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Commission Plays Leading Role at Parliamentary Assembly in Lithuania
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

By Robert A. Hand,
Policy Advisor

A bipartisan U.S. delegation traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania June 29 for the 18th Annual Session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The delegation participated fully in the activity of the Assembly’s Standing Committee, the plenary sessions and the Assembly’s three General Committees.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin led the delegation, which included the following commissioners: Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, Ranking Minority Member Chris Smith, and Senator Roger Wicker, Representatives Louise McIntosh Slaughter, Mike McIntyre, G.K. Butterfield and Robert B. Aderholt. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, Senator George Voinovich and Representatives Lloyd Doggett, Madeleine Z. Bordallo and Gwen Moore also joined the delegation.

Background of the OSCE PA

The Parliamentary Assembly was created within the framework of the OSCE as an independent, consultative body consisting of more than 300 parliamentarians from each of the 56 countries, which stretch from the United States and Canada throughout Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Annual Sessions are the chief venue for debating international issues and voting on a declaration addressing human rights, democratic development, rule of law, economic, environmental and security concerns among the participating States and the international community.

The United States delegation is allotted 17 seats in the Assembly. Robust Congressional participation has been a hallmark of the Parliamentary Assembly since its inception nearly 20 years ago, ensuring U.S. interests are raised and discussed.

18th Annual Session

This year’s Annual Session, hosted by the Parliament (Seimas) of Lithuania from June 29 to July 3, brought together more than 500 participants from 50 of the 56 OSCE participating States under the theme: “The OSCE: Addressing New Security Challenges.”

The Standing Committee -- the Assembly’s leadership body (composed of Heads of Delegations from the participating States and the elected officers) -- met prior to the Annual Session. Senator Cardin, as Head of Delegation and an OSCE PA Vice President, represented the United States.

Chaired by the OSCE PA President, Portuguese parliamentarian João Soares, the committee heard reports from the Assembly’s Treasurer, German parliamentarian Hans Reidel, and from the Assembly’s Secretary General, R. Spencer Oliver of the United States. The Assembly continues to operate well within its overall budget guidelines and to receive positive assessments from auditors on financial management. The committee unanimously approved the proposed budget for 2009-2010.

The Standing Committee also approved several changes in the OSCE PA’s Rules of Procedure, especially related to gender balance and the holding of elections for officers, as well as 24 Supplementary Items or resolutions for consideration in plenary or committee sessions. The committee brought up as an urgent matter a resolution regarding the detention of Iranian citizens employed by the British Embassy in Tehran. Senator Cardin spoke in support of the resolution.

With the Standing Committee’s business concluded, Assembly President Soares opened the Inaugural Plenary Session, stressing in his opening remarks the need for OSCE reform. The first session concluded with a discussion of gender issues led by Swedish parliamentarian Tone Tingsgaard that included comments from Rep. Gwen Moore.

A Special Plenary Session the next day was scheduled to accommodate the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who had just presided over an informal meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Corfu, Greece, to launch a new, high-level dialogue on European security.

Senator Cardin attended the Corfu meeting as a representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Following her speech, Bakoyannis engaged in a dialogue with parliamentarians on a number of OSCE issues. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas also addressed the special session. Lithuania will chair the OSCE in 2011.

U.S. Member Involvement

The U.S. delegation actively participated in the work of the Assembly’s three General Committees – the first committee for Political Affairs and Security; the second for Economic Affairs, Science, Technology and the Environment; and the third on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. Each committee considered its own draft resolution, prepared by an elected Rapporteur, as well as 23 of the 25 Supplementary Items. Two Supplementary Items, including one by President Soares on Strengthening the OSCE, were considered in plenary session.

Representatives Chris Smith, Mike McIntyre, and Gwen Moore each proposed resolutions that were adopted dealing with freedom of expression on the Internet, international cooperation in Afghanistan, and prevention of maternal mortality respectively.

Members of the U.S. delegation were also instrumental in garnering support for Supplementary Items introduced by others, co-sponsoring eight resolutions introduced by delegations of other countries. The U.S. delegation was responsible for 26 amendments to either the committee draft resolutions or various Supplementary Items.

Chairman Cardin proposed climate-related amendments to a resolution on energy security and suggested the OSCE initiate work with Pakistan in the resolution on Afghanistan. Co-Chairman Hastings worked on numerous human rights and tolerance issues. Other amendments were sponsored by: Sen. Durbin on improving international access to clean water; Sen. Voinovich on combating anti-Semitism; Sen. Wicker on preserving cultural heritage; Rep. Smith on preventing the abuse of children; and Rep. Butterfield on responding to climate change.

Bilateral Meetings

The U.S. delegation also engaged in a variety of activities associated with the Annual Session, holding bilateral meetings with the delegations of Russia and Georgia focusing on their respective internal political developments and the tension in the Caucasus since Russia invaded Georgia last August and then sought to legitimize breakaway regions.

Separate meetings were also held with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and other Lithuanian leaders, at which the delegation pressed for new laws to resolve outstanding claims of property seized during the Nazi and Communist eras. The delegation also presented President Adamkus a letter from President Barack Obama on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the first written reference to Lithuania. Members of the U.S. delegation attended a working lunch to discuss gender issues, hosted by Swedish parliamentarian Tingsgaard. A variety of social events, including a reception hosted by the British delegation at their embassy, afforded numerous informal opportunities to discuss issues of common concern.

U.S. Leadership

As a demonstration of active U.S. engagement, a Member of the U.S. Congress has always held some elected or appointed leadership role in the OSCE PA. The Vilnius Annual Session has allowed this to continue at least through July 2012.

