Title

Business as Usual: Belarus on the Eve of the Elections

Tuesday, September 16, 2008
2:30pm
Rayburn House Office Building, Room 328-B
Washington, DC 20515
United States
Official Transcript: 
Members: 
Name: 
Representative Alcee L. Hastings
Title Text: 
Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Senator Ben Cardin
Title Text: 
Co-Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Representative Christopher H. Smith
Title Text: 
Ranking Member
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Representative Hilda L. Solis
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Hon. David J. Kramer
Title: 
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Body: 
Department of State
Name: 
Laura Jewett
Title: 
Regional Director, Eurasia
Body: 
National Endowment for Democracy
Name: 
Rodger Potocki
Title: 
Director, Europe and Eurasia
Body: 
National Endowment for Democracy
Name: 
Stephen B. Nix
Title: 
Regional Program Director, Eurasia
Body: 
International Republican Institute

The hearing examined the state of democracy and human rights in Belarus and how the Belarusian authorities are complying with their election commitments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in advance of the September 28, 2008 parliamentary elections.

In August 2008, authorities released Belarus’ most prominent political prisoner, Alexander Kozulin, and two others, fulfilling a key demand of the United States and European Union. This, together with Belarusian leader Lukashenka’s unenthusiastic response to Russia’s aggression in Georgia also has raised a glimmer of possibility for an improvement in Belarus’ ties with the United States and European Union. Nevertheless, to date, there had been no appreciable progress in human rights and democracy in the run up to the elections.

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  • First Person: #UkraineElections2019

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor and Kyle Parker, Senior Senate Staff Representative   Bright morning sunlight streamed through the windows of School No. 119 in Odesa as the first ballot was cast for the March 31 presidential election in Ukraine. We, along with our third team member, a Danish parliamentarian, had arrived an hour earlier to watch as a stern but amiable middle-aged woman—who seemed especially proud to speak Ukrainian to her Russian-speaking electoral commission colleagues—instructed them on proper procedure for the day. The ballot boxes must be sealed properly, privacy in the voting booths maintained, proper identification verified, and voter lists checked and double checked. Coffee, tea, and small talk were in good supply to combat the grogginess of a morning made even earlier by the switch to daylight savings time shortly after midnight on election day. This election, with 39 candidates vying for the presidency, required the longest ballot in Ukraine’s history at 80 centimeters (more than two and a half feet) long. Not only did this present a printing challenge, but we saw numerous voters seeming to wonder just how many folds would be needed to easily deposit their ballot through the narrow slot and preserve the secrecy of their selection. Ukraine’s election law is surprisingly strict in this regard and imposes criminal penalties on voters who deliberately reveal their selections, whether by showing someone personally, taking a picture of their ballot, or bringing someone else into the voting booth with them. Notably, we observed no incidence of anyone deliberately violating ballot secrecy. We were among over a thousand foreign observers of the election invited by the Government of Ukraine, consistent with its OSCE commitments. We joined approximately 100,000 domestic observers to inspect the nearly 30,000 electoral precincts across the country—excluding parts of the Donbas and Crimea, due to the ongoing war and Russia’s illegal occupation, respectively. All of the domestic observers that we encountered were observing on behalf of an individual candidate, usually for Yuriy Boyko, Petro Poroshenko, or Yulia Tymoshenko. We did not encounter any of the foreign and domestic NGOs also observing the election. Throughout the day, we traveled to numerous polling stations, spending almost an hour at each, to watch for irregularities or violations of election law. Most electoral commissioners went out of their way to proudly display what was an organized and transparent electoral system. All afforded us full access to every part of the voting process. A few commissioners even seemed flattered to host foreign observers from the OSCE, an acronym well known in Ukraine for the prominent role the OSCE has played in assessing previous elections, including those that led to the Orange Revolution in 2004 and that served to ratify the dramatic change of government in 2014. In any election observation, the most critical part of election day is the counting of ballots after the polls have closed and unused ballots have been checked against the total numbers of ballots issued and votes cast. With these procedures scrupulously followed, the chairwoman at the precinct where we were assigned gave the okay to open the ballot boxes and tally the votes. 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. On a few occasions, a voter’s selection was unclear and so the ballot was presented to the entire commission for scrutiny, followed by a vote on how and whether to record the ambiguous ballot. Many of the 39 candidates on the ballot received no votes and there was often a wisecrack and laughter when any of these candidates received a vote, or even two! Despite the daunting fullness of the ballot boxes, due in part to the physical size of the ballot, the count proceeded apace with only a couple instances of needing to recount a candidate’s stack of votes to reconcile the final numbers needed for the formal protocol. This document would soon be posted outside the precinct for public inspection and sent up the chain to be included in the national tally. Security throughout the count was so strict that an ailing observer was nearly prohibited from leaving the precinct while the count was underway. After seeking the approval of the commission chairwoman, police finally unlocked the doors and allowed the observer to depart. These rules, as explained to us, were in place to prohibit any ballots from being brought into or out of the precinct. Based on the increasing grumblings of commissioners as night turned to early morning, this prohibition on leaving seemed to motivate commissioners to stay focused on their duties lest they risk witnessing another sunrise at their polling station. The OSCE’s post-election preliminary statement corresponded to our observation of a smooth, even festive in some cases, electoral process that complied with Ukraine’s domestic laws and fulfilled the country’s international commitments. Given the frequent opportunities Ukraine has had to exercise its democratic muscle in recent years, few on the international observation mission led by the OSCE expected anything but the free and fair process we witnessed. As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

