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Democratic Change in Ukraine Provides a Backdrop of Success at the 12th OSCE Ministerial
Wednesday, January 12, 2005

By Elizabeth Pryor, Senior Advisor

The twelfth Ministerial Council Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) took place in Sofia, Bulgaria, December 6-7, 2004.  The United States Delegation was led by Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, who is a Helsinki Commissioner, headed the delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in his role as President of that body.  Secretary Powell noted that the United States “bases its faith in the OSCE’s future not just on past successes, but on the significant contributions this pioneering organization is making today,” citing among other achievements the preparation of landmark elections in Georgia and Afghanistan. Congressman Hastings spoke of the important work of the Parliamentary Assembly in promoting democracy, in fighting terrorism and in election monitoring, and called for more OSCE involvement in the Caucasus and Central Asia.  He concluded:  “The OSCE has enormous potential to help Europe and the world to become places of peace, stability and co-operation….the world will be more dangerous without it.”

During the meeting ministers strengthened their commitment to use the organization to fight terrorism, taking several decisions that make it more difficult for terrorists to operate in the region.  They also encouraged OSCE participating states to adopt measures to fight corruption, including ratification of the UN Convention against Corruption.  They underscored the important political role of the OSCE Secretary General, gave impetus to the implementation of earlier decisions on promotion of equal opportunity for women and men, and reiterated their commitment to combat racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. They also pushed for quicker and better implementation of OSCE methods of eliminating stockpiles of conventional armaments and ensuring proper export documents for small arms and light weapons. New agreements to protect child victims and more vigorous attention to penalizing sex tourists, and other individuals who prey on children, enhanced earlier OSCE actions to counter human trafficking.  Ministers also agreed to augment activities that would address economic instability, through the organization’s Economic Forum.

In addition, ministers welcomed the intention of the OSCE Chairman to appoint three distinguished personal representatives to combat discrimination and promote tolerance. This decision stemmed from significant meetings during the previous years which registered OSCE concern at growing instances of intolerance, some of them acts of violence.  The Bulgarian chairmanship subsequently appointed Anastasia Crickley of Ireland as the special representative to combat racism, xenophobia and discrimination; Gert Weisskirchen of Germany as the special representative to combat anti-Semitism; and Ömür Orhun of Turkey to be special representative to combat intolerance and discrimination against Muslims.     

The measures taken to reduce the ability of terrorists to function in the region are especially significant. Ministers pushed to complete an agreement on comprehensive and uniform standards for border security; new methods of information exchange about the use of the Internet by terrorists–including an international meeting by experts; strong coordination with other international organizations to ensure the security of shipping containers; and a harmonized method for relaying and compiling information on lost and stolen passports through Interpol.  If agreed within the next year, as ministers hope, and implemented vigorously, collectively these decisions can dramatically curb the ability of terrorists to move people and weapons easily and change identities without detection.

Texts of all of the decisions can be found at www.osce.org.

*   *   *   *   *

Negotiation at Sofia was difficult.  A U.S. proposal to extend and augment the provisions of a June 2004 NATO anti-trafficking plan failed to be agreed.  A Russian-proposed text that would have changed the perimeters of OSCE election monitoring was also blocked. No joint statement of the ministers could be concluded.  An important decision to extend the mandate of the OSCE Border Monitoring Operation in Georgia was not agreed. In all of these negotiations, the Russian Federation was isolated, either in its demands, or in its refusal to join consensus. Secretary of State Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly disagreed in their interventions about the validity of OSCE operations in the former Soviet Union.  Secretary Powell took issue with Lavrov’s assertion that OSCE’s focus on the region was disproportionate, pointing out that the United States has used the organization to discuss its own difficulties, including the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody in Iraq. 