Chairman Cardin was reelected to a three-year term as one of nine Vice Presidents, a very welcome development given his long record of OSCE engagement going back to his years in the House of Representatives. Rep. Aderholt, who has attended every OSCE PA Annual Session since 2002 and often visits European countries to press human rights issues, was elected Vice Chair of the third General Committee, which handles democracy and human rights. President Soares was reelected for a second term and selected Rep. Smith to serve as a Special Representative on Human Trafficking and asked Co-Chairman Hastings to continue serving as Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs.

An unfortunate development in the election of new officers is the absence of a representative of the Russian Federation. Because the United States government may disagree so substantively with current Kremlin policies, the U.S. government has always felt it critical to welcome Russian engagement in the OSCE PA. It was, therefore, a disappointment that the head of the Russian Federation delegation, Alexander Kozlovsky, reversed course and decided not to run for a Vice Presidency seat and more disappointing that a political bloc at the OSCE PA defeated Russian incumbent Natalia Karpovich as rapporteur of the Third Committee. Karpovich had been accommodating of U.S. human rights initiatives in her draft resolution.

Vilnius Declaration

Participants at the closing plenary session adopted the final Vilnius Declaration -- a lengthy document which reflects the initiatives and input of the U.S. delegation. Among other things, the declaration calls for strengthening the OSCE in order to enhance its legitimacy and political relevance; addresses conventional arms control, disarmament and other security-related issues of current concern in Europe; calls for greater cooperation in the energy sector and better protection of the environment; and stresses the continued importance of democratic development and respect for human rights, especially as they relate to tolerance in society and freedom of expression.

The most contentious part of the declaration related to the promotion of human rights and civil liberties twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which included language noting the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. While some of the language may have been provocative, strong Russian objections to the entire text appeared to be motivated by a desire to defend a Stalinist past and minimize its crimes. The Russian delegation’s effort to block passage of this resolution reflects a similar sentiment in Moscow that recently led to the creation of a widely-criticized commission "for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia's interests." As a July 9 column for The Economist noted about recent Russian efforts to excuse Stalinism, the “debate in Vilnius makes it a bit harder to maintain that stance.” Some of Russia’s traditional friends and allies in the OSCE PA were noticeably absent from the debate.

The Balkans

While the Congressional delegation’s work focused heavily on representing the United States at the OSCE PA, the trip afforded an opportunity to advance U.S. interests elsewhere in Europe. While Co-Chairman Hastings traveled to Albania to observe that country’s first parliamentary elections since becoming a NATO member earlier this year, the rest of the delegation visited Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still recovering from the conflict in the 1990s and the associated horrors of the Srebrenica genocide and massive ethnic cleansing. The reverberations of the conflict continue to hinder prospects for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

The United States was instrumental in bringing the Bosnian conflict to an end in 1995, especially with the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement, and the United States has invested considerable financial, diplomatic and military resources in the post-conflict period. The visit came one month after Vice President Joe Biden visited Sarajevo with a message of renewed U.S. engagement in the Balkans. While meetings with Bosnian political leaders revealed little willingness to work constructively toward constitutional reform needed for an effective central government, a meeting with English-speaking university students revealed a refreshing desire to overcome ethnic divisions and move the country forward.

Belarus

Given its proximity to Vilnius, members of the Congressional delegation visited Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to press for greater democracy and respect for human rights in that country. Belarus has remained a repressive state over the years even as its European neighbors have transitioned from being former Soviet or Warsaw Pact states to EU and NATO members or aspirants.

Following a delegation meeting with President Alexander Lukashenka, Belarusian authorities released imprisoned American Emanuel Zeltzer, who was convicted of espionage in a closed trial and had numerous health concerns. The delegation also urged for greater progress in meeting the conditions in the Belarus Democracy Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 2004 and reauthorized in 2006. A meeting with political activists provided useful information on the situation for political opposition, non-governmental organizations and independent media. Finally, the delegation pressed Belarus’ officials to allow for an increased U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. In response to expanding U.S. sanctions, Minsk kicked out 30 diplomats last year, including the U.S. ambassador, leaving a staff of five at the U.S. Embassy.

During the course of the Vilnius Annual Session, Senator Voinovich also broke away for a brief visit to Riga, Latvia. That visit was among the highest level visits from a U.S. official in three years, and was important for our relations with this NATO ally, which has deployed troops with Americans in Afghanistan without caveat and recently suffered losses which easily impact such a small country.

U.S. interests abroad are advanced through active congressional participation in the OSCE PA. The 19th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will be held early next July in Oslo, Norway.

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  • NATO Refocused, Europe Reinforced

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After decades of orientation towards international stabilization, humanitarian, and counterinsurgency mission sets, NATO has been refocused on European deterrence and defense following the Kremlin’s violent assault on Ukraine. In addition to condemning Russia’s invasion and supporting Ukraine via such measures as the Comprehensive Assistance Package, NATO plays a critical role in championing European collective defense and discouraging any expansion of conflict.    