  • Wicker and Cardin Introduce Legislation to Defend U.S. Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecution in Turkey

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) today introduced the Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act of 2019 (S. 1075) to address the ongoing wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens and diplomatic staff by the Government of Turkey. U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (IL), who has actively supported efforts to secure the release of political prisoners around the world, is an original co-sponsor of the legislation, along with Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD). “More than two and a half years have passed since Serkan Gölge, an American citizen, was detained in Turkey. Since then, we have witnessed the sham convictions of two Americans, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, and one local employee of the U.S. government on baseless terrorism charges. At least two other local staff of our consulate in Istanbul continue to face similar politically-motivated convictions without credible evidence of wrongdoing,” said Sen. Wicker. “Turkish authorities should immediately cease this harassment of our citizens and personnel. The bipartisan measure we are introducing today puts Turkey on notice that it can either quickly resolve these cases and free our citizens and local staff or face real consequences. Turkey is a valuable NATO ally—I expect it to start acting like one.” “The Turkish government’s false imprisonment of Americans and Turkish citizens employed by the United States in Turkey is a gross violation of their human rights,” said Sen. Cardin. “Our bill makes clear that the United States will not tolerate years of Turkish recalcitrance on these cases. Officials in the Erdogan regime responsible for these crimes must be held accountable under Global Magnitsky standards for their ongoing injustices. I am eager to begin restoring constructive cooperation between our countries, but we simply cannot do so while these innocent men languish in wrongful and prolonged detention.” “These arbitrary arrests are yet another example of Turkey’s deteriorating democracy and respect for human rights under autocrat President Erdogan,” said Sen. Durbin.  “That Erdogan continues to jail a U.S. citizen and Turkish staff that work for our consulates, not to mention prop up Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, warrant greater action by the Trump Administration.” “Erdogan’s government continues to undermine the rule of law in Turkey, including by targeting American citizens and locally-employed U.S. diplomatic staff.  I’m proud to join this bipartisan effort to hold senior Turkish officials who are knowingly responsible for the wrongful detention of or politically-motivated false charges against American citizens and U.S. local employees at our diplomatic posts accountable,” Sen. Rubio said. “The Turkish government must live up to its commitment and act like a NATO ally if they wish to continue to be treated like one.” “While the Turkish government made a step in the right direction with the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson last October, more needs to be done for Turkey to show good faith and act like a NATO ally,” said Sen. Tillis, co-chair of the Senate Human Rights Caucus. “This bipartisan legislation will impose sanctions on those responsible for the wrongful imprisonments of American citizens and diplomatic staff, and I hope progress will be ultimately made through the release of Serkan Gölge and other U.S. citizens currently imprisoned in Turkey.” “Turkey’s blatant disregard for the rights of American citizens and diplomatic staff within their country is unacceptable. This legislation makes clear to Turkey that we will not accept the status quo. I urge the Senate to take up this bill immediately, so we can levy swift sanctions on senior Turkish officials and apply some serious pressure to get Turkey to release these wrongfully detained Americans and diplomatic staff,” said Sen. Van Hollen, co-chair of the Senate Foreign Service Caucus. The bill would require the U.S. administration to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for the wrongful detentions of U.S. citizens and staff, including barring the officials from travel to the United States and freezing any U.S. assets. It further calls on President Trump to urge Turkey to restore due process guarantees and respect for the fundamental freedoms of all its people, thousands of whom are victims of the same politically-motivated prosecution and indefinite detention. U.S. citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Gölge is one of several American citizens, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, who were caught up in the sweeping government-led purge that followed the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Brunson was convicted on fabricated terrorism charges and released in October 2018 but Gölge remains in jail serving a five-year sentence because of a similar conviction. He has been in jail since July 2016. Since early 2017, Turkish authorities have targeted three veteran Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in Turkey on trumped-up national security charges that appear to stem in part from routine contacts they maintained as part of their professional responsibilities. All three men have worked as locally employed staff of the United States Government in Turkey for more than three decades. A Turkish court in January 2019 convicted Hamza Ulucay, who was imprisoned since February 2017, on terrorism charges without any credible evidence of wrongdoing. He was sentenced to four and a half years in jail, but released on time served. Two other local staff from the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, Metin Topuz and Mete Canturk, remain in custody or under house arrest on similar trumped-up charges. After 18 months in jail, Metin had his first court hearing last month. The court adjourned his trial until May 15. In November 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey. In the months prior to the hearing, Helsinki Commission leaders raised these cases in letters to President Erdogan and President Trump.