There is a long history of such disagreements within the OSCE. One need only look at the negotiating record of the original Helsinki Accords to note the seemingly insurmountable gulf that existed in 1975. At that time negotiations were complicated by disputes between the West and the then-powerful neutral and non-aligned nations, as well as between East and West. Those talks took place in an atmosphere of a near-zero diplomatic interaction between many of the countries. Yet skillful negotiation and a larger vision won the day.  Over the years the Helsinki process has witnessed stand-offs over the status of fixed–wing aircraft in the negotiations on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE); over development of new standards for media freedom; on the creation of the field missions for which it is now so celebrated; on the division of roles in election monitoring and hundreds of other issues. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the organization is that it assumes strong disagreement among the participating States. The glory of the OSCE is that it has not seen this as an obstacle to progress, but has always kept its dialogue open and lively and found creative ways to search for common ground.  Those debating today’s issues should find the successful negotiations of the past both encouraging and instructive.

In the wake of Russian intransigence, a number of newspaper comments and internal accounts of the ministerial meeting have been unduly pessimistic, with some commentators even extrapolating about the near demise of the OSCE. The disappointment seems to center on the inability of the 55-nation organization to agree to the joint statement that traditionally concludes these meetings. The fate of the highly effective Border Monitoring Operation is of real concern and should be the object of concerted, expert diplomacy by all OSCE States.  But the vitality of the OSCE is not in question, and it is striking that such an array of senior observers has limited its definition of relevancy to an almost invisible statement, the kind that in today’s diplomatic world has decreasing impact or shelf-life.  Perhaps it would have been better if those in Sofia had agreed to a joint statement, but it is largely irrelevant that they did not.

For, over the past few years, the OSCE has seen stunning proof of its true relevance:  the influence of its agreed standards of conduct and its continuing ability to inspire those who are courageous enough to fight for democracy and then make it stick. This year’s Sofia meeting was dominated by Ukraine’s remarkable democratic ferment.  In Sofia, negotiations took place against a backdrop of the Ukrainian people embracing systems of liberty and justice.  Just as evident was the ineffectiveness of the oligarchs, petty tyrants and reactionary ideologues who had tried to stifle this heady movement.  The excitement and optimism were palpable as the news reports – first of the crowds in Independence Square, then the courageous actions in the parliament and courts – came filtering into Sofia’s old communist Hall of Culture, itself a symbol of the OSCE’s ability to effect positive change.

There is no doubt that the events of these historic weeks owed much to three decades of the OSCE’s tireless and patient work.  First, the Helsinki process eroded the bulwark of communism; then through its mission in Ukraine and its support of many valiant NGOs, it persistently promoted the rule of law and free processes over the false security of re-emergent authoritarianism.  If it all seemed a little familiar, it was because the 2003 Maastricht ministerial meeting was colored by a similar public demand for democracy in Georgia, also a product of OSCE’s influence and persistence. And, four years ago, we welcomed another electoral surprise as Serbia’s citizens demanded the right to a valid election and a future that they themselves would determine.

All of these developments are very heartening.  They attest to the indomitable will of people everywhere to live in freedom and of the important way OSCE principles support them.  The continuing quest for democracy in Europe is the true measure of the OSCE’s success.  No anodyne statement, no “family photo” of beaming foreign ministers, could possibly illustrate the OSCE’s importance as have these real and hopeful events.

That the OSCE remains the major player in promoting European unity and security is also apparent in the rhetoric of some leaders who want to sabotage its work.  Notable among them are Alexandr Lukashenko, the autocrat in Belarus, who openly resists fulfilling the commitments made freely by his country, and Sparmurat Niyazov, who holds Turkmenistan under dictatorial rule. Unfortunately, others are following in this path, Vladmir Putin among them.  These increasingly authoritarian leaders see that the high principles of the Helsinki Accords can motivate people to demand their rights and thus discourage selfish governmental policies and foreign adventurism.  They want to thwart OSCE influence precisely because it stands in the way of backsliding toward the uncontrolled exercise of personal power.  Ironically, their refusal to cooperate on OSCE policies that continue the forward momentum toward freedom only serve to point up just how successful the organization has become.

As it moves to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Accords the OSCE has much to be proud of.  But it also has a great deal of work ahead of it.  The participating States of the organization must be certain that they continue to stabilize both borders and the democratic institutions of Georgia.  Unresolved conflicts continue to fester in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh, and the situation in Kosovo remains fragile and tense.  Human rights are jeopardized in much of Central Asia, with the OSCE often the lone voice in their defense.  Several states have crossed the line into totalitarianism.  Well-established democracies, including the United States, need to be eternally vigilant, lest we take our fundamental freedoms for granted and allow our high ideals to be eroded.  None of this is evidence of OSCE ineffectiveness, but of our continuing need for its guidance.  The process of promoting human rights is continual.  It is essential that the OSCE is there to remind us that we must never become complacent.

