. After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time. Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results.  The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation.  Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated.  Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations.  Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots.  In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank).  U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members. Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. 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The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process. Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary. Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference.  A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation.  After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board.  Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square. It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level. The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended.  Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote. Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!”  The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance. During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system. In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.   The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.

  • Annual Trafficking in Persons Report: Europe Falling Behind on Trafficking Victim Identification

    WASHINGTON—Last week, the U.S. Department of State released the 18th annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which tracks the progress of 189 countries toward meeting minimum standards of prosecution, protection, and prevention in the fight against human trafficking.  This year’s report showed a 45 percent increase in trafficking victim identification worldwide in 2017 to 100,409—an all-time high for both labor and sex trafficking. However, while more labor trafficking victims were identified in Europe than in 2016, overall victim identification in Europe dropped 4 percent. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, said, “With the current migrant crisis, it is more important than ever that OSCE participating States in Europe are informed and on the lookout for human trafficking victims, and have care available for them when they are found.  Unaccompanied minors, in particular, are vulnerable to trafficking and re-trafficking all along the migration routes.” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) welcomed the report and noted that despite the downturn in victim identification in Europe, several OSCE participating States have made substantial progress in fighting human trafficking. “Estonia, Cyprus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Uzbekistan are to be congratulated for their efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking,” he said.  Ireland and Armenia, however, moved down from Tier 1 to Tier 2.  Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Mongolia moved from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 Watch List.  The TIP Report classifies countries into several tiers based on their progress toward meeting minimum standards to combat human trafficking. Tier 1 countries fully meet the minimum standards. Tier 2 countries do not meet the minimum standards but are making a significant effort to do so. Tier 2 Watch List countries are in a grace period and are in real danger of becoming Tier 3 if they do not take concrete action to improve their efforts. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant effort to do so. Tier 3 countries may be subject to U.S. sanctions. Since the creation of the annual TIP Report by Co-Chairman Smith’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, more than 120 countries have enacted anti-trafficking laws and many countries have taken other steps to significantly raise their tier rankings—citing the TIP Report as a key factor in their new anti-trafficking efforts. 