  • The U.S. must stand up to Erdogan and his politically motivated detentions

    Last fall, Americans rejoiced as the pastor Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina native, returned home after spending more than two years in Turkish prisons on baseless terrorism and espionage charges. A combination of congressional pressure and targeted sanctions on Turkish officials sent a clear message to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the United States would not tolerate his using Brunson as a pawn to extract political concessions. Faced with mounting political and economic costs, Erdogan caved. Sadly, the pastor’s release did not put an end to Erdogan’s hostage-taking. Today, the Turkish government continues to hold at least one American citizen and two Turkish employees of the U.S. government on false charges. Erdogan plans to inflict misery on these innocent people until he gets what he wants out of the United States — whether that is a green light to attack Kurdish strongholds in northern Syria, taking legal action against Fethullah Gulen and his followers in the United States, or U.S. acquiescence to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system. Such attempts at extortion are all the more galling coming from Turkey, an important NATO ally that is not acting like one. American citizen and NASA physicist Serkan Golge is serving a five-year prison sentence for alleged involvement in terrorism, despite no credible evidence of wrongdoing. Turkish police have also used false terrorism charges to detain three longtime Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in the country: Hamza Ulucay, Metin Topuz, and Mete Canturk. Golge and Topuz are in solitary confinement, where they have spent up to two-and-a-half years with only an hour of fresh air per week. Ulucay was released earlier this year after being held for nearly two years. Canturk remains under house arrest, and his family is subject to travel bans and regular police check-ins. These men are all innocent. Not only have they lost irreplaceable time with their families, but the physical and psychological toll of their ordeal also means they may never be the same once they regain their liberty. The United States did not tolerate the politically motivated detention and mistreatment of a U.S. citizen in the case of Pastor Brunson. We should not tolerate those acts now with Golge or longtime U.S. government employees. As the United States increased pressure on Turkey over Brunson, it simultaneously tried to cut a deal with Erdogan for the freedom of the other detainees. By now, it is abundantly clear that no amount of coaxing will secure their freedom. Any negotiation over their fate would only reward Erdogan’s bad behavior. As with Brunson, only stiff political and economic pressure will work. This week, I introduced the bipartisan Defending United States Citizens and Diplomatic Staff from Political Prosecutions Act of 2019, which would require the president to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for these wrongful detentions, including barring them from travel to the United States and freezing any assets they have here. The bill further calls on President Trump to urge Turkey to restore due-process guarantees and respect for the fundamental freedoms of all its people, thousands of whom are victims of the same sort of politically motivated prosecution and indefinite detention endured by our citizens and consulate personnel. The United States has a particular moral obligation to protect our own citizens. Golge’s wrongful imprisonment at the hands of the Turkish government cannot stand. We also have moral obligations to our local staff overseas. Thousands of citizens of other countries work at U.S. government facilities around the globe, lending their diverse expertise to critical U.S. missions, often at great risk to themselves and their families. The credibility of the United States is at stake in the eyes of these courageous individuals who place their trust and safety in our hands. The fate of their colleagues in Turkey weighs heavily on the minds of our consular staff, as it does on our national conscience. No effort should be spared until they are free.