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  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN CALLS FOR THE RELEASE OF ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH

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  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest July 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Condemns Execution of Democracy Activists in Myanmar

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  • Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Ilya Yashin in Russia

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  • Wicker Stands in Solidarity With Russian Dissident

      WASHINGTON – Mr. President, I rise this afternoon to make sure that the plight of Russian leader Vladimir Kara-Murza is not forgotten. That the outrageous imprisonment of Vladimir Kara-Murza by the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is not forgotten. We remember three decades ago what hope we had for a new Russia. Russia entered a new age of possibility some three decades ago, after more than 70 years of communist repression, the Soviet order had collapsed, and with it the Iron Curtain that kept freedom away from millions was torn down. As the red flags came down in Moscow, the free world watched with anticipation, hoping that democracy and the rule of law might finally take root in a free Russia. Regrettably, that has not happened. Instead of democracy and freedom, the Russian people got Vladimir Putin, a man who has used his office to murder, imprison, and force into exile anyone who threatens his grip on power -- all the while, enriching himself beyond anyone's wildest imagination while ordinary Russians, especially out in the countryside of Russia, live in squalid conditions. One of his latest victims is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian patriot and a friend I had the privilege of hosting in my office just four months ago. As a matter of fact, I have hosted him several times. Today, Vladimir Kara-Murza spends his days in a prison cell, where the only thing you can see through the window is a barbed wire fence. What was his crime? He simply spoke the truth about Putin's war on Ukraine. His trial, if it can even be called a trial, was held in secret. No journalists, no diplomats or spectators of any kind were allowed to be there. And for his offense of talking about the Russian war against Ukraine, he now faces up to 15 years in prison. This is not the first time the Russian dictator has tried to silence him. Mr. Kara-Murza has been poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017, and almost died in both cases. Since then, his wife and three children have had to live abroad, though he himself has chosen to spend most of his time in Russia. In a recent interview with National Review, his wife, Evgenia explained why he insists on working in Russia: “He believes that he would not have the moral right to call on people to fight if he were not sharing the same risks.” Or as Mr. Kara-Murza put it in a recent CNN interview the day of his arrest. He said, “The biggest gift we could give the Kremlin would be to just give up and run. That's all they want from us.” What a contrast in character to the man currently running the Kremlin. The National Review's story goes on to describe Mr. Kara-Murza's courageous work for democracy through the eyes of his wife of Evgenia, as well as the costs that he and his family have endured along with so many other Russian dissidents. And, Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent at this point to insert the National Review story that I referred to into the record. Mr. Kara-Murza’s imprisonment is part of Mr. Putin's larger assault on what remains of political freedom in Russia. In Mr. Kara-Murza’s words, Putin's regime has gone, “from highly authoritarian to near totalitarian almost overnight.” In March, Russian officials passed a new censorship law, forbidding all criticism of Mr. Putin's war in Ukraine. That law has been the basis for more than 16,000 arrests since the war began in February, including that of Mr. Kara-Murza. Another 2,400 Russians have been charged with administrative offenses for speaking out against the war. Meanwhile, Putin's propaganda machine is ramping up. Independent Russian media outlets have all but vanished, having been blocked, shut down, or forced out of the country by the Kremlin. The last embers of freedom in Russia are going cold. Putin's crackdown on domestic freedom began in 2003, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on trumped up charges of tax fraud after he simply criticized the government. A former member of the elite, Mr. Khodorkovsky, had successfully led the Yukos Oil Company through privatization after the Iron Curtain fell. And contrary to the Kremlin's claims, the company consistently paid its taxes. But that didn't stop Vladimir Putin from plundering its assets, throwing Mr. Khodorkovsky in jail, where he stayed for ten years. I would note that just before his arrest, Mr. Khodorkovsky displayed the same courage and patriotism that we now see in Vladimir Kara-Murza. Like Mr. Kara-Murza, he knew very well he could go to jail for speaking out against the government. But Mr. Khodorkovsky did so anyway and refused to flee the country, saying, “I would prefer to be a political prisoner rather than a political immigrant.” Of course, by then, Mr. Putin had already shown himself willing to violate the international laws of war, having leveled the Chechen capital of Grozny in his own Republic of Russia in 1999. In 2008, he launched a new assault on international law with the invasion of Georgia. In 2014 he started a bloody war in eastern Ukraine, and in 2016, Soviet Russian dictator Putin and his forces attacked the Syrian city of Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians and prolonging the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Putin ramped up his attacks on domestic freedom as well. In 2015 Boris Nemtsov, leader of the democratic opposition, former deputy prime minister of Russia, was shot to death in broad daylight just yards away from the Kremlin. Three months later, Mr. Kara-Murza was poisoned for the first time. More recently, in 2020, Alexei Navalny, the current leader of the opposition, was himself poisoned and had to seek treatment in Berlin. This is Vladimir Putin's Russia today. When Navalny recovered, he chose to return to Moscow, knowing the risks, and immediately upon landing, he was arrested. This is the deplorable state of Russia and freedom under Vladimir Putin. Time and again, he has shown that he is bent on stamping out the aspirations of his people for freedom and the rule of law. As leader of the free world, America must continue to condemn Putin's lawless acts and stand in solidarity with our Russian friends, who are courageously fighting against all odds for a better future in Russia -- and are suffering as a result. These are modern day heroes: Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and we should not forget them. My friend, the distinguished senior senator from Maryland, Senator Cardin and I, along with Congressman Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, are the four House and Senate leaders of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights and former Soviet countries. We recently sent a joint letter to President Biden calling on the administration to name and sanction all of those who have been involved in the arrest, detention and persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. I issue that call again today, and I invite my colleagues from both parties to stand with Vladimir Kara-Murza and work for his release. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.  

  • Helsinki Commission Deeply Concerned Over Latest Electoral Reform Initiative in Bosnia and Herzegovina

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and  Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) today expressed deep concern about an effort by the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia to impose changes on the country’s electoral system barely two months prior to general elections in early October. They issued the following joint statement: “We share the concerns of members of civil society, academia, and the political community in Bosnia and Herzegovina about the current proposal of the international community’s High Representative to make changes to Bosnia’s electoral system shortly before the upcoming general elections.  These changes effectively only benefit the leading ethnically-based political party among Bosnia’s Croats and further entrench the divisive force of ethnicity in Bosnian politics as a whole.  They fail to tackle the broader issues of citizen-based democracy that so obviously need to be addressed for the country to overcome destabilizing impasse and move forward. The timing of their introduction also is problematic. “The Helsinki Commission has long supported electoral reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina that remove ethnicity from governance. Such reforms should be designed to give citizens a wider range of truly democratic choices, an ability to hold their elected official accountable, a deserved sense of stability, and needed hope for European integration.  We also have supported a more assertive role for the international community and its representatives in the country, including the Office of the High Representative, in responding to the lack of democracy and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, we believe that this specific action, if imposed now, will not represent the true progress Bosnia needs and may effectively make things worse.”

