Title

Conflicts in the Caucasus: Prospects for Resolutions

Wednesday, December 07, 2011
2154 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
United States
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Thomas de Waal
Title: 
Senior Associate
Body: 
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Representative Michael Burgess led this briefing on the conflictual history in the Caucasus. Twenty years after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the unresolved conflicts in the Caucasus remain one of its most problematic legacies. Despite the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) long mediation in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the results have been disappointing. After the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and Moscow’s subsequent recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the prospects for settling those conflicts seem more remote than ever.

The witnesses examined where these conflicts stood at the end of 2011, what factors impeded a settlement,  whether the resumption of armed hostilities was a serious threat, whether changes in the negotiating format could yield  a better outcome, and what, if anything, could the United States do to facilitate a resolution.

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    On April 27, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing focusing on human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. In particular, this hearing was used as a platform to raise awareness for Oleg Sentsov, a political prisoner being held in Siberia. Sentsov was honored by PEN America this year with their 2017 Freedom to Write award for his work exposing Russian human rights violations. Panelist included Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and campaigner for his freedom, and journalist in Kiev; Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament and former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests; and Halya Coynash, spokesperson for Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. The panelists provided much context and background detailing Sentsov and others’ cases. Natalya Kaplan spoke to the audience about the terrible conditions her cousin faces in Siberia, including torture, while Mustafa Nayyem spoke about the need to pressure Russia publically to end these human rights abuses. Halya Coynash reminded the audience of the severity of this case by highlighting that Sentsov was the first Ukrainian to be so brazenly imprisoned after the Russian occupation of Crimea; in her eyes, this was the first time the full force of Russian government had been used to fabricate charges and host a show trial against a Ukrainian. The panelists agreed that the media freedom situation in Russian-occupied territory is dire and only growing worse. Of greatest concern was the length to which Russia is willing to go in their efforts to arrest and prosecute journalists. Russia also sets a dangerous precedent with its recent attempts to foist Russian citizenship onto Ukrainians in Crimea, in efforts to undermine international court rulings and give legitimacy to its actions. When it comes to monitoring the human rights situation in Ukraine, the panelists expressed concerns with the lack of access to political prisoners and the inability to target individual Russians involved in creating the sham trials. The panelists believed that the ability to target individuals involved in these trials would be extremely helpful in de-escalating the situation, and they made many references to the Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Overwhelmingly, the response to these issues was a desire to work with Congress to strengthen and update the Magnistky Act, as well as broaden civil society and NGO engagment. Mustafa Nayyem expressed hope that NGOs, such as PEN America, would play a more pivotal role in helping prevent future repression. News articles following the briefing expressed hope that there would be work within Congress to better address issues involving Ukrainian political prisoners.

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  • Background: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine

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  • Chairman Wicker on Death of OSCE Monitor in Eastern Ukraine

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  • Helsinki Commission To Hold Briefing on Russia’s Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: OLEG SENTSOV AND RUSSIA’S HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AGAINST UKRAINIAN CITIZENS Thursday, April 27, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 210 In May 2014, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov – an outspoken opponent of Russia’s takeover of his native Crimea – disappeared from his hometown of Simferopol only to resurface in Russian custody in Moscow. Convicted on charges of terrorism that the human rights community has condemned as fabricated, Sentsov is now serving a 20-year sentence in a Siberian penal colony. His case not only stands as a marker for Russia’s reach in silencing dissent abroad, but also illuminates broader issues of Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens. The Helsinki Commission briefing will present three perspectives on this disturbing situation and its broader context: from Sentsov’s cousin and chief champion; from a human rights defender investigating cases in the region; and from a member of the Ukrainian parliament. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Natalya Kaplan, cousin of Oleg Sentsov and journalist in Kiev Mustafa Nayyem, Member of Ukrainian Parliament; former journalist and early organizer of the 2013 Euromaidan protests Halya Coynash, Spokesperson, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

  • Human Rights Abuses in Russia Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced a hearing to examine the grim state of human rights and democracy in the Russian Federation. DEMOCRACY & HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES IN RUSSIA: NO END IN SIGHT Wednesday, April 26, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce042617 Russia’s overt external aggression against countries such as Ukraine, its support for the Assad regime in Syria, and its efforts to disrupt western democracies are made possible by the internal repression of its own people.  For example, Russia has not had a free and fair election since March 2000. Opposition activists are routinely assaulted or even murdered, giving rise to a new term: “Sudden Kremlin Death Syndrome.” Political prisoner numbers now match those of the late Soviet era, and on March 26, tens of thousands of people in cities across 11 time zones protested widespread government corruption, with more than 1,000 arrested. More nationwide protests are expected on June 12, the national holiday of the Russian Federation. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman, Open Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President, Freedom House