Among the most important decisions the OSCE took at Sofia was the reassertion of the important political role of the organization’s Secretary General.  The Helsinki Commission hopes that this year, when a new Secretary General will be selected, participating States will choose a strong individual, a person of proven and inspirational leadership and managerial excellence.  OSCE ministers also chose to appoint a panel of eminent persons to advise on any directional adaptation that may help strengthen the organization.  Once again, members of the Helsinki Commission trust that people with innovative ideas and recent expertise will be chosen.  One fitting recommendation that could be made by the panel would be to call a review conference to evaluate the vitality of organizational structures and the commitment of its participating States.  There is a long tradition of this kind of self-assessment at the OSCE and such a move would be especially appropriate in the anniversary year.  It would also address the call made by several states to take a comprehensive look at the future work of the OSCE.

All European institutions play important roles for ensuring the security of the region.  Yet, OSCE remains the most agile instrument for promoting our dearest and most enduring values.  It is not about quick fixes or flashy actions, but works slowly over the long term to create true stability and cooperation.  Other institutions may also help motivate nations to take a path compatible with democracy.  But only the OSCE has the inclusivity, the agreed values and the presence on the ground to get them over the finish line.

Sofia a failure for lack of a joint communiqué?  No, not at all.  If you are looking for a “statement” of the OSCE’s vitality, read it in the faces on Independence Square in Kiev; in the recent history of Slovenia, its incoming Chairman; and in the fear with which it is regarded by those who would wield disproportionate power over their citizens.

