Title

Elections, Democratization, and Human Rights in Azerbaijan

Thursday, May 25, 2000
2255 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington D.C., DC 20515
United States
Members: 
Name: 
Hon. Christopher Smith
Title Text: 
Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Hon. Ben Nighthorse Campbell
Title Text: 
Co-Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Ambassador Daniel Fried
Title: 
Principal Deputy Special Advisor to the Secretary of State
Body: 
Department of State
Name: 
H.E. Hafiz Pashayev
Title: 
Ambassador
Body: 
Republic of Azerbaijan
Name: 
Abulfaz Elchibey
Title: 
Former President of Azerbaijan
Body: 
Chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front
Name: 
Nazim Imanov
Title: 
Deputy Chairman
Body: 
National Independence Party of Azerbaijan
Statement: 
Name: 
Rasul Gouliev
Title: 
Co-Chairman
Body: 
Azerbaijan Democratic Party
Statement: 
Name: 
Cathy Fitzpatrick
Title: 
Executive Director
Body: 
International League for Human Rights
Statement: 
Name: 
Isa Gambar
Title: 
Former Speaker
Body: 
Chairman of Musavat Party
Statement: 

The hearing will outline recent developments in Azerbaijani elections. Azerbaijan government officials announced Thursday that Azerbaijan’s government has accepted proposals to agree with the opposition about independent members of the Central Election Commission in advance of the November parliamentary election. The announcement was made during a hearing of the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Azerbaijan’s Ambassador Hafiz Pashayev, accompanied by several experts who arrived from Baku for the hearing, said that negotiations between the sides, with the active mediation of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), would continue about the Central Election Commission and the election law. How these electoral developments effect Azerbaijan will be outlined.

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  • Azerbaijan’s 2018 Presidential Election