  • Russian Military Aggression in Europe: A Resurgent Threat to Stability

    On March 21 and March 23, 2017, expert witnesses—including Gen. Curtis M. Scap-arrotti, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander-Europe—testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) about ongoing Russian activities in the European region. The impact of Russia’s military aggression and its failure to uphold fundamental international agreements were of paramount importance to Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH), also a Helsinki Commissioner and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. Three key themes emerged in the Commissioners’ questioning: the challenges Russian military activities, including exercises, pose to the stability of the European security environment; Moscow’s flaunting of its security-related commitments; and the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in addressing these violations Download the full report to learn more.

  • First Person: Election Observation in Armenia

    By Everett Price, Policy Advisor As the Helsinki Commission’s policy advisor for Armenia, I participated in the election observation mission (EOM) to Armenia organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) from March 31 to April 3, 2017. On April 2, the Republic of Armenia held its first parliamentary election since approving constitutional amendments in a popular referendum in 2015 that transition the country from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system. The election was also significant as the first nation-wide vote held under sweeping 2016 revisions to the country’s electoral code that implemented a new process for allocating legislative seats, improved transparency, mandated advanced voter authentication measures, and increased female and minority representation quotas. I was one of a 63-member delegation of parliamentarians and staff deployed by the OSCE PA to serve as short-term observers to the Armenian election. This parliamentary delegation complemented the work of a team of 14 experts, 28 long-term observers, and over 300 short-term observers sent throughout the capital and across the country by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the European Parliament (EP) also participated. The OSCE PA and ODIHR regularly lead EOMs in the OSCE region at the invitation of the host country. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.) In the days before the vote, our OSCE PA observation team received extensive briefings on the election process and current political dynamics from ODIHR experts and from Armenian government officials, political parties, civil society, and media representatives. These briefings focused on allegations of electoral violations, the complexity of the electoral code, the role of international and local observers, and the tenor of the campaign. We heard a “unified message of concern” from civil society representatives.  Citizen activists, journalists, and opposition members told us that the ruling party would abuse its access to administrative resources to get out the vote and that it, and other parties, would engage in voter intimidation and vote buying.  They warned that while new electoral procedures might mitigate concerns about the casting and counting ballots, the ruling party and powerful oligarchs would wield improper influence outside the voting booth, diminishing the fairness of the vote. One political commentator assessed that the difficult economic situation experienced by many voters during this election season would make them especially susceptible to selling their vote. Briefers also discussed the complexity of Armenia’s new electoral code and the extent to which it would address past electoral violations. Significantly, this was Armenia’s first time employing electronic voter identification, multiple ballots, and a partial open list voting system that allows voters to express their preference for specific candidates. The code incorporated many recommendations from Armenian civil society, ODIHR, and other international experts and was generally assessed as a positive step forward. Concerns remained, however, about the complexity of voting procedures, voter registration policy, relatively weak campaign finance transparency provisions, and restrictions on citizen observer participation, among other issues.       Civil society activists specifically raised concerns about the overall number of citizen observers and the rules governing their access to polling stations. Armenia registered over 28,000 citizen observers in a country of less than 3 million people, prompting concerns about overcrowding at polling stations and questions about the origins of the organizations and individuals behind these observation missions. One civil society representative said that only 600 of the citizen observers were from known NGOs and that many of the rest are likely from NGOs established by political parties. Some worried that the large number of citizen observers was meant to suppress the participation of legitimate groups since the electoral code stipulates that a maximum of 15 citizen observers are allowed in a polling station at one time. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, noted that hundreds of citizen observers were foreigners registered under local NGOs. They intimated that these observers could be a vehicle for unwelcome foreign influence. One media representative characterized the content of the campaign as “the most primitive” in recent memory, while another political commentator lamented the “poverty of ideas” and “competition of personalities” on display. Several members of the media and some political party officials regretted that lack of any televised debate among candidates—only three of the nine parties and political coalitions on the ballot were willing to hold such a debate. What’s more, several journalists noted that many parties actively avoided the press and restricted most of their candidates from interacting with the media.    Before dawn on election day, two other observers and I deployed to our first assigned polling station to watch the opening procedures. At a school in downtown Yerevan, I watched as the precinct chairwoman capably organized the precinct committee that worked together to prepare the space and voting materials for the arrival of the day’s first voters. The importance of orderliness at this particular polling station became evident within the hour when presidential security arrived to prepare for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to cast his vote there. Despite this exceptional circumstance, in other ways the experience at this polling station typified the voting I observed elsewhere throughout the day. I saw non-credentialed citizens hovering watchfully—and in violation of the electoral code—outside the polling station and engaging voters—likely local party officials keeping tabs on voter participation. Inside the polling place there was some overcrowding, a malfunctioning electronic voter authentication device, and modest voter confusion about the voting procedure, which involved selecting among nine separate ballots and optionally marking a candidate preference on the reverse side. 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The precinct chairwoman carefully walked the precinct committee through the process step by step, openly acknowledging to us the difficulty of carrying out the complex procedure for the first time. The tallying took place transparently in front of us and in full view of several local observers and party proxies that stayed late into the night to oversee the count. We had the opportunity, along with our fellow observers, to ask questions of the precinct chairwoman about how she and her team were adjudicating individual ballots and counting votes. Although my observations here are anecdotal, they are consistent with the preliminary findings and conclusions of the international election observation mission that the elections “were well administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected” although the vote was “tainted by credible information about vote-buying and pressure on civil servants and employees of private companies.” The end result was a vote that suffered from “an overall lack of public confidence and trust.” (Read the full Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions.)        While Armenia’s democracy took some important strides in the procedural conduct of this election, much work remains to be done. With the vote tallying complete, Armenia now embarks on a critical period of transition to a parliamentary system that will be fully realized at the end of the President’s final term in April 2018. All political actors, but particularly the new governing coalition, must shoulder their responsibilities to ensure that this new system of governance earns the trust of the public it serves. To build this trust, Armenia would benefit from a process of political evolution that accompanies its institutional transition and procedural reforms. Specifically, Armenia’s political parties and new parliament would do well to ensure a competition of ideas replaces the all too common clashes of personalities and patronage networks on display during this election.

