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Election Observation 101
Strengthening Democracies Old and New in the 21st Century
Friday, January 24, 2020

On January 22, 2020, Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Mark Veasey (TX-33) moderated a roundtable at the Texas A&M School of Law titled “Election Observation 101: Strengthening Democracies Old and New in the 21st Century.”  Rep. Veasey—who also is a co-chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus and a former member of the Elections Committee in the Texas House of Representatives—and expert panelists discussed the importance of election observation missions across the OSCE region.

Rep. Veasey was joined at the roundtable by veteran election observer Lindsay Lloyd, director of the human freedom initiative at the George W. Bush Institute; Amanda Schnetzer, chief operating officer of Pointe Bello; and Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Alex T. Johnson. 

Law school dean Robert Ahdieh offered a warm welcome and reflected on his fondest memories of the Helsinki Commission as a young man living in Moscow, Russia. Rep. Veasey then set the stage with the 30-year celebration of the 1990 Copenhagen Document which established the international standards for “free and fair elections”, while Mr. Lloyd explained the dynamics of how teams are assembled. Mr. Johnson further clarified the role of observers as strict watchers or objective examiners, and never interventionists, and Ms. Schnetzer shared how her experience observing elections in Tunisia forever shaped her passion for civic engagement and democratic values. 

“[In 2011], the people of Tunisia were voting... To see the looks on the faces of women, grandparents coming to poles for the first time, casting a vote, and bringing a grandchild in tow, to say ‘I have waited all my life to do this’ was simply inspirational,” Ms. Schnetzer said. “I saw the stark comparison in the United States because few get excited on the first day they get to vote… I wish that we could find a way to positively spark that enthusiasm here [in the U.S.].”

Looking ahead to the U.S. elections in November 2020, all panelists agreed that more could be done to inform the American public about foreign observers and the benefits of international election observation.

Election observers from both the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly are expected to be invited by the United States Government to observe the 2020 elections. The OSCE was first invited to observe U.S. elections by the Bush Administration in 2002 and has been invited to observe every midterm and general election since (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018) by the administration in office.

However, the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system means some states prohibit or greatly restrict foreign observers. A few states explicitly permit foreign observation, or at least a sufficiently public observation to include those from other countries.

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By that time, the sun had set and the flickering fluorescent lighting in the school hallway where the voting took place was so dim and distracting that everyone—commissioners, observers, and the school’s custodial staff—moved tables, chairs, and the sealed ballot boxes to a better lit atrium so a proper count could proceed. One by one, a grinning commissioner (we later discovered he was candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy ’s representative on the commission) cut the plastic seals on each box and, with pomp, dumped their contents onto a table surrounded by other commissioners eager to see who won and to finish the work they had begun before sunrise, some 18 hours earlier. First, the control sheet deposited in each box before the polls opened was located and set aside. Then, the chairwoman divided the candidates among commissioners so they could begin to stack ballots as they were unfolded and inspected. 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  • Slovakia's Chairmanship of the OSCE

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Chairman Hastings encouraged Minister Lajčák to meet with civil society during his country visits as Chair-in-Office, including in the United States.  Co-Chairman Wicker observed, “[a]t a time when civil society is under threat in so many countries, we look to you, as the Chair, to ensure that people’s voices are heard in the OSCE.” Minister Lajčák stated that “resolving conflicts and mitigating their impact on people” in countries suffering from “economic instability, political instability, [and] human rights violations” is a priority for Slovakia’s Chairmanship. He focused on Ukraine due to the severity of the country’s conflicts, while also acknowledging those in other areas of the OSCE region such as Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, for which Co-Chairman Wicker emphasized the need for the OSCE to “strengthen the process of democratic reform, fight against corruption, and fight against regional instability.” The minister emphasized that his goal will be to focus on a list of nine concrete measures that would “bring about small, but concrete, results and improvement [in Ukraine] for the people on the ground,” such as humanitarian demining and repairing civilian infrastructure. He asserted that repairing Stanytsoa Lukanska, a bridge which serves as a key piece of transportation infrastructure in the Luhansk area, is the most important of these measures. The minister also emphasized the need to ensure a safer future, especially for young people, by countering cyberterrorism and its (mis)use in organized crime and human trafficking. 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  • First Person: A Divided Island’s Long Road to Peace