  • Press Conference Following U.S. Congressional Delegation Meetings in Bosnia

    Thank you Madam Ambassador.  We appreciate it very, very much.  And this is indeed a bicameral and bipartisan delegation of members of the United States Congress and I am pleased to be here in Sarajevo for my fifth visit.  This is a nine-member congressional delegation. It represents – as the Ambassador said – the bicameral U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I’m privileged to serve as chair.  The Helsinki Commission and its members from the United States Congress have always cared about Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Its first congressional visit here was in early 1991, before the conflict began.  Commissioners returned when they could during the conflict, and have come back on several occasions after the conflict to assess and encourage recovery and reconciliation.   This time, we come here first and foremost to let both the political leaders and the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina know the United States remains interested and engaged in the Balkans.  The progress we want to see throughout the region must include progress here in Bosnia.  We are committed to protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in line with the 1995 Dayton Agreement, and we support Bosnia’s aspirations for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.  Efforts to undermine state institutions, along with calls for secession or establishment of a third entity, violate the spirit and letter of the Dayton Accords and endanger the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the entire region, and they diminish the likelihood of progress for local families and job creators.   We encourage the Bosnian government to undertake the necessary reforms to make integration a reality.  The inability to make Bosnia’s government more functional, efficient, and accountable is holding this country back.  It is the consensus of the international community that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are ill-served by their government’s structure. Bosnia should correct one glaring shortcoming.  The discriminatory ethnic criteria that prevent some Roma, Jewish, Serbs in the Federation, Croats and Bosniaks in the Republika Srpska, and other citizens who do not self-identify with a group from seeking certain public offices is unacceptable and can easily be addressed.  Bosnia’s neighbors are making progress, and we do not want to see this country fall further behind.   In our meeting with Members of the Bosnian Presidency, we expressed our frustrations with the political impasse and often dangerous rhetoric.  We urged stronger leadership and a more cooperative spirit in moving this country forward, together.  This should include electoral reform now and a serious commitment to the additional reforms that are obviously needed in the near future.  We are tired of the way ethnic politics dominates debate and makes decision-making such a difficult progress.  We share this impatience with our allies and the people this country would like to move closer toward.  This does not enhance the future of young people who want to stay and raise families in Bosnia, and it places a drag on efforts toward Euro-Atlantic integration. We encouraged international mission heads and the diplomatic community based here in Bosnia to defend human rights, democracy, the rule of law and all principles of the Helsinki Final Act in their important work.  In these areas, there should be no compromises here in Bosnia that we would not accept elsewhere.  Working together, the United States and Europe must deal firmly with those who seek to undermine those principles in any way, and that should include – for the worst offenders – coordinated sanctions on their ability to travel and on their individual assets.  We also need to work with Bosnian officials to counter external forces that actively seek to make Bosnia even more vulnerable to internal instability than it already is right now.  We are proud of the work between the United States and Bosnian officials thus far on countering terrorism.  We hope Bosnia remains committed to prosecuting and rehabilitating foreign terrorist fighters through ensuring longer sentences for convicted terrorists. Second to sending a strong U.S. message, we come to hear the voices of the people.  The Helsinki Commission and members of Congress regularly meet with diplomats and senior officials from Bosnia who visit Washington.  Their views are important, and we have good discussions, and we had good discussions this time.  However, we often wonder what the people of Bosnia truly think about their situation.  To that end, we met here with citizens who continue to be denied their recognized right to seek certain public offices.  We also heard the many concerns of non-governmental representatives.  In Mostar, we met with a young leader whose organization is trying to find common ground among the people of that spectacular city, which is still divided in too many ways.  It is deplorable that the citizens of Mostar have been denied their right to vote in local elections since 2008; we call on Bosnia’s political leaders to set aside the differences and work toward a compromise that resolves the impasse. We encourage all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina to give priority not to protecting ethnic privileges that keep them segregated from one another, but to promoting policies that will give them jobs, greater opportunity, a 21st century education, and the prosperity they want for their children and grandchildren.  To succeed, Bosnian citizens must all move forward together.   However, ethnic divisions continue to thwart needed cooperation.  We sense that these divisions are not as deep as claimed by the political leaders who exploit them. They exploit them for power, in our judgment.  And if there is one thing which should unite all Bosnians, it should be the desire to end the rampant corruption that robs this country of its wealth and potential. We hope that the upcoming Bosnian elections are not only conducted smoothly and peacefully, but their results reflect the genuine will of the people.  Democracy is strengthened when voters cast their ballots based, not on fear, pressure or expectation, but based on their own, personal views regarding the issues and opinions of the candidates, their views and their character.  The outcome must accurately capture these individual sentiments.  We hope for progress on electoral reform, in line with accepted norms for free and fair elections, so that election results can be implemented and a government formed.  We are dismayed at the lack of political diversity within some of the main ethnic groups in this country, and take issue with those who argue they are entitled to a monopoly in representing those groups. A third and final reason this delegation has come to Bosnia and Herzegovina is to remember —as American citizens and elected officials — why the United States of America should continue to care about Bosnia and Herzegovina, even when so many other crises demand attention.  We are reminded, in that regard, of the upcoming anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica and the unimaginable pain and loss that lingers from that and other wartime atrocities.  Some of us visited the War Childhood museum, reminding us as well of the innocence and vulnerability of civilian victims.  We also remember past U.S. leadership in responding to the conflict.  The address of this building is “1 Robert C. Frasure Street,” after one of three American envoys who lost their lives on nearby Mount Igman while seeking to bring peace to this country.  Their work, and that of so many other American diplomats, soldiers and citizens who have continued their work to this day, cannot be left unfinished.   Finally, we also witnessed the incredible beauty of the countryside, the vibrancy of places like Sarajevo and Mostar, and the generous hospitality of the people.  Having been through so much, they deserve better than they have right now.            We therefore leave here more committed than ever to this country’s future, and as confident as ever in our ability to work together to build that future.  We support Ambassador Cormack here in Sarajevo and will continue to encourage our government in Washington to take further steps to encourage the good governance and prosperity that the citizens of this country deserve.