  • Wicker, Cardin Support Territorial Integrity of the Nation of Georgia

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Commissioner Senator Ben Cardin (MD) today introduced a Senate resolution supporting the territorial integrity of the nation of Georgia. “The Russian government has tried to undermine Georgian sovereignty and territorial integrity for far too long,” said Chairman Wicker. “It is time for the United States to make it clear once again that we do not recognize Russian land grabs within its neighbors’ borders. Russia should adhere to the cease-fire agreement it signed in 2008, withdraw its troops from Georgia, and allow international monitors and aid workers access to occupied regions.” S.Res.106 condemns the ongoing military intervention and occupation of Georgia by the Russian Federation, as well as Russia’s continuous illegal activities along the occupation line in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region (South Ossetia). The bill also urges Russia to live up to its commitments under the Helsinki Final Act, which calls upon signatories to respect the territorial integrity of each of the other participating States of the Organization of the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  “Russia’s violation of the territorial integrity of Georgia is a blatant breach of one of the guiding principles of the Helsinki Final Act by Russia. This reflects a broader pattern of disregard by Putin’s regime for transatlantic security norms and democratic values, which the United States and our allies must stand against with resolve,” said Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Georgia is a strong partner of the United States and continues to take important steps to further integrate with the transatlantic community. Georgia recently concluded an agreement on visa free travel with the European Union, for example. This significant development shows that constructive interaction is possible and welcome.” This resolution mirrors a similar measure introduced in the House (H.Res. 660) in September 2016, and demonstrates that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia enjoy bipartisan support from both chambers of Congress.