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  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Protect and Promote Rights of People of African Descent Worldwide

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  • Chairman Hastings Recognizes Black European Fight for Inclusion

    WASHINGTON—As the world commemorates the International Decade for People of African Descent, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.Res.256, recognizing the achievements and contributions of people of African descent and black Europeans in the face of persistent racism and discrimination. H.Res.256 encourages the celebration of the collective history and achievements of those of African descent in Europe. It supports efforts by the European Parliament, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the U.S. Congress to promote racial equality and combat racial discrimination. It also encourages European governments and members of civil society and the private sector to work with black European communities to implement national strategies to address inequality and racism, and urges the U.S. government to support such efforts. “While the presence of blacks in Europe can be traced to enslavement, colonization, military deployments, voluntary or forced migration, the movement of refugees and asylum seekers, or educational and other professional exchanges, the story of Europeans of African descent and black Europeans still remains largely untold, rendering many of their past and present contributions unseen or forgotten,” said Chairman Hastings. “This is unacceptable.”   The resolution endorses recommendations to overcome racial disparities in Europe made at the 2018 People of African Descent Week. Yesterday, the European Parliament passed a similar resolution recognizing that African descendants have long been a part of the fabric of Europe, and seeking to address findings on discrimination and harassment documented in the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency report, “Being Black in the EU.” The European Parliament resolution calls on EU Member State governments to acknowledge and address the impact of enslavement, forced labor, racial apartheid, massacre, and genocide in the context of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, and for the EU to develop strategies to address structural racism and underrepresentation in EU institutions. In 2008, Chairman Hastings first drew attention to the racism and discrimination faced by black Europeans during a Helsinki Commission hearing. In 2009, Chairman Hastings co-hosted the Black European Summit in Brussels, bringing together black and minority political and intellectual leaders to discuss barriers to political participation and strategies for inclusion. Over the past decade, the Helsinki Commission has continued to highlight the challenges faced by black and minority populations in Europe, most recently through a September 2018 briefing on race, rights, and politics in the European Union.

  • Helsinki Commission Marks Fifth Anniversary of Illegal Referendum In Crimea

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the illegal Russian-organized referendum in Crimea, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Five years ago, the Government of Russia tried to legitimize its illegal occupation of Crimea by organizing a fake referendum in Ukrainian territory.  By orchestrating this so-called vote, the Kremlin blatantly flouted international law. By definition, citizens living under armed occupation lack the freedom to determine their collective destiny.  “This tragic anniversary also reminds us of the suffering this occupation continues to inflict on innocent Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee Crimea, as well as on those who remain behind. Ethnic minorities such as Crimean Tatars and activists who object to the illegal Russian occupation, including Oleg Sentsov, are targets of persecution and violence by the Government of Russia. “We will not forget; Crimea is Ukraine.”  Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014. Since then, the Helsinki Commission has hosted numerous hearings and briefings on the war in Ukraine, including an April 2014 hearing with then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; December 2015 and November 2016 briefings on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea; an April 2017 briefing on Oleg Sentsov and Russia's human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens; a May 2017 hearing on the growing Russian military threat in Europe; and briefings with Alexander Hug, then-Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

  • Chairman Hastings Welcomes Release of Country Reports on Human Rights

    WASHINGTON—Following yesterday’s release by the State Department of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I welcome the release of this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. These reports, mandated by law and prepared by the Department of State, exemplify Congress’ intent to keep human rights front and center in U.S. foreign policy. As members of Congress consider foreign assistance and military aid, as we build alliances and take the measure of our foes,  these reports help ensure that democracy and fundamental freedoms are given full consideration.” The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The State Department must submit these reports to Congress on an annual basis, in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974, which require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ performance in the areas of human rights and workers’ rights.