    On February 5, 2018, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan announced that the country’s presidential elections—originally scheduled for the fall—instead would be moved forward to April 11, 2018.  While some pro-government commentators offered more innocuous explanations for the move—such as aiming to avoid simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in 2025—many independent analysts saw it as a ploy to disadvantage the opposition. Since Azerbaijani law requires campaigning to cease 30 days prior to the vote, candidates had very little time to rally support. This constraint, among others, contributed to the mainstream opposition boycott of the election. The vote was the first since Azerbaijan passed constitutional amendments in a widely criticized popular referendum in September 2016 that extended the president’s term from five to seven years. Having done away with term limits in another set of constitutional amendments in 2009, President Aliyev used the snap election to secure his position until 2025. The official tally gave Aliyev 86 percent of the vote—he has never won with less than 84 percent. Since signing the founding document of the OSCE, the Helsinki Final Act, in 1992, no national vote in Azerbaijan has met the OSCE’s minimum requirements for a free and fair election. Nevertheless, consistent with its commitments as an OSCE participating State, Azerbaijan invited international observers to view the election.  The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) all scrambled to assemble a robust Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Azerbaijan under difficult time constraints.  Two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff members joined the OSCE PA EOM. The article below summarizes their experience in Azerbaijan. By Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor and Jordan Warlick, Office Director Briefings Reveal Shortcomings in the Field of Candidates and Lack of Media Access From the beginning, it was clear that the Government of Azerbaijan was paying lip service to established OSCE norms for holding elections without providing voters with the necessary conditions to make an informed choice free of coercion. For example, prior to the vote, we and other short-term members of the OSCE PA and PACE observation missions met with representatives of the eight candidates who had been approved by Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission to run in the April 11 contest. During the 20-minute sessions with the candidates or their representatives, we heard almost nothing in the way of criticism of the sitting president, nor anything resembling a platform for running the country should they win. During briefings the following day, members of opposition parties, as well as representatives of civil society and the media, pointed out the gulf of approximately 1.9 million Azerbaijanis entered on voter registration lists (5.3 million), and the number of Azerbaijanis known to be of voting age (7.2 million).  Since voter registration is automatic—and all citizens who are 18 years of age by election day have the right to vote—his dramatic shortfall appeared to reflect the disenfranchisement of an astonishingly large number of Azerbaijani voters. In a separate briefing earlier, the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan addressed this concern by claiming that the voter registration lists were published on the Internet, providing a maximum level of transparency. Civil society representatives were unanimous in their view that none of the “opposition” candidates running were real candidates. The best opposition leaders had either been imprisoned or were otherwise prevented from running, they explained. Several parties that civil society groups considered to be legitimate were boycotting the elections. Among the reasons they offered for the boycott was the fact that there were no real opposition parties in Parliament, no media freedom in Azerbaijan, and many political prisoners.  One opposition group, the Musavat Party, claimed that “clone” parties—such as the “Modern” Musavat Party, headed by Hafiz Hajiyev—had been set up to mimic true opposition parties. Hajiyev seemed to confirm those suspicions on election day by revealing that he himself had voted for President Aliyev.  He also reportedly expressed his hope that President Aliyev would return the favor by appointing him prime minister. Both civil society groups and political parties raised concerns about the potential for election fraud, due to the dramatic increase in use of de-registration voter cards (DVCs), which allow a voter to come off the voter roll in one polling station and to vote in another. We were told that while only 30,000 DVCs had been used in the previous election, 150,000 had been printed for the election on April 11. The discrepancy left many suspicious that DVCs could be abused by allowing voters to vote multiple times in different polling stations. Civil society representatives also were concerned about voter access to information, noting that restrictive laws and lack of funding made it nearly impossible to educate voters about their choices. They also found the lack of election commission reform frustrating, pointing out that both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provided explicit recommendations to the Azerbaijani government following previous elections. Finally, they stated that the government’s claim that 50,000 people had been registered as observers was misleading, since many of the registered observers were state employees and could not be fair and impartial observers.  A journalist briefing the observers also drew attention to the 10 Azerbaijani journalists currently in prison, saying that the regime had “made telling the truth in Azerbaijan illegal.” Voting on April 11—Mostly by the Book On election day, 350 international observers deployed across the country. Our team was assigned to the Khatai district in eastern Baku. We watched the opening of one polling station at 7:00 a.m., observed voting in 14 different polling stations throughout the day, and witnessed the counting process at another precinct once the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. The Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs) at all 16 locations were cooperative, and we could move freely around the polling stations to observe the entirety of the voting process.  The chairwoman of the PEC where we observed the opening was willing to answer every question we had, often going into great detail. While we were unrestricted in our ability to access polling sites, the spots in the polling stations reserved for observers were often poorly situated, being either in a corner out of direct sight of the registration tables, or in one case on another floor entirely. One irregularity we consistently observed related to guaranteeing that each voter cast only one vote. Voters were supposed to have their left thumb coated in invisible ink once they were processed to vote, and all voters were to have their left thumbs checked before entering a polling station to ensure they had not voted elsewhere.  One of the many problems with this method became obvious at the first polling station we visited, where the person checking voters’ thumbs was scanning the wrong hand.  