  • U.S. senators introduce bill to sanction Turkish officials over detentions

    Two U.S. senators on Tuesday introduced a bipartisan bill requiring the imposition of sanctions on Turkish officials responsible for the detentions of U.S. citizens and local consulate staff in Turkey, a statement on the legislation said. The bill, introduced by Republican Senator Roger Wicker and Democrat Ben Cardin, also calls on President Donald Trump to urge Turkey to respect for the fundamental freedoms, saying thousands were victims of politically-motivated prosecution. “The Turkish government’s false imprisonment of Americans and Turkish citizens employed by the United States in Turkey is a gross violation of their human rights,” Senator Cardin said in the statement. “Our bill makes clear that the United States will not tolerate years of Turkish recalcitrance on these cases.” The detention of U.S. consulate workers and American citizens is one of many issues dividing NATO allies Ankara and Washington, also at loggerheads over Syria policy and Turkey’s planned purchase of Russian missile defenses. Their detentions prompted Washington in October 2017 to suspend all non-immigrant visa applications from the country, triggering a reciprocal move from Ankara that contributed to a deep crisis in bilateral ties. The bill introduced Tuesday would require the U.S. administration to impose sanctions on all senior Turkish officials responsible for the “wrongful” detentions of U.S. citizens and staff, including barring the officials from travel to the United States and freezing any U.S. assets. Turkey has detained tens of thousands of people following a failed coup in July 2016, saying they were linked with the network of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric blamed by Ankara for orchestrating the putsch. U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson was among those jailed in the aftermath of the coup. He was released last October. “While the Turkish government made a step in the right direction with the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson last October, more needs to be done for Turkey to show good faith and act like a NATO ally,” said Republican Senator Thom Tillis, one of six original sponsors of Tuesday’s bill. Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish-U.S. citizen, was found guilty of being a member of an armed terrorist organization earlier this year and sentenced to seven years, six months in prison. Three other Turkish citizens who were working at the U.S. consulates in Turkey have been under investigation or jailed over similar charges. A Turkish court last month ruled that one of the consular workers, Metin Topuz, a translator and fixer in Istanbul, should remain in jail until his trial resumes in June.

  • Slovakia's Chairmanship of the OSCE

    In 2019, Slovakia holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which brings together 57 countries from North America, Europe and Central Asia. At the Helsinki Commission’s first hearing in the 116th Congress held on April 3, 2019, Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Miroslav Lajčák, was invited to discuss the chairmanship’s priorities for the OSCE in 2019 and its plans for progress. Minister Lajčák was received by Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), along with Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, Ranking House Member Rep. Joe Wilson, and Commissioners Sen. Cory Gardner, Rep. Gwen Moore, and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. 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. He emphasized the importance of educating youth in matters related to cybersecurity, including emerging threats such as cyberterrorism. To that end, Slovakia’s chairmanship will use its convening authority “to call attention to new trends and explore potential collaborative impact.” Chairman Hastings optimistically remarked that “young people know a hell of a lot more about [cyber security and technology] than we do” and Commissioner Moore commended Mr. Lajčák for focusing on the youth – “it is a quintessential strategy for preventing chaos.” Finally, the Slovak Chair-in-Office focused on multilateralism, considered by Minister Lajčák as a “fundamental problem-solving and war-preventing” tool both in and outside of the OSCE. Furthermore, Minister Lajčák emphasized the importance of “working together on multilateral platforms [which] is inevitable if we want to safeguard peace and prosperity to our people,” calling the OSCE “the platform to do just that.” He affirmed this priority of co-operation between OSCE participating States in response to a concern raised by Commissioner Moore regarding certain participating State’s “violations [of all] the Helsinki principles” which would undermine multilateralism within the OSCE: “We have to […] look eye-to-eye and talk about issues […] that is what makes the OSCE unique.” Throughout the hearing, the Chair-in-Office stressed an intent to counter terrorism in his priorities. Part of the minister’s first conference to encourage youth education involved “promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, and the best practices in combating modern-day anti-Semitism,” to stem terrorism. Furthermore, a second conference, held a week before the hearing, “focused on preventing and countering terrorism as well as violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism.” The minister asserted that “terrorism and violent extremism pose as grave a threat as ever” and that “we, at the OSCE, need to continue updating and adapting our toolbox” to be prepared for the future. Despite specific victories, such as the recent destruction of the remaining Daesh strongholds, the minister advised that “this is not a time to get comfortable,” and that “we need to address the root causes [of terrorism] and stay one step ahead.” The OSCE Chair-in-Office also addressed regional challenges including Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; increasing instability in the Western Balkans; and Turkey’s campaign to stifle dissent in every sector. Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. However, Chairman Hastings is optimistic about the capability of the OSCE to advance the rule of law, human rights, and non-discrimination its participating States. Minister Lajčák expressed confidence that providing concrete measures to improve the daily lives of those living in conflict, educating youth, and encouraging multilateral engagement on their behalf will lead to positive developments throughout the OSCE region.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Explore Recent Developments in Hungary