  • Remembering Boris Nemtsov

    Madam President, on Sunday, February 24, thousands of people marched in Moscow and in cities across Russia to remember Boris Nemtsov, a Russian statesman and friend of freedom who was gunned down in sight of the Kremlin walls 4 years ago. These people were honoring a Russian patriot who stood for a better future--a man who, after leaving the pinnacle of government, chose a courageous path of service to his country and his fellow Russians. Boris Nemtsov was a man who walked the walk. When others were silent out of fear or complicity, he stood up for a future in which the Russian people need not risk jail or worse for simply wanting a say in how their country is run. Sadly, since Mr. Nemtsov's assassination, the risks of standing up for what is right have grown in Russia. With every passing month, ordinary citizens there become political prisoners for doing what we take for granted here in the United States--associating with a political cause or worshipping God according to the dictates of one's conscience. Last month alone, in a high-profile case, a mother was jailed for the crime of being a political activist in Russia. She was kept from caring for her critically ill daughter until just hours before her daughter died. Jehovah's Witnesses have been sentenced to years behind bars for practicing their faith. Also, a leader of a small anti-corruption organization was beaten to death with metal rods on the outskirts of Moscow. This was all just in February, and it is not even a comprehensive account of the Russian state's using its powers not against real enemies but against its own people--peaceful citizens doing what peaceful citizens do. As for the Nemtsov assassination, 4 years later, justice has yet to be served. It appears that President Putin and his cronies have little interest in uncovering and punishing the masterminds behind Russia's highest profile killing in recent memory. While a few perpetrators who had been linked to the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, were convicted and sent to prison, Mr. Nemtsov's family, friends, and legal team believe the organizers of his murder remain unidentified and at large. I understand that Russia's top investigative official has prevented his subordinates from indicting a close Kadyrov associate, Major Ruslan Geremeyev, as an organizer in the assassination, and the information linking Geremeyev to Mr. Nemtsov's murder was credible enough for a NATO ally to place Geremeyev on its sanctions list. Yet there has still been no indictment. Russian security services continue to forbid the release of footage from cameras at the site of the assassination. Russian legal authorities refuse to classify the assassination of a prominent opposition leader and former First Deputy Prime Minister as a political crime. Despite all of this, they have declared the case solved. Given this pattern of deliberate inaction on the part of Russian authorities, the need for some accountability outside of Russia has grown more urgent. Russia and the United States are participating States in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or the OSCE, and have agreed that matters of justice and human rights are of enough importance to be of legitimate interest to other member states. Respect for these principles inside a country is often a predictor of the country's external behavior. So countries such as ours have a reason to be involved. At the recent meeting of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, we began a formal inquiry into Mr. Nemtsov's unsolved murder and have appointed a rapporteur to review and report on the circumstances of the Nemtsov assassination as well as on the progress of the Russian investigation. As the chair of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I supported this process from its conception at an event I cohosted last July in Berlin. Yet, as the United States of America, there is more we can do. To that end, I am glad to cosponsor a resolution with my Senate colleagues that calls on our own government to report back to Congress on what we know of the circumstances around Boris Nemtsov's murder. This resolution also calls on the Treasury Department to use tools like the Magnitsky Act to sanction individuals who have been linked to this brutal murder, such as Ruslan Geremeyev. We hear constantly from Russian opposition figures and civic activists that personal sanctions, such as those imposed by the Magnitsky Act, have a deterrent effect. Vladimir Putin has made it abundantly clear that these sanctions, based on personal accountability, are more of a threat to his regime than blunter tools, such as sectoral sanctions, that often feed his propaganda and end up harming the same people we are trying to help in Russia—innocent citizens. To its credit, the Trump administration has done a better job than had the previous administration in its implementing of the new mandates and powers Congress authorized in both the Russia and Global Magnitsky Acts. We are in a much different place than we were when these tools were originally envisaged nearly 10 years ago. The administration is mandated to update the Magnitsky Act's list annually, with there being a deadline in December that sometimes slips into January. Now it is already March, and we have yet to see any new designations under the law that the late Mr. Nemtsov himself called the most pro-Russian law ever adopted in a foreign legislature. While the law has been lauded by Russian democrats, it is rightly despised by those like Vladimir Putin who abuse and steal from the American people. Recall that it was at the Helsinki summit late last summer between the leaders of Russia and the United States of America—perhaps the grandest stage in U.S.-Russian relations in a decade—where Mr. Putin himself requested that his investigators be able to depose U.S. officials most closely associated with passing and implementing the Magnitsky law, as if they were criminals. We need to show the Russian dictator that this sort of bullying will not stand and that we will continue to implement the Magnitsky Act thoroughly and fairly. A year ago, I participated—along with many of my colleagues in the House and Senate—in the unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza in front of the Russian Embassy here in Washington, DC—the first official memorial to Boris Nemtsov anywhere in the world. One day, I hope there will be memorials to Boris Nemtsov all across Russia, but the best tribute to his memory will be a Russia he wanted to see, a just and prosperous Russia, at peace with its neighbors and a partner with the United States. I yield the floor.