  • Helsinki Commission Condemns Pending Legal Action against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the Russian government’s request for its Supreme Court to effectively ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia from worshipping, claiming that they are members of an “extremist organization,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), issued the following statements: “It is wrong to apply flawed counterterrorism laws to those who seek to practice their faith,” said Chairman Wicker. “The Russian government is exploiting genuine threats of violent extremism to undermine what little religious freedom remains in that country. This distracts from real efforts to fight terrorism. I urge the Russian government to drop the case immediately.” “At stake in the upcoming court case is the legality and perhaps the survival of the Jehovah’s Witnesses—and in fact basic religious freedom—throughout the Russian Federation,” said Co-Chairman Smith. “If the Supreme Court of Russia declares this faith group an extremist organization, it is an ominous sign for all believers and it marks a dark, sad day for all Russians.” “As a staunch supporter of religious liberty, I am appalled by the Russian government treating an entire religious group as a threat to national security,” said Commissioner Hudson. “Religious affiliation should never be a justification for persecution.”  On March 15, the Russian Ministry of Justice filed a formal court claim to label the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia an extremist group and liquidate their national headquarters and 395 local chapters, known as “local religious organizations.” Should the Russian Supreme Court decide against the Administrative Center, 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia could face criminal prosecution for practicing their faith.  According to the Helsinki Final Act signed by all 57 participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe –  including Russia – “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.”

  • Chairman Wicker Questions SACEUR about Russian Activity, OSCE

    WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, today questioned Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, Commander, U.S. European Command / Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, about ongoing Russian activities in the European region. Chairman Wicker discussed the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) mission monitors on the ground in Ukraine, as well as the organization’s work to provide an accurate depiction of activities and compliance with international treaties. He also asked about Russian “snap” military exercises and whether or not those actions are in line with agreements currently in place. Gen. Scaparrotti stated that there is reason to be concerned about Russian activity trends in the Arctic and North Atlantic regions, as they are more aggressive and are expanding their posture in the area. He went on to recommend that the U.S. reestablish Cold War deterrence practices in the region. 

  • Chairman Wicker Highlights Importance of OSCE Mission in Stabilizing Europe

    At a March 21 U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on “U.S. Policy and Strategy in Europe,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker underlined his commitment to Ukraine’s future and highlighted the importance of the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “The more Ukraine succeeds, the better off it is for us in the United States and the West, and I think it is one of the most profoundly important issues that we face in the next year or two,” stated Senator Wicker, who also serves as a senior member of SASC. Praising the OSCE’s monitoring mission in Ukraine as providing the “international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone,” Chairman Wicker underlined the challenges facing the consensus-based OSCE in addressing the increased aggression in Europe by Russia, one of its participating States. Citing the fundamental “Helsinki principles” on which the OSCE is based, Senator Wicker pressed a panel of experts for their views on the continued value of the OSCE. Ambassador William J. Burns, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that despite the OSCE’s limitations, the organization has continuing value. “It embodies some of the core values that we share with our European allies and partners in terms of sovereignty of states and the inviolability of borders—so that the big states don’t just get to grab parts of smaller states, just because they can,” he said. Burns further called for continued U.S. investment in the OSCE. Former NATO SACEUR General Philip M. Breedlove, USAF (Ret.), suggested that the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine was a particularly valuable expression of the OSCE’s work, underlining that “…with some of the fake news that was created in the Donbass and other places as Russia invaded, even though OSCE was challenged … often, [the monitoring mission] was the source of the real news of what was actually going on on the ground.” Ambassador Alexander R. Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who also served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, stated that the OSCE remains valuable, despite the challenges inherent in Russian actions, “…because of the norms and values that it upholds – even though the Russians are violating a lot of those right now – it gives us a basis on which to challenge their misbehavior.”  Praising the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine as “very courageous,” Vershbow underlined that while the OSCE faces serious limitations, “I don’t see any alternative right now in trying to manage a conflict like in Eastern Ukraine.”

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders to Azerbaijan: Release All Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON—On the traditional holiday of Nowruz, Helsinki Commission leaders called on the Azerbaijani government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and honor its OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. “It is disappointing that President Aliyev released only a small number of political prisoners among several hundred pardons he issued prior to Nowruz,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). “OSCE participating States commit to respecting freedom of expression, including the freedom to exchange information and views without interference from public authorities. The Government of Azerbaijan should uphold this commitment by releasing opposition figures, civil rights activists, journalists, and religious leaders who are currently in jail for peacefully exercising their rights. This is particularly true in the case of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, who recently entered his fifth year in prison on politically-motivated charges.”  “President Aliyev’s pardons left dozens of human rights activists, journalists, and political dissidents languishing in prison and subject to mistreatment,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). “I call on President Aliyev to respect human rights and democracy in his country and immediately release all prisoners of conscience.” In 2016, the Government of Azerbaijan pardoned 148 inmates in the days leading up to Nowruz, including more than a dozen people identified as political prisoners by leading human rights organizations. This year, the Government issued pardons to more than 400 prisoners, but only four political prisoners were freed.