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEVELOPMENTS IN HUNGARY Tuesday, April 9, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1539 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission At this Helsinki Commission briefing, panelists will explore recent developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Susan Corke, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Democracy Working Group, German Marshall Fund Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society, Human Rights First Dalibor Rohac, Research Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

  • First Person: A Divided Island’s Long Road to Peace

    By Mark Toner, Senior State Department Advisor There are two images seared into my brain from my visit to Cyprus during a recent congressional delegation led by Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). The first was a darkened, underground garage filled with the rusting hulks of mid-1970s Toyotas.  They were once the sparkling-new inventory of a car dealership situated in the heart of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital. Following the 1974 incursion by Turkish forces in the wake of a failed coup attempt, the dealership became part of a buffer zone that runs like a scar across the length of Cyprus, separating the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). The dealership’s owner fled when the fighting erupted and never returned. The cars sit frozen in time, waiting for customers who will never come. Abandoned vehicle in Nicosia, Cyprus. The second was both jarring and moving: at the Committee on Missing Persons, we entered a clean, cavernous room full of long tables on which an array of partially-reconstructed skeletons were arranged—the remains of some of the more than 2,000 people who disappeared during the outbreak of violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in 1963-64, as well as during the later 1974 conflict. Located in a compound in the United Nations Protected Area near the old Nicosia airport, the Committee is an organization established by both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities that recovers, identifies, and ultimately returns these remains to their still-grieving families and loved ones, using state-of-the-art DNA technology and an exhaustive scientific process. These were just two of the places we visited during our two-day stay on the island as part of a bipartisan, bicameral delegation on its way to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. As part of our jam-packed schedule, the delegation met with the President of the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-Cypriot leadership, and toured the UN buffer zone with the hardworking and good-natured UN peacekeepers who police the 112-mile ceasefire line. Cyprus is among the world’s oldest and most intractable frozen conflicts, and the social, political, and economic tensions the conflict created still feel fresh today. Since the island was effectively split in two in 1974, there have been repeated UN-led attempts to broker a settlement and reunify the island, but all have ended in failure. It is also a tale of two realities. While Greek Cypriots enjoy the benefits of EU and Eurozone membership and seek to exploit the potential of untapped hydrocarbon reserves located in an Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds the island, those who live in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus remain politically and economically isolated from the rest of Europe and rely heavily on their big brother to the north, Turkey, for security and economic assistance. Our visit to Cyprus was a stark reminder of the difficulty of moving past an unresolved conflict, in a place where grievances are often passed from generation to generation, and the ghosts of the past remain as tangible as the neglected shell of a crumbling 15th-century church in the UN buffer zone or the rusting hulks of airplanes still sitting on the runway of the abandoned Nicosia International Airport. Our brief visit to the Committee on Mission Persons, however, was a poignant reminder of the vital importance of civil society in restoring a sense of normalcy once the fighting ends.  It is a calming place, where dedicated people from both sides of the conflict work together to bring a sense of closure to those who lost loved ones in the fighting; it speaks to the fierce resiliency of the people of Cyprus and the enduring hope that old wrongs can yet be overcome.       

  • Slovakian Minister of Foreign Affairs to Appear at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SLOVAKIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE Priorities and Challenges Wednesday, April 3, 2019 3:30 p.m. Senate Visitor Center Room 201-00 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2019, Slovakia holds the chairmanship of the world’s largest regional security organization: the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which stretches from North America through Europe, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Regional challenges include Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; increasing instability in the Western Balkans; and Turkey’s campaign to stifle dissent in every sector. Many countries are struggling—or failing—to live up to their OSCE commitments in the areas of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and vulnerable communities are targets of discrimination and violence. At the same time, recent developments in Armenia and Central Asia hold some of the best hopes for positive change in the region. At his first congressional hearing, Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Lajcak, will discuss the chairmanship’s priorities for the OSCE in 2019 and its plans for progress.