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Administration to Work to Free Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today released a letter urging the Biden Administration to “use every instrument in our toolbox” to free Russian political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza. The letter read in part: “The United States has a proud history of standing up for political prisoners and working relentlessly to help them return to freedom. We stared down the Soviet Union, Communist China, military regimes in Latin America and South-East Asia, and succeeded in helping secure the release of those who deserved freedom the most – innocent and peaceful activists and freedom fighters representing a vision for better governments in those countries. Mr. Kara-Murza represents a hope for a democratic Russia at peace with its neighbors and own citizens, and now is someone who the U.S. should advocate for his release… “The Helsinki Commission continues to raise the issue of political prisoners in Russia, Belarus, and other countries across the OSCE region, and specifically Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case…Now, we call on your Administration to use every instrument in our toolbox to secure the release of Mr. Kara-Murza. This is in the interest of our national security, his well-being, and importantly, the well-being of his incredibly brave children and spouse. Mrs. Kara-Murza and their three children reside in the U.S and despite the distance, the Kremlin has been poisoning – literally and figuratively – their lives for decades now. We should do everything in our power to help free Vladimir Kara-Murza and reunite him with his family.” On April 12, Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested in Russia on charges of disobeying police orders when he allegedly “changed the trajectory of his movement” upon seeing Russian police officers at his home. This carried a 15-day sentence in jail. With five days remaining in his sentence, new charges were levied against him for spreading “deliberately false information” about Russia’s war on Ukraine.  He now faces up to 15 years in prison. On March 29, he testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing examining Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on truth, where witnesses discussed the Kremlin’s use of propaganda and censorship. “Those who speak out against this war are now liable for criminal prosecution,” he said. The Helsinki Commission has a long tradition of advocating on behalf of political prisoners worldwide. Earlier this month, Co-Chairman Cohen was appointed the first-ever OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners.

  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERS

    WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment.  Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.

  • Behind Enemy Lines

    As Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine continues, Ukrainians in occupied territories are demonstrating courageous resistance in the face of atrocities, deprivation, and forced displacement, the scope and scale of which has shocked the world. This hearing examined the human toll the war is taking on the people of Ukraine. It also underscored the importance of continued assistance from Ukraine’s partners to help it win the war, restore its territorial integrity, rebuild its shattered infrastructure, and bring Russian war criminals to justice. U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Michael R. Carpenter outlined his institution’s comprehensive approach to supporting Ukraine. The OSCE continues to provide Ukraine with military aid; expose Russia’s clear, gross, and uncorrected violation of the Helsinki Final Act based on its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people people; impose costs on the Kremlin, including instituting export controls and restricting Moscow’s participation in OSCE activities due to its breach of all ten principles of the Helsinki Final Act; promote multilateral support forUkraine; and hold Russian individuals and leadership accountable, especially for Russia’s violations of human rights. Ambassador Carpenter also highlighted a recent report that centers on Russia’s human rights violations, produced by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Goncharenko highlighted the systematic attacks on his nation’s history, culture, and identity. In addition to mass civilian casualties, rape, and torture within Ukraine’s borders, more than 1.3 million citizens have been deported to the Russian Federation, 240,000 children among them. Many are forced into “filtration camps,” in which soldiers crudely inspect, interrogate, and terrorize Ukrainians to look for signs of loyalty to Kyiv. Territories that fall under Russian occupation have been quickly militarized and used for further assaults on neighboring regions. Goncharenko noted that Russia now occupies an amount of land in Ukraine roughly equivalent to the size of Pennsylvania. Olga Aivazovska, Board Chair of the Civil Network OPORA and Co-Founder of the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, highlighted heartbreaking stories of human suffering, and Putin’s use of an asymmetric arsenal – including food insecurity, energy control, and misinformation campaigns – against Ukraine. She implored the international community to sustain investigations into and seek justice for widespread human rights violations. She also called attention to the wealth of resources that Russia has stolen from Ukraine, and the investment it will require to rebuild the nation after victory. Ukrainian witnesses asked for additional U.S. military support in the form of long-range HIMARS missile systems, western fighter jets, and related training. They also emphasized the need to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, to cultivate the legal and humanitarian infrastructure necessary to ensure justice, and to rebuild Ukraine’s economic, agricultural, and energy capacities. Members assured witnesses that their dedication to supporting Ukraine remains unwavering, and that Ukraine remains a great inspiration for the free world. Related Information Witness Biographies

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Highlight Life in Ukraine's Newly Occupied Territories

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: BEHIND ENEMY LINES Life in Ukraine’s Newly Occupied Territories Wednesday, July 20, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine continues, Ukrainians in occupied territories are demonstrating courageous resistance in the face of atrocities, deprivation, and forced displacement, the scope and scale of which has shocked the world. This hearing will examine the human toll the war is taking on the people of Ukraine. It also will underscore the importance of continued assistance from Ukraine’s partners to help it win the war, restore its territorial integrity, rebuild its shattered infrastructure, and bring Russian war criminals to justice. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Panel One: Michael Carpenter, Permanent Representative and Ambassador of the United States to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Panel Two: Oleksiy Goncharenko, Member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine; Vice President of the Committee on Migration and Refugees, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Olga Aivazovska, Head of the Board Civil Network OPORA; Co-Founder, International Center for Ukrainian Victory