  • Chairman Wicker Meets With Russian Opposition Leader Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) met this week with Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian journalist, politician, and longtime critic of President Vladimir Putin. Last month, Kara-Murza was mysteriously and suddenly stricken ill and hospitalized in Moscow – leading many to believe that he had been poisoned for the second time in less than two years. His story was recently aired on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “Vladimir’s perseverance for an open, free, and democratic Russia is inspiring,” Chairman Wicker said. “I am proud to call him a friend, and I am confident that he will continue his work to highlight that cause from anywhere in the world.”

  • Baltic War Game Scenario Plays Out at Helsinki Commission

    On March 3, 2017, U.S. Helsinki Commission staff, joined by Congressional staff from various offices, took part in an interactive, informal simulation led by the RAND Corporation, which demonstrated RAND’s research on the shape and probable outcome of a near-term hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The meeting followed the Commission’s December 2016 briefing, Baltic Security After the Warsaw NATO Summit, where RAND expert Michael Johnson presented the research and war-game approach exploring how a hypothetical Russian invasion of the Baltics would actually play out tactically. During the event, Johnson and his team not only described their research but also demonstrated the advantages of the flexible platform of physical simulation in such a context. Attendees were able to “play out” military deployments on both sides of the board, representing both Russian and NATO forces. Using a physical model – as opposed to a digital platform – allowed attendees to pose hypothetical scenario-based questions to one another and to the RAND team, and to explore the defense outcomes on a representative military theater. The RAND simulation demonstrated that, under current NATO postures, Russian forces would be likely to be able to take the capitals of all three Baltic States in 60 hours or less. More information on the war-gaming research by Michael W. Johnson and David A. Shlapak can be found in their report, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (2016).

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Wicker Comments on Poisoning of Pro-Democracy Russian Activist, Fighting in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON–Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) today issued the following statement regarding the recent acts of aggression perpetrated by the Russian government: “In today’s Russia, there is a disturbing trend of violence that targets members of the political opposition. I am particularly concerned about Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is fighting for his life in a Moscow hospital after being poisoned.  Mr. Kara-Murza has appeared at multiple Helsinki Commission events and is a tireless advocate for restoring democratic freedoms to the Russian people. The United States should have no illusions about the nature of the Russian regime. “Meanwhile, fighting in eastern Ukraine continues to spread.  Last week, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported the heaviest fighting since combined Russian-separatist forces captured Debaltseve in January 2015.  The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has repeatedly condemned Russia’s ‘clear, gross, and uncorrected’ violations of OSCE principles with respect to Ukraine. “I stand with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in condemning the escalation of violence.  Russia should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” Vladimir Kara-Murza has a longstanding relationship with the Helsinki Commission. He first appeared at a Helsinki Commission briefing in 2011. He testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing on Russia in 2015 and briefed Commission staff before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections.