  • 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 Marks One-Year Anniversary of Jan Kuciak’s Murder

    WASHINGTON—On the one-year anniversary of the murder of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I support and applaud the people of Slovakia who have courageously demonstrated their unwavering support for democracy in the aftermath of this terrible double murder. They have been a stirring example to those citizens across the OSCE region who are fighting to protect a free and independent press. “Whenever journalists are murdered or attacked, there must be a credible investigation and meaningful accountability.  The ability of journalists to report the news is nothing less than the right of every person to know the facts and make informed decisions about the issues affecting their lives.” On February 21, 2018, 27-year-old Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were shot to death in Kuciak’s apartment.  The murder shocked the country and sparked the largest public protests since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The wave of demonstrations eventually led the Prime Minister, Minister of Interior, and other senior officials to resign.  Four people have been arrested in direct connection with the case and the investigation is ongoing.  In 2017 and 2018, several other journalists investigating public corruption in Europe and Eurasia were murdered for their work. In a May 2018 briefing, the Helsinki Commission examined the assassinations of investigative journalists throughout Europe and Eurasia—including Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta—why they are targeted, and how future murders can be prevented. At the most recent OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, in December 2018, the participating States expressed particular concern about the climate of impunity that prevails when violent attacks committed against journalists remain unpunished.   

  • 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.

  • Unorthodox?