  • Chairman Wicker Introduces Resolution Emphasizing Importance of NATO to Regional Security

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) introduced a bipartisan resolution (S.Res.557) emphasizing the importance of NATO to the collective security of the transatlantic region and urging its member states to work together to strengthen the alliance at the July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels.  “NATO remains the cornerstone of transatlantic and global security. This resolution underlines the need for our allies to boost their contributions to our collective defense. It also encourages practical steps at the upcoming NATO summit to bolster the alliance’s effectiveness against current and emerging threats,” said Chairman Wicker. “We must always work to strengthen the alliance if we want it to serve our collective security as well as it has in its first seven decades.”  Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and ranking Senate commissioner, is the lead co-sponsor of the resolution. Other original co-sponsors of S.Res.557 include Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Thom Tillis (NC) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), who also co-chair the Senate NATO Observer Group. “NATO summits are important occasions to send messages of solidarity with our NATO allies and reaffirm our continued commitment to transatlantic principles, including democracy and the rule of law,” said Sen. Cardin. “This resolution underlines that NATO is rooted in a foundation of shared values, and that any backsliding on individual liberty, corruption, or human rights risks eroding that foundation.” S.Res.557 reaffirms the enduring commitment of the United States to NATO’s collective defense, enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and urges all NATO member states to be prepared to meet their respective Article 5 obligations.  It also pledges support for measures to deter Russian aggression against the territory of any NATO ally. The resolution underlines the need for NATO’s “open door policy” to remain in effect and for the alliance to extend an invitation to any aspirant country that has met the conditions required to join NATO. Finally, it urges leaders at the Brussels summit to ensure the alliance makes key changes to meet urgent security threats and counter new challenges. “As I stated when we re-established the NATO Observer Group, our alliance must be prepared to face a broad range of threats, including hybrid and cyber threats from Russia and other adversaries,” said Sen. Tillis. “A strong and committed NATO alliance remains vital as our community of democracies continues to expand and thrive.” “This resolution underscores the need for the United States to work closely with our allies to modernize NATO to respond to the ever-evolving threats facing western democracies, particularly from the Kremlin,” said Sen. Shaheen. “Continued cooperation with NATO allies will be integral to our efforts to safeguard our country’s national security and protect the United States.”

  • Inaugural PADWEEK Addresses Racial Discrimination across Europe

    On May 19, 2018, African-American Meghan Markle wed Prince Harry at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, England. Black culture was celebrated throughout the event: Queen Elizabeth II’s first female black chaplain offered prayers, a black British choir sang African-American Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” and Chicago-based African-American Episcopalian bishop Michael Curry quoted civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. during his wedding address, preaching on “the power of love.” However, the public discussion leading up to the wedding was riddled with racial stereotyping and prejudice spurred by Markle’s biracial identity—her father is white and her mother is black. British news outlets were heavily criticized for racial insensitivity after commenting on Markle’s “unconventional family,” and using phrases like “unlikely pairing” to further differentiate between the prince and Markle. Unfortunately, racial bias is not confined to Markle—now Duchess of Sussex—but instead extends to many black people in Europe. According to four comprehensive reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Commission, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, and Open Society Foundations, a significant percentage of the estimated 15–20 million people of African descent living in Europe have experienced high rates of prejudice and discrimination. Just days before the wedding, racial equality advocates from across Europe gathered in Brussels to address this problem. At the inaugural People of African Descent Week (PADWEEK), organized by the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup, Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference, Each One Teach One, and the European Network Against Racism, more than 100 black European activists discussed current racial injustices in Europe and recommended ways for European leaders to respond to increasing hate and discrimination across the region. Attendees included black policymakers, business leaders, and human rights activists from across Europe. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20) and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) were two of nine honorary hosts. “Whether in America or Europe, we must all do more to uphold the democratic values of our nations,” Commissioner Hastings said in a statement. “Skin color should not determine one’s access to rights, protections, and opportunities in a democracy.” Though the agenda was full with discussions ranging from BREXIT to migration to Africa-EU relations, PADWEEK addressed issues of racial discrimination head-on and introduced new ways to find solutions. It called for change to a well-ingrained European system that has left black people by the wayside for centuries. Race and legal issues were raised repeatedly in discussions. German legal expert and human rights activist Thomas Ndindah called for justice for Oury Jalloh, an asylum seeker who burned to death in a German police cell while handcuffed to a mattress in 2005. Participants also questioned a so-called “Marshall Plan” for Africa, the name of which alludes to the American-European economic plan that helped rebuild Western Europe following World War II. Participants voiced concerns that African countries were not being viewed as equal partners in the negotiations or consulted on the name. Instead, many attendees viewed the plan as Europeans paying African governments to keep unwanted African migrants from reaching Europe, while at the same time purposefully attracting Africa’s highly skilled professionals to Europe. This raised one question: how would Africa benefit from this “Marshall Plan” for Africa if Africa’s brightest and best were contributing to countries elsewhere? The week ended with a list of recommendations from participants and a passionate speech by Mirielle Fanon-Mendes-France, daughter of twentieth century philosopher Frantz Fanon. She called on European institutions to deliver on longstanding promises to address the ongoing impact of colonialism and slavery on the present-day well-being of black Europeans. Recommendations from PADWEEK included: Recognizing the history of past injustices by adopting a European Black History Month and a Remembrance Day for victims of colonialism and enslavement Supporting empowerment and anti-discrimination initiatives by funding black-led civil and human rights organizations Adopting legislation in the European Parliament on an EU Framework for National Strategies for Equality and the Inclusion of People of African Descent in Europe

  • Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election

    On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018.  While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election. The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent. Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election.  The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints.  Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan. By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor and Jordan Warlick, Office Director Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion. For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win. During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million).  Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency. Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained. Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners.  One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev.  He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister. Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations. Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers.  A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.” Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process.  The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail. While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely. One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere.  One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand.  Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands. Citizen “Observers” in Name Only During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible.  We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing.  They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped. The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed.  For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process. Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles.  We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled.  One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place. In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities.  We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent. 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.”

  • 2018 World Cup: The Beautiful Game and an Ugly Regime

    The 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia has created an unprecedented opportunity for the country’s kleptocrats to enrich themselves. Just as he did with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin has hijacked a world sporting event in an attempt to burnish his own image and enrich the Kremlin elite, rather than to celebrate sport and sportsmanship in Russia. However, unlike the 2014 Winter Olympics, the World Cup has required multiple infrastructure projects in not just one, but eleven, host cities. Oligarchs, as well as regional and national officials, have worked together to embezzle assets from the tournament stadium construction and refurbishment to side projects of accommodation and transport. Mistreated and forced laborers have completed this work. Contractors have used and manipulated Rus-sian and migrant workers to erect the stadiums and other structures that are essential to hosting a World Cup. For example, Russia has continued its unscrupulous use of North Korean forced labor to build St. Petersburg Zenit Arena, opened by President Putin himself in March 2017. Russia presented the World Cup to the FIFA voters in 2010 as a wholesome tournament, bringing the world together for a festival of sport. Instead, President Putin will give the world a corrupt tournament, built on the backs of forced and mistreated labor, and expose fans to a real risk of soccer violence and hatred. Although troubling trends in each of these areas can be seen in countries throughout the OSCE region, the offenses of the Kremlin are particularly egregious. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Michael Newton, Intern and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

  • Helsinki Commission Observation of Russia’s Presidential Elections

    Presidential elections were held in the Russian Federation on March 18, 2018; incumbent Vladimir Putin took about 76 percent of the votes cast among eight candidates, with a voter turnout topping 67 percent. These lopsided results were unsurprising in a country where the current regime has steadily and systematically decimated the democratic norms that gained a foothold in the 1990s. Nevertheless, international observers traveled to Russia under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to provide an authoritative assessment of electoral conditions and to encourage Russia to adhere to its OSCE commitments. The Russian Federation, along with the 56 other OSCE participating States, has committed to hold free and fair elections, as well as to invite international observers. An OSCE presence also indicated an ongoing willingness to support democratic development by engaging not just the government but all players in Russian society. Despite a variety of official efforts to suppress critics and marginalize opposition, independent and democratic forces remain active in Russia. Based on an December 21, 2017, recommendation to deploy a comprehensive OSCE observation mission for the Russian election, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed a Moscow-based core team of 13 experts supplemented by 60 long-term observers deployed throughout the country. On election day, 481 observers from 44 countries visited more than 2,000 polling stations. The election day deployment included a 101-member delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), including two Helsinki Commission staffers who were the only U.S. government officials to observe the elections. They observed in Istra and other towns northwest of Moscow and in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