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Obscured by ambiguous technicalities, the alliance’s failure to provide Ukraine and Georgia with a concrete pathway to membership was clearly an unintentional but predictable invitation to Russian aggression. As Ukrainians desperately defend their homeland and count civilians and their children among those killed, the moraland strategic poverty of Ukraine’s deferred accession is laid bare. NATO and its members must now reckon with thewages of a passive approach and rethink the alliance’s founding purpose. The bloc was never meant as an exclusive country club of the rich and strong but rather a harbor for the weak and imperiled. It should be again. In April, while observing the Hungarian parliamentary elections, I saw for myself the heartrending humanitarian crisis on Ukraine’s borders with Hungary and Slovakia. I saw children who had traveled great distances with their families, clutching the meager mementos of home; I met Ukrainians who traveled back and forth across the borders, bringing supplies from the European Union into western Ukrainian cities; and I saw the humanity of volunteers giving some measure of comfort and welcome to weary refugees who had, at long last, reached the promise of safety at the European Union’s frontiers. But what I didn’t see were any great barriers or edifices of geography to suggest the line where, on one side, NATO would risk nuclear war in the people’s defense and on the other side—in Ukraine—it would not. In the United States and Europe, discussions about the borders between NATO and the rest of Europe are treated like immutable features of geography or acts of god, as though certain states and people are afforded divine predestination into the Euro-Atlantic’s rarefied elect. Decisions in the run-up to the war to withhold crucial assistance or provide security guarantees were often justified based on Ukraine’s non-membership in NATO, even though concrete pathways into the alliance have never been offered despite the 2008 declaration. The idea that Ukraine and Georgia were somehow unready or unable to meet NATO’s technical criteria has always been a problematic argument. At no point has NATO established hard, technical benchmarks for membership—clear, achievable standards for entry—and doing so might have risked Ukraine and Georgia passing muster, potentially embarrassing the countries that were categorically opposed to their accession. Realistically, NATO enlargement has always been a political decision. More recent fixations on technical “readiness” and process were introduced after the Cold War to amplify NATO’s turn from a Cold War bulwark to a carrier of Euro-Atlantic values and to manage booming Eastern European demand for membership. But today, Moscow’s threat to Europe’s peace is all too apparent again—and devastatingly so in Ukraine as well as in Georgia. In response, NATO should change with the strategic landscape—not with “retrenchment,” in which it builds its walls higher while Ukraine and other threatened partners burn, but with aggressive enlargement. NATO is generally considered something of a walled garden—a protected redoubt of relative peace, prosperity, and predictability. However, this reputation elides the seismic strategic revolution that founding and early expansion represented. Firmly in the nuclear age and facing Soviet expansionism after two horrific continental wars in the first half of the 20th century, the United States sought to create structures to arrest Europe’s ruinous cycles of great-power war. Against thevery real risk of Soviet imperialism and a potential third World War, NATO created a protected sanctuary around Europe’s most threatened, impoverished, and war-torn countries. “I am sure,” then-U.S. President Harry Truman said just a year before NATO’s founding, “that the determination of the free countries of Europe to protect themselves will be matched by an equal determination on our part to help them.” To create the rules-based paradise of modern Europe, the United States and its closest allies drew a line in the face of Soviet expansionism and said: No further. Despite war weariness and the steep task of reconstruction, the North Atlantic founders pooled their military power and political determination as well as risked a third World War in Europe’s defense. The countries that joined were hardly all first-rate military powers, economic dynamos, or stable democracies—manywere politically unstable, militarily sapped, and economically broken. Several, such as Portugal and Spain, were military dictatorships. The principal continental combatants in World War II—Germany, France, and Italy—were quite literally ruined by the war and took decades to recover. Yet the United States and the other original NATO members didn’t quibble interminably over the vagaries of a threatened partner’s democratic credentials or its uptake of various technical or military reforms, and they generally accepted European states that sought Washington’s protection and a Western orientation. This wasn’t because of Western indifference to democracy but rather a recognition that democratization under the shadow of an imminent Soviet threat was essentially impossible and that a country swallowed by Moscow’s imperial agenda had no chance of true self-determination—much less democracy. Speaking of NATO’s purpose, then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson described it as “designed to contribute to thestability and well-being of the member nations by removing the haunting sense of insecurity” posed by Soviet expansionism. It took time, but the strategy paid off. Under NATO and the United States’ nuclear umbrella, great-power war was avoided, Europe democratized and prospered, and the Soviet Union and its brand of colonialism was dismantled, freeing tens of millions of people. With Russia again in the throes of despotism and expansionist militarism, the conditions that accompanied NATO’s founding are all too familiar. Russian aggression in the heart of Europe is an incontrovertible reality—as Ukraine’s blood-soaked lands so clearly attest—and there is no reason to believe or expect Moscow to stop until and unless it is stopped. NATO must meet the moment. Dithering over peacetime technicalities defi es NATO’s original purpose to secure Europefrom the specter of Moscow’s violently imperial agenda. This is not a return to the Cold War, but it is no less a civilizational struggle against a military dictatorship in Moscow. This threat is particularly plain and present for the millions of Ukrainians and Georgians who have had no choice but to suffer on the wrong side of the geopolitical train tracks. NATO should return to its roots and fling open its doors to all those in Europe at risk of Russia’s predations. How can this be done? NATO decisions, including membership, require consensus. Transitioning to a wartime open door policy will require a major shift in thinking. For one, the United States, as the ultimate underwriter of NATO’s military might, should take steps to provide robust security assistance and assurances to threatened partners—such as those promises it has given Finland and Sweden until their accession is complete—and encourage other like-minded allies to do the same. Similarly, NATO handwringing over outstanding territorial disputes—almost always created or supported by Moscow—should officially become a nonissue. Russia should not be rewarded for cultivating and backing violent separatist movements that inoculate the parent countries from NATO accession. If anything, Russian meddling and aggression evinces the necessity of NATO’s protection. This is simple in principle but admittedly difficult in policy amid hot war. How can Ukraine join NATO without triggering a global conflict? First, the United States and its allies can all do more to ensure that Ukraine has military dominance overits own territory and win its war of independence. Mystifying gaps that undermine Western sanctions policies demand attention—such as continued European dependence on Russian energy, U.S. imports of Russian steel, and the growing role of China and other countries in the Middle East, Eurasia, and Asia (including friends and partners) to bypass or ease the impact of international trade sanctions. Likewise, U.S. hesitance over delivering heavy arms and munitions to Ukraine must end. The delivery of U.S. artillery and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) platforms have completely changed the momentum of the conflict in recent weeks; more longer-range munitions and Western fast-jet capabilities could help Ukraine expand the initiative against Russia’s high-mass but low-morale attacking force. Second, the United States could consider extending its nuclear umbrella over Ukraine to erase Russia’s nuclear advantage and any temptation it may have to use nuclear weapons as Russian conventional losses mount. Doing so would only be a stronger and clearer statement of current U.S. policy that Russia’s use of weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable” and “entail severe consequences,” as U.S. President Joe Biden has already said. Against such a horrifying possibility, the West could stand to be much clearer on the evident downsides of such a strategy, which would itself violate Russian nuclear doctrine. And third, the United States can and should have discussions about certain security guarantees for free areas of Ukraine, such as via the provision of the most advanced Western arms or direct Western air defense coverage. For Georgia, and even for a country like Moldova should it so choose, it is even clearer: Provide support and security guarantees over non-occupied regions. Finally, democratic principles should remain a core requirement for NATO. Although the exigencies of the moment maynot allow the luxury of waiting for perfect democratization to develop before entry, NATO can and should create more robust and independent internal mechanisms to monitor and highlight vulnerabilities, advise and assist all members with undertaking difficult reforms, and hold members accountable for sustained and significant democratic backsliding. As Ukraine’s brave people fight for survival and every inch of their homeland against Russia’s overwhelming and genocidal war, it is impossible not to wonder what might have been had NATO understood in 2008 in Bucharest or in 2014 in Wales what horrors could have been prevented if Ukraine had been spirited into the alliance, along with Georgia. Ukraine will win this war, and Russia will lose—but in many ways, it is already too late for Ukraine and Georgia, having been so thoroughly and persistently victimized by Russian aggression. Yet each moment they are left to fend for themselves only compounds the error—and the shame.