    By Thea Dunlevie, Max Kampelman Fellow “The Russian Federation is a secular state,” according to Chapter 1, Article 14 of the Russian constitution. Adopted two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which systematically repressed religious activity, Article 14 created a framework for a religious resurgence in Russia, namely the Russian Orthodox Church’s optimistic emergence from the Soviet era. However, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a battlefield of choice for the Russian government as it seeks status as the religious and regional hegemon. President Vladimir Putin’s vision for a “Russian world” has in many ways negated the country’s constitutional commitment to a religiously neutral government, particularly in relation to former Soviet Bloc countries. Vladimir Putin has coupled violent encroachments such as the 2014 invasion and illegal occupation of Crimea and the Donbas and its 2008 invasion and illegal occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia with subtler maneuvers to establish strongholds in foreign countries, including through religious interventions. The latter activities rest under the umbrella term “soft power,” which Putin identified as a foreign policy strategy in his 2017 Foreign Policy Concept. According to political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term, “Soft power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.” Rooted in Russian History and Culture The Russian Orthodox Church, which has deep roots in Russian identity, history, and culture, was revived under President Boris Yeltsin and has since been increasingly employed as a tool of soft power. The RAND Institute reports that the Russian Orthodox Church has been rated “the most-trusted institution in [Russia]”—surpassing the president and parliament. Consequentially, the Kremlin’s interconnectivity with the Russian Orthodox Church lends the state legitimacy by proxy. Capitalizing on this perceived legitimacy, the 2015 Russian National Security Strategy lists “preserving and developing culture and traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” as one of six “National Interests and National Strategic Priorities.” Religion has been instrumentalized by Russian diplomatic missions with goals beyond proselytizing or constructing churches. Putin sent Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia as a Kremlin emissary to solidify international ties under the auspices of religious, humanitarian outreach. For example, Putin has characterized Russia as the defender of persecuted Christians in the Middle East by supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government. Patriarch Kirill and Putin also vowed to rebuild churches in the region, positioning Russia as the great defender, reconstructor, and regional power. However, not all these efforts have been successful. Patriarch Kirill’s 2013 visit to the politically volatile region of Transnistria, Moldova—where 1,400 Russian troops are stationed—was met by local protests suggesting an unwelcome link between the Russian Orthodox Church’s presence and the Kremlin’s. The Russian Orthodox Church has also helped the Government of Russia maintain regional influence in former Soviet Bloc countries and the Balkans and expand its influence in Asia. The Russian government commemorated 50 years of cooperation with Singapore by building an Orthodox church there, and Patriarch Kirill’s delegation visited North Korea to establish an Orthodox church in Pyongyang alongside North Korean government officials. However, current debates primarily focus on Ukraine because it contains an estimated one-third of the Moscow Patriarchate’s churches. Russia has approached the OSCE with concerns about “Ukrainization,” alleging that 50 Russian Orthodox churches had been illegally seized by the government since 2014. Ukraine Fights Back The Russian Orthodox Church’s Kremlin-driven influence has been of particular concern to Ukraine, which struggles to maintain its political sovereignty as Russia encroaches militarily. To counter this influence, in 2018 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church sought autocephaly (independence) under the auspices of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the governing body of the Orthodox Church. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko justified the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s pursuit of autocephaly before the United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council as “a matter of national security and [Ukraine’s] defense in a hybrid war, because the Kremlin views the Russian Orthodox Church as key instruments of influence on Ukraine.”  However, the Russian Orthodox Church condemned Ukraine’s autocephaly efforts for blasphemously entangling religion and politics. Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, characterized the Ukrainian church’s move as a “pre-election political project.” The Russian Orthodox Church severed tied with the Ecumenical Patriarch in mid-October. In December, Metropolitan Epifaniy was elected head of the nascent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Prior to his election, the U.S. State Department said the United States “respects the ability of Ukraine’s Orthodox religious leaders and followers to pursue autocephaly according to their beliefs.” Immediately after his election, the State Department issued a congratulatory statement and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with him by phone.   After the January 6th announcement of autocephaly for an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Secretary described the outcome as an “historic achievement.” All of these U.S. statements explicitly referenced U.S. support for religious freedom as the context. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine now sidesteps Russian religious authority and submits to the Ecumenical Patriarch and Holy Synod alone.  The Russian government, however, maintains that Ukraine is “territory of the Russian church” and vows to “defend the interests of the Orthodox.” Ongoing Power Struggles Russia’s religious intervention has also instigated ecclesiastical divisions within the other Orthodox churches and between churches and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Russian meddling has created opposing teams: Ukraine and its allies, like the Ecumenical Patriarch and U.S. Government, versus the Russian Government and regional churches which pledged loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the wake of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod decision on the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Putin awarded the Metropolitan of Moldova “Russia’s Order of Friendship,” perhaps  to encourage Moldovan sympathy to the Russian Orthodox Church’s cause amid the “schismatic” behavior of Ukraine. In November of 2018, St. Andrew’s Church in Ukraine was attacked with Molotov cocktails, following  the transfer of its ownership to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This attack has been interpreted by some Ukrainians as a symbolic attack on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Ukraine’s religious makeup is exceptionally diverse. However, the Kremlin’s political meddling into the inter-orthodox religious conflict raises larger concerns about how government can support or suppress certain beliefs for primarily political purposes. This phenomenon threatens the religious liberty of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and potentially the freedom of the country’s minority religious groups like Greek Catholics. All 57 participating States of the OSCE have committed to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which includes the statement that  “the participating States will respect (...) the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion… participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”  The participating States have repeatedly recommitted themselves in subsequent agreements. The Ukrainian government and leadership of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine must be vigilant for infringements on the religious rights of Moscow Patriarchate adherents in Ukraine after the Holy Synod’s decision. As priests, imams, and pastors did during Euromaidan in 2013, so should the Ukrainian Government, the Russian Government, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox Church condemn violence, protect freedom of religion and belief, and promote inter-faith peace.

  • 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.

  • Mosque and State in Central Asia

    From 2016 to early 2018, the U.S. government designated three of Central Asia’s five nations—Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—as countries of particular concern (CPC) for engaging in or tolerating “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” like torture, abduction, and clandestine or prolonged detention without charges. In these countries, people of all faiths, or no faith at all, have endured onerous government-mandated harassment, fines, and imprisonment for even minor breaches of state regulations of religious belief and practice. To ensure regime stability and counter violent extremism, the governments of some Central Asian Muslim-majority countries impose strict and invasive violations of religious liberty on adherents of the Islamic faith. Islamic religious institutions and leaders are fully incorporated into the state bureaucracy. Exploring the faith outside the bounds of “official Islam” is forbidden and illegal. The Helsinki Commission convened an expert panel of regional and Islamic scholars to explain the different approaches to state regulation of Islam in Central Asia and the consequences of these policies for religious freedom, radicalization, and long-term political stability and social development.

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