  • Democracy Deferred

    After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.  In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEMOCRACY DEFERRED: THE STATE OF ELECTIONS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS IN AZERBAIJAN Wednesday, May 9, 2018 10:30 a.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission will examine these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.   The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Audrey L. Altstadt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts – Amherst Emin Milli, Director, Meydan TV Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now Additional panelists may be added. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • Chairman Wicker, Ranking Member Cardin on Anniversary of Death of Joseph Stone in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—On the one-year anniversary of the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) recalled Stone’s tragic death, criticized the pressure put on international monitors, and called for the Russian government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in Stone’s death.  Stone’s life was cruelly cut short when his vehicle struck a landmine in separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “Civilian OSCE monitors like Mr. Stone risk their lives to tell the world what is happening, even as they face violent harassment and physical obstruction. Monitors should be able to travel throughout the country without restriction or intimidation, as their mandate requires,” Sen. Wicker said. “Russia’s continued fueling of this war must end. Putin and those he supports should live up to their commitments under the Minsk agreements and get out of Ukraine.” Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Ranking Senate Commissioner, praised the work of the monitors and condemned Russia’s leaders for their role in the conflict. “Joseph Stone gave his life in service to a mission that shines a light on a war that has killed thousands and affected millions more.  Every day, these brave, unarmed monitors report the ground truth from a conflict manufactured by Putin and his cronies to advance his vision of a weak and destabilized Ukraine,” Sen. Cardin stated. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the most serious breaches of OSCE principles since the signing of Helsinki Final Act in 1975. The Russian regime must put an end to the cycle of violence it perpetuates in Ukraine and live up to its OSCE commitments.” The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine.  It currently fields roughly 700 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The United States supports the SMM by providing more than 60 monitors and other resources to the mission.

  • Turkey Wants to Veto Civil Society Organizations at the OSCE

    A September meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is being held up by Turkey, which wants to be able to stop specific civil society groups from participating in the annual event. Each September, civil society organizations from OSCE member states meet with government representatives for Europe’s largest human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. For many civil society organizations, the event is the lone opportunity they have to address government representatives. But if Turkey gets its way, those civil society organizations won’t include groups affiliated with Fethullah Gulen, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s onetime ally and current foe. Erdogan blames Gulen for the 2016 failed coup attempt and claims that groups affiliated with his movement are part of terrorist organizations. The Turkish government’s demand for a veto over civil society organizations’ participation has some worried that Ankara will weaken a critical event in the human rights community — and set an example for other countries in the process. Last September, the Turkish delegation stormed out after an opening speech to oppose participation of the Gulen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation. “This entity is so closely linked to the Fethullahist Terror Organization,” said Rauf Engin Soysal, the Turkish ambassador to the OSCE. Earlier that year, Turkey managed to rid the group of its consultative status at the U.N. Economic and Social Council over a technicality. Though the group lost its consultative status at the U.N., it still came to September’s OSCE meeting. A representative for the Journalists and Writers Foundation says the organization was not given a chance to reply to claims it is a terrorist organization. “Of course because this is an allegation without any proof and a groundless claim,” the representative says. In the fall of 2017, Turkey, which can block the dates and agenda of the Human Dimension Meeting, attempted to establish a veto over which civil society organizations could join the event. A working group that was set up last fall to deal with the issue is expected to meet Friday. In January, U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Ben Cardin wrote to Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell expressing concerns about countries calling for a “vetting” mechanism for civil society organizations, specifically citing Turkey. “Turkey’s attempt to limit civil society participation at the OSCE rejects its commitment to promote freedom as a NATO ally. The State Department is right to join the Commission in opposition to these actions,” Wicker wrote in a comment to Foreign Policy. There may not be an easy solution, however. “Everything is based on consensus decisions made by the participating states,” a spokesperson for the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights says. And Turkey appears to be standing firm in its position. Turkey recognizes the importance of the OSCE’s work and is not opposed to groups that are critical, Behic Hatipoglu, a counselor for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, wrote in response to questions. “However, participation of terror affiliated organizations to the OSCE activities is another issue and we believe that OSCE platforms should not be abused by terrorist or terrorist affiliated organizations,” he wrote. Beyond the September meeting, some NGOs and government officials alike are concerned that Turkey might inspire other countries — Kyrgyzstan or Azerbaijan, for example — to take similar measures to keep civil society organizations away from the table. But there are also concerns that this is part of a larger pattern of Turkish behavior on the international stage. Erdogan recently called for snap elections, which will take place under the state of emergency, and civil society groups have been a frequent government target. “They aren’t worried about attracting negative attention. If anything, they like it. It shows they’re proactive,” says David Phillips, the director of the program on peace-building and rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. “This is all part of an effort by Erdogan to show voters he’s not allowing foreigners to interfere in Turkey’s domestic affairs.” And though the current Turkish initiative is focused on Gulen-affiliated groups, Phillips believes it’s part of a broader effort, at home and abroad, to go after civil society. “I would suspect that their efforts are not restricted only to Gulen-related groups. Once you start restricting civil liberties, why stop with the Gulen groups?”