  • NATO Refocused, Europe Reinforced

    By Jessika Nebrat, Max Kampelman Fellow​ Following the escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is playing a role it has not filled in years. Forced to reconcentrate its attention to Europe’s defense, NATO allies are demonstrating persistent resolve in countering Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. In doing so, NATO returns to a core facet of its founding mission: the defense against Moscow’s militarism. While NATO represents just one facet of the Euro-Atlantic security infrastructure, it is perhaps the most robust organization bound by formal agreements, dedicated to peacekeeping, and capable of enforcement. Its mission to “guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means” echoes the first dimension principles outlined by the Helsinki Final Act, and aligns NATO with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S. Helsinki Commission. In supporting each other’s work, these institutions mutually reinforce their shared values and bolster European security. History of NATO In the aftermath of the second World War, the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations sought to boost European economic reconstruction and protect themselves from Soviet domination. The 1947 Treaty of Dunkirk predated NATO in promoting Atlantic alliance and mutual assistance between France and the United Kingdom. The agreement was expanded in March 1948 as the Treaty of Brussels to engage Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in military, economic, social, and cultural cooperation. In the same month, the United States hosted talks intended to unite both North American and Western European allies; as a result, NATO was officially signed into existence on April 4, 1949. The 12 founding member nations derived their legitimacy from United Nations (UN) Charter Article 51, which affirmed the right to collective defense. The foundational NATO Treaty mentioned collective defense only after declaring the parties’ commitments to finding peaceful resolutions of disputes, upholding UN principles, strengthening free institutions, and promoting economic collaboration. The Alliance formally defined its principal objectives to deter Soviet expansionism, oppose nationalist militarism on the continent, and bolster European political integration. Though it sought to deter military aggression, NATO’s original treaty did not provide any means of enforcing the agreed-upon principles. It was not until after the USSR’s 1949 detonation of an atomic bomb and the 1950 start of the Korean War that NATO approved a military command structure. In response, the Soviet Union established the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Though neither of the two ideologically opposed organizations used force during the Cold War, they engaged in an arms race that persisted until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. NATO after the Cold War Once NATO no longer had to defend against Soviet expansionism, the Alliance broadened the scope of its peacekeeping and security enforcement missions. In the 1990s, NATO forces were deployed: to Turkey during the Gulf Crisis; upon request to Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States nations as part of a humanitarian mission after the fall of the USSR; to enforce a UN arms embargo and no-fly zone over former Yugoslavia; and in the Central Mediterranean during a period of tension with Libya. In the 21st century, NATO forces were also deployed during: the Second Gulf War; to the US and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the only Article 5 invocation in NATO history; to mitigate rising ethnic tensions in North Macedonia; to counter terrorist activity in the Mediterranean; as counter-piracy escorts to UN World Food Programme ships transiting the Gulf of Aden; to train Iraqi security forces; to enforce a no-fly zone after the popular uprising in Libya; for peacekeeping in Sudan; and to provide disaster relief throughout Europe, the Middle East, and in the United States. NATO currently maintains active operations in Kosovo, the Mediterranean, Iraq, and throughout the African Union; it recently ramped up air policing as part of a peace-keeping response to the Russian Federation’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the escalation against Ukraine this past February. Kremlin Narrative against NATO Over the years, Moscow has repeatedly resisted NATO enlargement – especially for countries it claims within its sphere of influence. Putin asserts that during a 1990 summit between President George H. W. Bush and President Gorbachev, the United States promised no further expansion of NATO; civil servants present at that meeting have refuted this claim, as has Mr. Gorbachev himself. In his conversation with Bush, Gorbachev repeatedly affirmed that nations have the right to make their own alliances. Though internal U.S. analyses of the 1990s suggested that expansion eastward may not be politically expedient, such positions never became official policy. The United States has remained resolute in its recognition of sovereign choice, and expansion has been driven by requests from former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states wary of Russian revanchism. The Kremlin has deployed an opposing narrative to justify Russian military engagements in Georgia in the early 2000s, and more recently in Ukraine. Putin sees the inclusion of either nation in NATO, and the political and economic liberalization that go with it, as threats to his regime’s stability. NATO membership would limit Russian interference in the internal affairs of either state. Additionally, if Russia’s neighbors and fellow post-Soviet states can become true democracies, provide higher quality of living, and ensure the rule of law, then why can’t Putin’s Russia? Any argument that NATO expansion threatens Russia misrepresents the organization, which is a diverse coalition dedicated to mutual defense and development. Moreover, such an assertion overlooks the efforts NATO has made to include and collaborate with Russia in the pursuit of cooperative security. NATO Back to its Roots By illegally and brutally invading Ukraine in February 2022 – a dramatic escalation of the grinding conflict started in 2014 – Putin has galvanized European and Western unity. Hearkening to its origins and returning attention to Eastern Europe, NATO is recommitting itself to “counter Russia’s attempts to destroy the foundations of international security and stability.” The international community is largely on board. In its collective attention beyond security, NATO – alongside other organizations – highlights not only the potential for, but the responsibility of the international community to condemn human rights violations, uphold the rule of law, and pursue economic health, all efforts that further challenge the Kremlin’s narrative that it can lead (or that there even needs to exist) an opposing bloc. Alarmed by Moscow’s renewed expansionism, Sweden and Finland have abandoned decades of neutrality in favor of NATO membership. They are on track towards the fastest accession process in history, and anticipate a smooth integration. Both already engage in the wider European community through membership in such organizations as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Their force structures are robust, and well-versed in NATO procedures following decades of partnership; their accession will secure northeast Europe, expand NATO’s border with Russia, and reinforce NATO presence in the Arctic and Baltic Sea. Although the Kremlin initially vowed “military and political repercussions” were Finland and Sweden to join NATO, such threats have dulled to warnings about the installation of NATO military infrastructure nearer Russia’s borders; as Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership neared finalization, Putin even expressed “no problem” with these states joining the Alliance. It remains to be seen how this change will play out. 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.    