  • US Soldier Who Voluntarily Fought in Ukraine Says Hardest Days of War to Come

    A U.S. Army veteran who independently and voluntarily fought in Ukraine warned on Thursday that the hardest days of fighting the war are still to come, as the Russian military tightens its control over territory in the eastern part of the country.  Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James Vasquez, who has returned from combat in the country but plans to go back, told the congressional Helsinki Commission during a briefing that while the Ukrainian military is better off now with increased foreign support, the most difficult fighting lay ahead for soldiers. “We have much more support now, and we have the weapons and gear that we need to be able to fight properly,” Vasquez said to the panel. “The fight’s harder than it was when I left. And that was hard fighting when I left.”  Vasquez shared moving and oftentimes difficult details of his time in Ukraine at the hearing, alongside retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Rip Rawlings, who is providing logistical support to the Ukrainian military through he and Vasquez’ foundation, Ripley’s Heroes. Vasquez, who has gained a social media following through the videos he shares from the battle’s front lines, said he has “pretty much sold everything I owned” so he can return to the fight in Ukraine. Vasquez explained the evolution of Ukrainian combatants that he witnessed, saying when he arrived the soldiers were fighting “primitively” but then saw them turn into battle-tested warriors. “I was fighting with guys who had a red T-shirt on and sneakers,” said Vasquez. “We were going into battle with white Toyota Camrys with Javelin (missiles) in the back.” But as the fighters have grown more sophisticated, and weapons and gear has rolled in from other countries, Vasquez and Rawlings both warned that the fighting situation was fragile and said Ukraine needs continued support from allies. “We need more, they need more (weapons),” Rawlings said. “We are at a very tenuous and fragile point. This war could go in any direction, very unfortunately.” Rawlings also urged lawmakers to amend export controls that do not allow Americans to send certain military equipment, including certain body armor, to Ukraine. “It is the largest single obstacle that we face,” Rawlings said. “The biggest issue that we have is that a U.S. citizen can go purchase a set of level three body armor, but you cannot purchase it and give it to a Ukrainian.” Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) lauded the veterans for their decision to volunteer in the Ukrainian conflict at the briefing.  “Foreign fighters have actually come in to heroically volunteer and are enduring intense combat conditions and witnessing the gross human rights violations perpetrated by (Vladimir) Putin.”

  • Shoulder to Shoulder

    Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson joined former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant James Vasquez and Lt. Colonel Ripley “Rip” Rawlings (USMC, Ret.) to discuss U.S. volunteers fighting for Ukraine. Mr. Vasquez is a volunteer soldier fighting in Ukraine who partnered with Lt. Col. Rawlings to provide on-the-ground support through an organization called Ripley’s Heroes.   At the beginning of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Vasquez decided to travel to Ukraine and fight alongside Ukrainians. For three months, Vasquez armed and trained Ukrainian soldiers to “fight like gentlemen.” Vasquez noted that Ukrainians are “warriors in spirit and in heart,” but require training and supplies to be most effective. After fighting alongside Ukrainians, Vasquez developed a comradery with his unit, and is returning to Ukraine this month to deliver more supplies and continue fighting. Lt. Col. Rawlings met Vasquez in Ukraine in the early weeks of war and the two decided to launch Ripley’s Heroes, an organization providing essential military support to Ukrainian soldiers. Ripley’s Heroes has Ukrainian partners on the ground, including the Kiev-based NGO Come Back Alive, who help ensure that soldiers receive necessary supplies as quickly as possible. When asked by Rep. Cohen what the United States should do moving forward to support a Ukrainian victory, Lt. Col. Rawlings noted that a key obstacle to providing Ukrainians with warfighting supplies are U.S. commercial regulations on the export of military equipment, such as International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). According to Lt. Col. Rawlings, rather than simply keeping U.S. military technology out of the hands of nefarious actors, ITAR prevents private U.S. citizens from supporting the war effort by providing simple, effective, non-lethal equipment, like night-vision goggles. Mr. Vasquez agreed that changing U.S. laws to remove the regulations that prevent private citizens from helping Ukraine could help them win the war.

  • Helsinki Commission Delegation Convenes Historic Black Sea Security Summit, Demonstrates Bipartisan Support for European Security