  • U.S. Congressional Delegation Defends Human Rights, Regional Security at OSCE PA Winter Meeting in Vienna

    Led by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), 12 members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Winter Meeting in Vienna in late February to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to security, human rights, and the rule of law in the 57-nation OSCE region. Sen. Wicker, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Sen. Bob Casey (PA), Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), Sen. Mike Lee (UT), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD), Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01). The bipartisan, bicameral delegation was one of the largest U.S. delegations to a Winter Meeting in OSCE PA history. During the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security, Sen. Wicker criticized the Russian Federation for its interference in U.S. elections, as well as in elections held by other OSCE countries. “It is indisputable that the Russian Government seeks to attack and even undermine the integrity of our elections and of our democratic processes,” he said. “We must all be more aware of—and proactive in countering—Russia’s efforts to undermine the democratic process throughout the OSCE region.” In the same session, Rep. Hudson lamented Russian non-compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, underlining that “an INF Treaty with which all parties comply contributes to global stability; an arms control treaty that one side violates is no longer effective at keeping the world safer.”  Rep. Hudson further stressed that “in light of our six-months’ notice of withdrawal, the Russian Government has one last chance to save the INF Treaty by returning to full and verifiable compliance. We hope and pray Russia will take that step.” In the meeting of the Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, Rep. Hudson also noted the danger that the Nord Stream II pipeline poses to Europe. “Simply put, we cannot allow Russia to dramatically increase its stranglehold on European energy,” he said. “We must look for alternatives and make sure our democratic institutions cannot be held hostage over energy supply as Nord Stream II would promote.” Later in the same session, Rep. Moore advocated for the adoption of beneficial ownership transparency to combat globalized corruption. “Anonymous shell companies are the means through which much modern money laundering occurs,” she said. “We in Congress are working hard to plug the loopholes in the U.S. financial system that have enabled anonymous shell companies to proliferate.” In a debate on restrictions on human rights during states of emergency during the meeting of the Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, Rep. Jackson Lee argued, “A state of emergency is not a free pass to dismantle a free press,” nor to threaten academic freedom or freedom of religion. She called on Turkey to release local U.S. Consulate employees Metin Topuz and Mete Canturk, as well as American physicist Serkan Golge. At the closing session, participants reviewed reports submitted by Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Rep. Moore encouraged other delegations to share with Sen. Cardin their efforts to implement their commitments to address violence and discrimination, while Rep. Zeldin called for legislative action and enforcement to make “every community in the OSCE region trafficking-free.” While in Vienna, Rep. Jackson Lee also attended a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, of which she is a member, while Rep. Hudson took part in a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, where he serves as a vice chair. Prior to attending the Winter Meeting, most members of the delegation also attended the Munich Security Conference, the world’s leading forum for debating international security policy. On the margins of the conference, the group met with leaders including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, INTERPOL Secretary General Jurgen Stock, and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. The delegation was briefed by NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Curtis Scapparotti and Commander, U.S. Army Europe Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli. Members also visited Cyprus, where they met with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to discuss opportunities to advance U.S.-Cyprus relations, resume reunification negotiations on the island, and counter the threat of money laundering to Cyprus’ banking sector. Major General Cheryl Pearce of Australia, Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, briefed the delegation on UNFICYP’s mission and the status of conflict resolution efforts. Following her briefing, the delegation toured the UN Buffer Zone to examine the work of the UN’s peacekeeping force and the physical separation that afflicts the island.