  • How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

  • Helsinki Commissioner Richard Hudson Highlights Russian Aggression, Decline in Rule of Law in Turkey at Inter-Parliamentary Forum

    On February 22 and 23, 2018, approximately 240 parliamentarians from 53 countries in North America, Europe, and Central Asia met in Vienna, Austria for the 17th Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) represented the United States and actively advocated for U.S. positions and expressed U.S. concerns regarding challenges to security and cooperation in Europe, including Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of Helsinki principles. Established in 1991, the OSCE PA is the parliamentary counterpart to the multilateral diplomacy that takes place under the auspices of the OSCE. By meeting each winter in Vienna—home of the OSCE Secretariat—the OSCE PA fosters parliamentary interaction with OSCE officials and the diplomatic representatives of the 57 participating States. The first OSCE PA meetings of the year, and second in importance only to the annual session held each summer, Winter Meetings allow parliamentarians to prepare their work for the coming year and debate issues of immediate concern. Rep. Hudson spoke in all formal sessions of the 2018 Winter Meeting and in the meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, where he serves as vice-chair. During the meeting’s opening session, he forcefully denounced Russian aggression against its neighbors and expressed strong support for the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.   Addressing the OSCE leadership, he said, “The Kremlin needs to halt the violence in eastern Ukraine and withdraw all political, military, and financial support for its proxies, restore Ukrainian control over its international borders, and respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Moscow must also end its illegal occupation of Crimea. In short, President Putin needs to de-escalate his manufactured conflict.”  Later in the Winter Meeting, Rep. Hudson noted the third anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition activist Boris Nemtsov in Moscow. “Three years on, the organizers and masterminds of the Nemtsov assassination remain unidentified and at large,” he said. “The connection between [Russia’s] aggressive external behavior and the retreat from democracy and violation of human rights at home … in my view cannot be stressed strongly enough.”   Condemning the continued imprisonment of American citizen and fellow North Carolinian Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey, as well Turkey’s recent sentencing of NASA scientist Serkan Golge, Rep. Hudson called for their immediate release and a continued focus on outstanding human rights cases arising from President Erdogan’s assault on democracy in Turkey. He also supported greater energy security through diversification of sources, outlined the U.S. approach to the challenge of nuclear proliferation, and suggested ways for the OSCE more effectively counter terrorism. OSCE PA President George Tsereteli of Georgia, who recently visited New York and Washington, welcomed active U.S. engagement and credited the Helsinki Commission for turning OSCE PA efforts into diplomatic initiatives which can directly improve people’s lives. The next meeting of the OSCE PA will be its annual session, scheduled for Berlin, Germany, in early July.  