    WASHINGTON—From June 29 – July 9, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led a bipartisan, bicameral congressional delegation to Romania, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Sweden to consult with senior officials across Europe about Russia’s war on Ukraine, security in the Black Sea region, and Finland and Sweden’s plans to join NATO. On the shores of the Black Sea in Constanta, Romania, Sen. Wicker and Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu co-chaired the first-ever congressionally-organized Black Sea Security Summit to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. “Given Russia’s monstrous war on Ukraine and its wider aggression in the region, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Black Sea is currently the epicenter of Euro-Atlantic security and global peace,” said Sen. Wicker. “Ukraine must be successful in this war…Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against a neighbor cannot stand.” “Over the last 25 years, a key objective of our bilateral strategic partnership has been to act as partners in enhancing our joint security and promoting the democratic and economic development of the Black Sea region.  The continuation of common decisive action in this regard at the bilateral and multilateral level is more relevant than ever,” said Minister Aurescu. “All along the Black Sea coast lies the first line of defense for the Euro-Atlantic community and the first line of support for our partners in Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia.” Prior to the summit, members of the Congressional delegation visited Romania’s Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, where they received briefings from U.S., Romanian, and other NATO personnel and met with American troops. Delegation members then traveled to Birmingham, UK, for the Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) was Head of the U.S. Delegation to the PA and spearheaded U.S. efforts to forge a strong, unified response from international legislators to Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine and its people. “All OSCE parliamentarians must stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian colleagues as they battle the Kremlin’s vicious, intolerable war on Ukraine,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “We must do all in our power—through this forum and all others—to ensure that Ukraine is victorious against Russian aggression.” During the Annual Session, parliamentarians overwhelmingly approved a resolution introduced jointly by Sen. Wicker and the heads of the Ukrainian and Lithuanian delegations, responding to Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people and the greater Russian threat to European security. The document “condemns resolutely and unequivocally the ongoing, intensified, clear, gross and still uncorrected violations of Helsinki Principles as well as of fundamental principles of international law by the Government of the Russian Federation in its war of aggression against Ukraine, as well as the complicity of Belarus in this war of aggression, and calls on the governments of OSCE participating States to do the same.” Several members of the U.S. Delegation successfully introduced more than two dozen amendments, designed to keep the focus on Russia’s current aggression, to an array of other resolutions. In Birmingham, the delegation also co-hosted an event highlighting the growing problem of political repression in Russia and Belarus, especially in the context of protesting the war on Ukraine; met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky to discuss his organization’s work to support political prisoners and democracy in Russia; and held bilateral meetings with the UK’s parliamentary leadership, OSCE officials, parliamentarians from other OSCE countries. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) was re-elected to his post as chair of the OSCE PA’s Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Following the Annual Session, the congressional delegation stopped in Finland and Sweden to welcome the historic decision of both countries to join the NATO Alliance. In Finland, members met with President Sauli Niinistö, and Finnish parliamentarians including First Deputy Speaker Antti Rinne and OSCE PA Vice President Pia Kauma. In Sweden, they met with Foreign Minister Ann Linde, Deputy Defense Minister Jan Olof-Lin, and a group of members of the Swedish parliament, led by Speaker Andreas Norlén and OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt. In addition to Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Hudson, the Congressional delegation included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. John Garamendi (CA-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. August Pfluger (TX-11) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04).

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Highlight U.S. Volunteers Fighting for Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: SHOULDER TO SHOULDER On the Front Lines with the Ukrainian Military’s Foreign Soldiers Thursday, July 14, 2022 2:00 p.m. Register: https://ushr.webex.com/ushr/j.php?RGID=r6604c3bdc74d6eb2ff6c8bfa86784358 In Russia’s war on Ukraine, an unprovoked attack, unspeakable atrocities, and genocidal intent is juxtaposed against a valiant defense of hearth and home, a spirit of national unity, and grassroots mobilization. Not since the 1930s has a foreign war between a larger aggressor and a smaller but tenacious underdog so captivated the imagination of freedom-loving people. Answering the call of conscience, many American combat veterans are now fighting alongside Ukrainian servicemembers, applying their experience in combined arms maneuver and decentralized command to help Ukraine win the war. This briefing will examine the war in Ukraine through the eyes of two American volunteers: former U.S. Army staff sergeant James Vasquez and Lt. Colonel Rip Rawlings (USMC, Ret.). Vasquez fought in Ukraine in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion and soon plans to return to the battlefield. Rawlings is providing logistical support to the Ukrainian military through Ripley’s Heroes, a foundation he co-founded with Vasquez.

  • Black Sea Security Summit

    On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, convened its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners came together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation.   Co-chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, the summit featured a timely and collaborative exchange exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: confronting Russian aggression and the relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security. The co-chairs were joined by senior-level regional government officials and a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, including Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Joe Wilson, Rep. Richard Hudson, Rep. Ruben Gallego, Rep. John Garamendi, Rep. Robert Aderholt, and Rep. August Pfluger. Other participants included: Romania Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania MP Pavel Popsescu, Member of the Romanian Parliament; Chair, Defense Committee MP Ana Cătăuță, Member of the Romanian Parliament Ukraine Deputy Minister Oleksandr Polishchuk, Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament Bulgaria Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Georgia First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Ambassador Nikoloz Nikolozishvili, Ambassador of Georgia to Romania Turkey Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO U.S. European Command Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security During the summit, participants underscored the importance of security in the Black Sea littoral in the face of Russian aggression. Deputy Secretary General of NATO, General Mircea Geoanӑ, emphasized the importance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security, stating that the region reflects “broader competition between revisionist and brutal and aggressive Russia and our democratic world.” According to General Geoanӑ, NATO is committed to supporting Ukraine through military, financial, and humanitarian means and providing security in the Black Sea littoral that reestablishes freedom of movement, shipping, and navigation. Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Defense, Yordan Bozhilov noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “has far-reaching destabilization implications at the regional level and beyond,” including the resulting energy and food crises. Georgian First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lasha Darsalia, emphasized the political, economic, and security importance of the Black Sea region to Georgia and highlighted increased security in the region as an opportunity to increase “international cooperation and connectivity.”  He recalled Georgia’s support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, characterizing the invasion of Ukraine as another step in Russia’s malign attempt to control the Black Sea region. U.S. Representative August Pfluger stressed the importance of the Black Sea region to energy security in the pursuit of decreasing dependence on Russian energy. Confronting Russian Aggression Throughout the summit, participants called for increased unity to confront Russian aggression. Ukrainian Member of Parliament, Alexander Goncharenko, requested a stronger NATO and US presence in Ukraine, after powerfully highlighting Ukrainian bravery in the face of Russian hostility. In reference to Russia’s weaponization of Ukrainian grain supply and the expansion of NATO, Gonchareko stated, “It is very good that the free world is finally uniting, but we must show strength. The first place we must show strength is in the Black Sea, as a humanitarian mission, to save millions of people. Thousands are killed in Ukraine, but millions will die from starvation.” Turkish Ambassador to Romania Füsun Aramaz underscored her country’s support of Ukrainian sovereignty. She acknowledged the common security goals of all participants at the summit and desires close alignment with NATO, but warned against over-militarization of the region, citing a potential to violate the Montreux Convention. “More vessels at sea or more fighter aircraft in the air alone do not mean more deterrence or stronger defense,” she stated. U.S. Major General Jessica Meyeraan of the United States European Command explained that the United States is supporting Ukraine by increasing understanding of Ukrainian security assistance requirements and “collaborating across over 40 nations to understand how we can quickly and effectively satisfy those security cooperation requirements.” Minister Aurescu explained that the projects that maintain regional security structures are the result of bilateral relationships between the United States and various littoral states and are essential in the face of Russian aggression and illiberalism that has resulted in regional and global crises. He also called to “increase the scale and visibility of the U.S. presence in the region,” beyond just a military presence through the creation of a multifaceted strategy based on strategic resilience. Rep. Hudson noted that “NATO stands ready” in the face of increasing threats in the region. In addition, Rep. Gallego emphasized the importance of deterrence by denial, clarifying that this sort of offensive is only possible through a completely integrated defensive approach.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • Helsinki Commission to Convene Black Sea Security Summit in Constanta, Romania