  • Chairman Hastings Appoints Alex T. Johnson Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), today announced the appointment of Alex T. Johnson as Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff. Johnson will be the commission’s first African-American chief of staff since it was established in 1976. “I am pleased to welcome Alex Johnson back to the Helsinki Commission,” said Chairman Hastings. “His broad range of experience—including several years at the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna—and deep understanding of issues related to fundamental freedoms and human security in North America, Europe, and Central Asia will keep the commission at the vanguard of regional policymaking.” “I have learned from Chairman Hastings over the years that transatlantic security is contingent on advancing human rights and human dignity, including for the most marginalized populations in the OSCE region,” said Johnson. “I am honored to once again empower our commissioners' legacy as the moral compass for transatlantic cooperation.” Johnson, a former policy advisor at the Helsinki Commission, returns to the organization after serving as the senior policy advisor for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, where he led U.S.-focused advocacy for 12 national foundations and regional programs ranging from Central Asia to Western Europe. An expert on European human rights and transatlantic security, he served as an Obama Administration official at the Pentagon, where he focused on furthering security cooperation with Eurasia and the Western Balkans. Johnson is also known for his research and leadership of advocacy coalitions of diverse foreign policy professionals and is recognized as a leader in advancing inclusion for the U.S. national security workforce. He is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. Johnson’s first day as chief of staff of the Helsinki Commission will be February 14, 2019.

  • Wicker, Cardin Condemn Detention of Russian Activist Nastya Shevchenko

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today issued the following statements on the detention of Anastasia (Nastya) Shevchenko, a human rights activist with the Open Russia organization, who was placed under house arrest on January 23: “No one should face jail time for peaceful advocacy,” said Sen. Wicker. “The callous and cruel treatment of Nastya Shevchenko by Russian authorities is a disturbing tactic to silence a citizen-activist.” “The Russian authorities must release Nastya Shevchenko,” said Sen. Cardin. “It should not be a crime to advocate for the best interests of one’s country and fellow citizens.” Shevchenko is the first Russian to face criminal charges under Russia’s 2015 “undesirable organizations” law, which is intended to prevent NGOs based outside of Russia from operating within the country. A single mother, she was prevented from visiting her critically-ill special needs daughter until shortly before her daughter’s death at the end of January. Open Russia is a Russian-led, Russia-based organization that advocates for greater government transparency and accountability. Amnesty International has declared Shevchenko a prisoner of conscience.

  • Representative Alcee L. Hastings to Helm Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has appointed Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) to chair the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, during the 116th Congress. “For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia,” said Chairman Hastings. “While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished. Rogue actors are challenging the integrity of elections at home and abroad; Russia’s internal repression threatens its citizens while its external aggression imperils its neighbors; and members of vulnerable communities are targets of bigotry, discrimination, and violence. All of these challenges undermine comprehensive security in the region and place our societies at risk. “I’m honored to once again chair the Helsinki Commission, and look forward to continuing the bipartisan, bicameral cooperation that is vital to promoting human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in the 57 countries of the OSCE.” Chairman Hastings has served on the Helsinki Commission since 2001, and in 2007, he became the first African American to chair the commission. Hastings is also the only American to have ever served as President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and is the former Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs of the PA.

  • First Person: Wood Smoke and Expectation

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

  • The Holy See and Religious Freedom

    Because of its unique status as the universal government of a specific religion, rather than a territorial state, the Holy See is probably the least understood of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. However, it has a rich diplomatic history and has contributed significantly to the development of today’s OSCE, particularly in the area of religious freedom. Download the full report to learn more.

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