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Calls for the Release of Political Prisoners in Belarus

    Washington – On the second anniversary of the sham presidential election in Belarus, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Two years ago today, Belarus’s autocrat Aleksander Lukashenko put up a show of an election that he had hoped would legitimize his unconstitutional power grab. Despite the many and well-documented cases of election abuse, the people of Belarus did not fall for the tricks of the one-man ruler of Belarus. They voted Lukashenko out, but, predictably, he refused to leave. He ignored the will of the people and chose vicious violence to suppress the peaceful dissent. “In the year following the unprecedented in scale peaceful rallies against the 2020 election results, Lukashenko’s troops arrested, tortured and imprisoned a reported 35,000 Belarusians for the simple act of demanding the government respect their choice and rights. He personally presided over the largest ever domestic repression that saw thousands behind bars and tens of thousands flee the country, including the opposition leader and likely legitimate winner absent election fraud, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been welcomed by neighboring countries. “Since that time, Lukashenko has continued a crackdown on civic participation in Belarus with arrests of civilians protesting the Russian war in Ukraine, changes to Belarus’s non-nuclear status, and the ongoing Lukashenko regime during last year’s March 25th anniversary of Belarus’s ‘Freedom Day,’ adding to the already sizeable number of politically motivated detainments in the country. “There are now close to 1200 individuals languishing in Belarusian prisons for speaking out against authoritarianism, corruption and war. Included among the political prisoners are: Syarhey Tsikhanouski, husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and potential candidate against Lukashenko detained in May 2020; Roman Protasevich, journalist and opposition figure accused of inciting mass protests and detained after a false bomb threat forced the landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 destined for Lithuania in Belarus in May 2021; Sofia Sapega, Russian citizen and girlfriend of Protasevich who also was aboard Ryanair flight FR4978; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Belarus Service journalists Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk and Aleh Kruzdzilovic; and Ales Bialiatski, founder of Viasna Human Rights Centre, a human rights organization based in Minsk that provides financial and legal support to political prisoners. These are but a few names representing political candidates, oppositionists, activists, journalists and other Belarusian and non-Belarusian citizens detained by Lukashenko’s regime. “Lukashenko must immediately order the release of all political prisoners and wrongfully detained individuals and stop the systematic violations of human rights.  I call on the U.S. Department of State and our allies abroad to work together during this time of heightened tension with Belarus and Belarus’s benefactor, Russia, to ensure the unjustly imprisoned Belarusians are released at the earliest date possible.”

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest July 2022

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

    WASHINGTON—Following the execution of four democracy activists by Myanmar’s military junta, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “I strongly condemn the execution of these courageous activists by Myanmar’s unelected and illegitimate regime. These men—Kyaw Min Yu, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw—were political prisoners who were deprived of their right to due process and a chance to defend themselves. The junta sentenced them to death in secret trials, once again demonstrating the complete lack of respect for human life and common decency as well as a total disregard for rules-based order by which countries should abide. “The regime has jailed thousands, including the Nobel Peace laureate and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, after seizing power in a coup in February 2021. Following a series of closed-door hearings and a string of trumped-up charges and convictions each carrying additional sentencing, she was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison as of April 2022.  In an obvious attempt to ensure she is jailed for life, she still faces added bogus charges that could see her imprisoned for more than 190 years by some reports. This is appalling and concerning as the recent executions confirm that the junta will not hesitate to murder political prisoners to further strengthen their rule of terror. “The world should unite to pressure Myanmar to release all political prisoners. At least 117 activists have been sentenced to death since the coup. We must do everything in our power to ensure that they do not face the grim fate of their four compatriots.”

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

    WASHINGTON—In response to the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a Russian politician critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Putin’s government has been engaged in a systematic assault on Russian citizens who dare speak the truth about Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. Ilya Yashin, a Russian patriot and a fierce critic of the war in Ukraine, is one of the victims of this regime. “Ilya spoke out against the war despite the cynical law Russia has adopted that punishes people speaking the truth on this conflict with up to 15 years in prison. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and is facing a lengthy jail term for no crime other than publicly speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Ilya is a political prisoner and should be given all protections afforded by this status. The Russian government has a complete disregard for international law and customs but if they have an ounce of respect for their own laws, they will immediately release Ilya and other political prisoners.” Ilya Yashin, a co-founder of the Solidarity movement, is a member of a Moscow city district council. Throughout his career, he advocated for fair elections, rule of law, and democracy in Russia. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Yashin was one of the few Russian opposition activists who had not been killed, forced to flee, or imprisoned.

  • 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.

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