    WASHINGTON—On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, will convene its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners will come together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. BLACK SEA SECURITY SUMMIT A Roundtable Dialogue Hosted by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Friday, July 1, 2022 1:00 p.m. (UTC+3) Constanța Art Museum Constanța, Romania Watch Live: https://youtu.be/DZskl6-k6No The Black Sea Security Summit plenary will feature a timely and collaborative exchange across two sessions exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: Session 1: Confronting Russian Aggression Session 2: Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security The Black Sea Security Summit will be chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), who will be joined by a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Regional participants include: Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Minister of Defense of Ukraine First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Members of the media must email stuparsa@state.gov in advance to attend this event. Preregistration closes Thursday, June 30, at 12:00 p.m. (UTC+3).

  • Long Shadow of Russian Money Raises Tricky Questions for Swiss Bankers

    January used to be a big month for Swiss bankers and their Russian clients. Many of the Moscow elite had made a tradition of coming to the Alps for the orthodox new year, skiing with their families, then catching up with their financial consiglieri. In St Moritz, one banker recalls how he would book blocks of rooms for his clients. He would entertain them with snow polo, rolling out the charm as they clinked champagne glasses and watched horses charge across a frozen lake. This year he couldn’t tempt a single one. For the best part of a decade, Russian money has coursed through the Swiss banking world. But, as Russia’s relationship with the west has soured in recent years, what was once a source of bumper new profits for Switzerland’s banks has become a financial and reputational risk. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, many wealthy Russians were moving to better safeguard their money from political interference, putting assets in the names of relatives or shifting them to less closely scrutinised jurisdictions, such as Dubai. In its wake, a vast sanitisation operation is under way at Swiss banks, to try and wind down relationships with sanctioned individuals. Neutral Switzerland has matched all of the EU’s punitive financial measures against Russia. More than 1,100 of the Russian elite — including figures such as coal and fertiliser billionaire Andrey Melnichenko and banker Petr Aven, both regular visitors to Switzerland — have become financial personae non gratae in a country many had assumed would keep their fortunes safe. The biggest banks, such as the publicly listed trio of UBS, Credit Suisse and Julius Baer, have declared they will cease all new business in Russia. For critics, though these are weasel words. It is their existing Russian clients that are the problem. No one is expecting many new fortunes to be minted in Russia any time soon. “Switzerland has a terrible history when it comes to Russian dirty money,” says Bill Browder, a longstanding Kremlin critic and a former Russian investor. He is sceptical of how much commitment there is among Swiss bankers to enforcing sanctions. “The Swiss want to be seen as doing something, but they don’t actually want to do anything,” he says. The US Helsinki Commission, an independent US government agency that observes human rights and the rule of law in Europe, agrees. In a report issued in May, it labelled the alpine state and its banks “a leading enabler of Vladimir Putin and his cronies”. The Swiss government responded by calling US secretary of state Antony Blinken in protest. A spokesperson for the Swiss government said president Ignazio Cassis “rejected the [report] in the strongest possible terms”. Like their counterpart in St Moritz, Swiss bankers the FT interviewed for this story all declined to be identified. Many more refused to speak at all. Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws are draconian — talking about clients can earn a lengthy jail term — and talking about Russian clients is even more taboo. “When we were onboarding a lot of these clients [in the 2000s], the entire approach was just very different. And you can’t really say that publicly now,” says one former banker who handled eastern European and Russian clients until retiring two years ago. “These [Russians] were people who had earned so much money, so quickly, that they didn’t know what to do with it. They were basically ideal clients. As long as you had no questions about where that money had come from . . . and, basically, we didn’t.” Quite how much Russian money there is in Switzerland is open to question. In March, the industry body representing Switzerland’s banks, the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA), caused a stir when it released details of a study estimating there was SFr150bn-SFr200bn ($154bn-$205bn) held in accounts for Russian citizens. At the end of last year, the total cash held on behalf of customers by Switzerland’s banks was SFr7,879bn, more half of which was wealth from abroad, according to the SBA. The disclosure prompted hand-wringing in the Swiss media. Commentators, even at conservative outlets such as the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, asked whether Switzerland should do business with autocratic regimes anywhere in the world any more. But others in the country have defended its economic relationships with Russia. The outspoken finance director of the canton of Zug, an important low-tax centre, said in March it was not his job to “act like a detective” and make judgments on Russian assets. In April, he announced that Zug, home to 37,000 companies, had no sanctioned assets to report back to Bern. Nevertheless, by April, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) announced that it had frozen SFr9.7bn of Russian assets. Authorities have insisted that the amount is proportionate to the scale of asset freezes in other leading financial centres. But Bern has been forced to row back in some cases, and in May it announced it was unfreezing SFr3.4bn of funds. Switzerland cannot freeze funds “without sufficient grounds”, says Erwin Bollinger, a SECO official, who adds that the government has received data on sanctioned accounts at more than 70 of the country’s banks. Direct disclosure by the banks has been patchy. Credit Suisse chief executive Thomas