  • The Helsinki Commission, Forty Years Ago and Today

    Spencer Oliver saw the foundation of the Helsinki Commission as its first Chief of Staff, from 1976 to 1985. After subsequent service as Chief Counsel at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he served as the first Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly from October 1992 to December 2015. Spencer Oliver, a personal witness to the diplomacy that brought trans-Atlantic relations from the Cold War era to the present, recently paid a visit to the Helsinki Commission offices he first opened in 1976.  After a nine-year tenure as the Commission’s first Chief of Staff, Mr. Oliver remained involved with the Helsinki Process through his subsequent career in the Congress and at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Mr. Oliver gave a short interview on the Commission’s accomplishments over four decades, and prospects for the future. Before the establishment of the Helsinki Commission in 1976, Oliver observed, “human rights were not really a component of U.S. foreign policy. It was the Commission that made a strong effort for President Carter to make human rights a definite element in his foreign policy portfolio.” He recalled a private foreign policy strategy meeting in the fall of 1976 with then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy team. Then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Dante B. Fascell, a U.S. Representative from Florida, made a pitch about why human rights should be on Carter’s agenda.  Senator Hubert Humphrey, a very close friend and advisor to Carter, slammed his hand on the table and said, “By golly, Dante’s right! Human rights ought to be one of the principal pillars of the Carter foreign policy!” After Carter took office, Chairman Fascell and his staff, including Mr. Oliver, met with the new President’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, to discuss a plan to make human rights a U.S. foreign policy priority. They recommended that: 1) the State Department position of “Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs” be elevated to a full Bureau for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs; 2) Patricia M. Derian, a civil rights activist from Mississippi, become the first Assistant Secretary of State to head that Bureau; 3) the Assistant Secretary also become the State Department’s representative on the Helsinki Commission; and 4) the Helsinki Commission be fully integrated into inter-agency CSCE planning and the U.S. Delegation to the upcoming CSCE Review Meeting in Belgrade. The Secretary agreed and implemented these recommendations, despite resistance within the State Department. “Without Dante Fascell and Patt Derian, human rights probably would not have had the place it eventually did in American foreign policy,” Oliver observed. Oliver mentioned with sadness the passing of Derian in May 2016. Mr. Oliver explained that the Helsinki Commission was also partly responsible for creating the practice of human rights implementation, review, and accountability. At the 1977 Belgrade Review Meeting, the Helsinki Commission participants in the U.S. Delegation articulated specific cases of human rights abuses and violations of the Helsinki Accords committed by the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviet delegation shot back with criticisms of U.S. human rights issues, such as racism and poverty, to which the United States responded by investigating and reporting factually on these concerns. By publishing a human rights compliance report, the United States set a precedent for accountability on the part of all Helsinki Final Act signatory states. “The Helsinki Accords,” Oliver explained, “were not just about how the countries treat one another, but also about how countries treat their own citizens.” Noting that, today, Russia’s human rights conditions are worse than they have been since the collapse of the USSR, Mr. Oliver recalled moments that looked more promising. Accompanying Fascell to Moscow in April 1986, he was among the first American officials to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev after his consolidation of power as leader of the Soviet Union. In a four-hour meeting at the Kremlin on a Saturday morning, Mr. Oliver expected Gorbachev to find recourse to concerns raised by displaying the same defensiveness and counter-criticism as previous Soviet leaders. Instead, Gorbachev was honest about the issues his country was facing, and expressed his intention to enact economic and political reforms to open the Soviet Union up to the rest of the world. Mr. Oliver left that meeting feeling encouraged about the direction of the USSR. This progressive streak in Russian leadership was short-lived, as illustrated by Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule and denial of basic freedoms. Mr. Oliver believes that Putin’s rise to power and current popularity result from the turmoil and economic devastation of the 1990s, compounded with his tight grip on the media. “There’s no country in the world where the dictator controls the media and he isn’t running at 80 percent in the polls,” he said. In terms of U.S. policy towards Russia, Mr. Oliver believes that strengthening and widening those economic sanctions already in place would put the most pressure on the Russian government to change its ways. “When the Russians invaded Crimea, they broke every one of the ten principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” he said.  “We should let the Russians know that we don’t intend to back off until they change their ways.” In the meantime, the Commission can continue to play an important role maintaining the gains made in promoting human rights through bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy.

  • Co-Chairman Smith Expresses Support for Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Responding to reports that Russian democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, currently in a coma in a Russian hospital, was diagnosed with “acute poisoning by an undetermined substance,” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) released the following statement: “I am deeply concerned by reports that, just as in 2015, Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned in Russia. Kara-Murza has been a champion of free and fair elections in Russia, and has fought bravely to hold Russian officials accountable for human rights violations.  Vladimir and his family are in my thoughts and prayers. We all hope that he recovers quickly–and I call upon the Russian government to take all measures to investigate this incident, and to bring those responsible to justice.” Kara-Murza testified before Smith at a Helsinki Commission hearing in October 2015, several months after a suspected poisoning earlier that year. Kara-Murza was also the target of death threats before the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections.  

  • MSNBC: Senator Wicker on Russia

    Ahead of the confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee General James Mattis, Helsinki Commission Chair Senator Roger Wicker joined MSNBC's Brian Williams and Nicole Wallace to discuss U.S.-Russia relations. "Vladimir Putin is not our friend," he noted. "We would like to be friends with the Russian people. This has been an aspiration of mine as chair of the Helsinki Commission." "[Putin] is an adversary of ours," Chairman Wicker continued. "He's done mischief. Frankly, he is responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of innocent people over the past 12 months."

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