  • Boris Nemtsov: 1959-2015

    On February 27, 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was brutally murdered on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge directly in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Three years after Nemtsov’s assassination, the Helsinki Commission examined the investigation into Nemtsov’s murder to shed light on the circumstances of the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia. The Helsinki Commission probed reasons why the plaintiffs were denied the opportunity to a fair trial, the effects Russian propaganda has had on Russian citizens in the suppression of information about the case, and the impact of sanctions resulting from the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act. The Commissioners heard testimony from Zhanna Nemtsova, daughter of Boris Nemtsov; Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom; and Vadim Phrokhorov, Lawyer for the family of Boris Nemtsov. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the witnesses and commended Ms. Nemtsova for her courageous activism against gross human rights violations in Russia. Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), the Helsinki Commission’s ranking senator, highlighted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to suppress democracy in Russia, as well as the Kremlin’s use of military force in Ukraine, interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and involvement in the deaths of political opponents like Mr. Nemtsov. Sen. Cardin also praised Russian citizens who side with democracy and emphasized that “[members of the Helsinki Commission] are on the side of the Russian people.” Rep. Christopher Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, discussed how the Magnitsky Act is a breakthrough and a “very useful tool against repressive regimes.” He also asked the panelists for recommendations on actions the United States can and should take to further transparency on the investigation, and expressed interest in initiating a procedure to establish a special representative for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in July of 2018. “And, so, for Boris himself, we need [...] all parties responsible to be held to account — total transparency,” Rep. Smith said.   Ms. Nemtsova, the first to testify, criticized Russian authorities for failing to classify the murder as politically motivated. She also explained how the Russians want to end public debate on sensitive political issues. “You probably are aware of what [the Russians] are afraid of most,” she said. “They’re afraid of the sunshine. My father’s case is one of the sensitive issues, and that’s why it’s important to bring it to the sunshine.” Ms. Nemtsova also criticized the investigative committee for not identifying the individual that orchestrated the murder. In closing, she noted that the Government of Russia has tried—but failed— to erase her father’s memory, and urged the Commissioners to appoint a special representative to oversee the investigation at the July 2018 Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Berlin, Germany. During his testimony, Mr. Kara-Murza reiterated the importance of the Boris Nemtsov plaza-naming ceremony that took place on February 27, 2018, exactly three years after his murder. The District of Columbia renamed a section of Wisconsin Avenue, in front of the Russian Embassy, to honor Boris Nemtsov’s legacy. “It is important for those who continue to hold remembrance marches [...] for people who continue Boris Nemtsov’s work by exposing government corruption. You can kill a human being, but you cannot kill what he stood for,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza noted that experts frequently blur the line between a country and a regime and urged political leaders in Western democracies to “not equate Russia with the regime that is ruling it.” He concluded by urging the Commissioners to initiate a process, similar to the appointment of a special rapporteur, under the auspices of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session being held in July 2018.   Mr. Prokhorov reiterated how Russian authorities refused to recognize Boris Nemtsov’s murder as politically motivated and that the evidence led to the inner circle of Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya. “The problem is not that the investigation of the suspects is difficult or impossible. Our principal concern is that the investigative authorities are not willing to make any effort to do so,” Mr. Prokhorov said. Mr. Prokhorov stated that the Russian authorities breached the family of Boris Nemtsov’s right to a fair trial and how “none of the organizers or masterminds have been identified or persecuted to date.” He concluded by urging western political leaders, diplomats, and public figures to engage Russian counterparts in dialogue regarding Boris Nemtsov’s murder when given the opportunity to do so.

  • Chairman Wicker Urges Bosnia to Curb Corruption

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement regarding an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe report on the failure of Bosnia’s court system to tackle corruption in the country: “I am hopeful that Bosnian officials at all levels of government will take the findings of this report to heart. Curbing corruption needs to be a top priority for Bosnia if it hopes to pursue European integration.” Chairman Wicker had previously warned of worsening corruption in Bosnia in a February 4, 2016, interview with RFE/RL. In that interview, he said that he was “troubled that responsible political authorities in Sarajevo tolerate the subversion of the rule of law by entrenched local interests.”

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