Gottstein told a conference in March that about 4 per cent of assets in his bank’s core wealth management business were Russian — a proportion that would equate to roughly SFr33bn. Meanwhile, UBS, the world’s largest private wealth manager, has disclosed it has $22bn of assets of “Russian persons not entitled to residency in the European Economic Area or Switzerland”, leaving open the question of how much it holds overall. Some 16,500 Russians are permanently resident in Switzerland, and more Russians are accepted for Swiss citizenship than any other nationality, according to the State Secretariat for Migration. Julius Baer has made no direct disclosure of the size or wealth of its Russian client base, though it has said, somewhat elliptically, that the value of assets held by its Moscow-based subsidiary is some SFr400mn. Information from the dozens of other smaller Swiss private banks is even scantier. Even leading industry figures wonder what is being left unsaid. One executive, who for the past two decades has been a senior figure in the private banking world in Switzerland, says he has almost no doubt that the significance of many banks’ close working relationships with sanctioned individuals is being underplayed. “You don’t have dozens and dozens of people employed on your Russia desks if you are not making money in Russia,” he says. Moreover, he adds, many Russian clients have done their business through Swiss banks’ subsidiaries abroad, such as those in Monaco, London or Asia. It is not clear to him whether all these assets have been caught by the Swiss rules. Swiss banks have a legal obligation to record the ultimate beneficial owners of all assets they handle worldwide, but doing so accurately can be tricky in jurisdictions where it is easy for third parties to mask who the owners are. Switzerland’s banks have moved dramatically from the freewheeling approach of previous years, when there was “a run on Russia”, says Thomas Borer, a former leading Swiss diplomat turned consultant, who has worked with prominent Russian clients. He now supports Switzerland’s sanctions policy. “Being militarily neutral does not mean being economically indifferent,” he says. But he argues that Swiss banking culture is still very different from elsewhere in the west. Even the biggest banks, he says, were clinging to relationships with Russian clients as the Ukraine crisis unfolded. The Financial Times revealed that, as late as March, Credit Suisse was asking investors to destroy documents that might expose Russian oligarchs it had done business with to legal risks. One senior relationship manager at a Zurich-based bank agrees. Even as sanctions came in, he says, the dominant approach was to ask, “how can we make this work for the client?” rather than “how do we do this for the government?”. But he defends the approach, saying: “Doing everything you can for your client is a Swiss commitment to excellence. If I was a watchmaker I would want to make the best watches with many complications. And if I was a policeman, then maybe I would want to be the best at catching Russian criminals. But I’m a banker.” There is still legal ambiguity in Switzerland over whether sanctions apply to family members and friends of listed individuals. This has provided a loophole bankers have helped at-risk clients to actively exploit in recent years. Swiss banks have seen “billions” of assets transferred to the names of spouses and children of Russian clients, in a trend that accelerated in the run-up to the war, says one banker. One bank chief executive admitted recently to the FT that there were many “grey areas” in applying sanctions. Part of the problem, he said, was that bank legal departments were struggling to obtain clarity from Bern on which asset transfers were deemed to be evading sanctions and which were not. Many who have been in the industry for a long time decry the new rules they must follow around taking new clients and being certain of the source of their wealth. “Know your customer used to mean just that: do you know the person? Now it is supposed to mean: do you know every little thing about their financial and private life?” says one Geneva-based banker. Many Russians themselves knew the banks were no longer safe havens, particularly since 2018 when Swiss banks began making significant concessions to information sharing on client accounts with other governments. Swiss residency did not protect billionaire Viktor Vekselberg in 2018, for example, when he was targeted by US sanctions; both Credit Suisse and UBS moved to terminate loans with him. The SBA says its members adhere to the highest international standards. Chief executive Jörg Gasser, argues Swiss banks have “no interest in funds of dubious origin” and have rigorous procedures in place to rapidly screen for sanctioned assets. “Swiss banks have been — and still are — very careful and diligent when it comes to accepting client funds,” he says, adding it is important to recognise the huge amount of legitimate business done with Russian entrepreneurs who are not subject to sanctions. For Mark Pieth, emeritus professor of criminal law at the University of Basel and a specialist in white-collar crime, the real story of the past decade is how Switzerland’s lawyers, rather than its bankers, have become the facilitators of hidden foreign money. “Swiss bankers were extremely cosy with Russians in the past,” he says. “Alongside London, this country was the porch for Russians into the west . . . but now I wouldn’t say the problem is so much with the banks — it is all the other intermediaries.” Swiss law gives remarkable sweep to attorney-client privilege, says Pieth, meaning lawyers can refuse to disclose almost anything to the authorities about their clients. The Swiss Bar Association strongly rejects this. “Professional secrecy does not protect against criminal acts,” it says. “Lawyers know the law and know what to do.” One senior industry figure defends the banks’ position unapologetically. He says everybody now wants to know the origins of their luxury jackets. But 10 years ago nobody was asking where they were made, by whom and with what materials. In banking, as in fashion, things have changed, he says, but nobody is haranguing the fashion world in the same way they are criticising banks. Fashion companies, though, have moved with the times and opened up, whereas Switzerland’s banks, for all their insistence on change and compliance, still want to maintain as much of the secrecy surrounding their clients as possible — even at a time of international crisis.  

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