Fellow OSCE PA observers noted that some voters showed up at the wrong polling station, where they had their thumbs sprayed in invisible ink. Once they were directed to the correct voting station, they were allowed to vote regardless of the invisible ink on their hands. Citizen “Observers” in Name Only During a pre-election briefing, the chair of the Central Electoral Commission proudly claimed that 57,313 Azerbaijanis had been registered as citizen observers—a large number in a country of only 9.7 million. The statistic presumably was intended to demonstrate that the elections would be both transparent and credible.  We soon noticed that few, if any, of these citizen observers paid attention to the voting. At almost every polling station, we found one or more observers who could not tell us what party they were representing.  They often had to check their observer ID cards to before replying; when we then asked them which candidate from that party was running for president—information not available on their observer IDs—many were stumped. The Polls Close—Let the Counting … and the Shenanigans … Begin While the polls were open, election regulations appeared to be broadly respected. However, at the precinct where we observed the counting process, vote tallies were rushed and established procedures were not followed.  For example, voter registration lists were not checked to determine how many people voted in that location—a figure that should have been compared to the number of ballots in the ballot box. Unused ballots were counted and destroyed according to the established procedure, but none of this information was entered onto the protocol, the written record of votes that is supposed to be maintained throughout the vote-counting process. Instead, poll workers opened the ballot boxes almost immediately after the unused ballots were destroyed. The ballots then were dumped onto a table in the middle of the room and quickly sorted into several piles.  We were allowed to approach and circle the table, and had good views of the ballots on every part of the table. Most—easily 80 percent to 90 percent of the ballots—ended up in one of several piles for President Aliyev. Of the non-Aliyev piles, the largest was for ballots which appeared to be spoiled.  One member of the PEC explained to us that although some ballots had several names marked, they would not necessarily be considered spoiled; instead, they would be discussed later. Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, that discussion never took place. In just over an hour, the protocol was hastily composed and finalized. Under Azerbaijani law, copies should be made available to bona fide observers; however, election officials declined to provide us with a copy. We then asked if we could at least take a photo of the protocol, and were told that the precinct would have to obtain permission from higher authorities.  We were not the only international observers who noted problems with the counting process. About 50 percent of OSCE PA observers determined that the count was either “bad” or “very bad,” well above the OSCE norm of 17 percent. Election Aftermath In a press conference in Baku the day after the election, observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, OSCE PA, and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly announced that the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place “within a restrictive political environment and under laws that curtail fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections.” “Against this backdrop and in the absence of pluralism, including in the media, the election lacked genuine competition,” they said. The preliminary statement from the three groups noted that other candidates refrained from directly challenging or criticizing the incumbent, and that no distinction was made between his campaign and his official activities. Observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, a lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, including ballot box stuffing. More than half of the vote counts were assessed negatively, largely due to deliberate falsifications and an obvious disregard for procedures. At the same time, observers noted that the authorities were cooperative and international observers were able to operate freely in the pre-election period, and the election administration was well resourced and prepared the election efficiently. Announcing the conclusions, Portuguese parliamentarian Nilza de Sena said, “We have noted the positive attitude displayed by the national authorities of Azerbaijan towards international election observation, as well as the professional work of the Central Election Commission in the pre-election period. We stand ready to continue our co-operation and turn it into a joint effort to tackle the fundamental problems that a restrictive political and legal environment, which does not allow for genuine competition, poses for free elections.” The beginning of de Sena’s statement was interrupted by a pro-government journalist who surged threateningly towards the speakers, shouting angrily that the report had been prepared in advance and that its findings were all lies. It was clear that the pro-government journalist intended on disrupting the conference to distract from the content of the findings. The press conference was suspended until the atmosphere calmed and the representatives from ODIHR, OSCE PA, and PACE could deliver their statement. “A few weeks of campaigning during which candidates could present their views on television cannot make up for years during which restrictions on freedom of expression have stifled political debate,” said Margareta Kiener Nellen, Head of the Swiss delegation to the OSCE PA who led the 48-member OSCE PA delegation. “The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly will certainly continue to support all steps by the authorities that will bring the country forward on a path towards creating the open political environment necessary for truly free and fair elections.”

  • Azerbaijan’s centennial celebrations mask repressive reality

    On Monday, the Republic of Azerbaijan celebrated 100 years of independence from the Russian Empire that collapsed following the Russian Revolution of 1917. When Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence on May 28, 1918 its leaders established the first democratic republic in the Muslim world—a real, if short-lived experience in democracy. In March, President Ilham Aliyev—the country’s dictator since 2003—gave voice to national pride in the centennial yet curiously grounded it in ideals he does everything to crush. “For the first time in the Muslim world,” Aliyev said, “the Azerbaijani people demonstrated that they want to live in a free society, they want to live in a society where all the rights of all the people are protected.” The people of Azerbaijan do not live in such a free society today. Just last month, Aliyev extended his rule until 2025 thanks to a rigged presidential election that lacked a single credible challenger. Since succeeding his father, who ruled Azerbaijan for more than a decade, Aliyev has systematically coopted the country’s institutions. In recent years, he removed obstacles to remaining in power for life, extended the presidential term from five to seven years, and appointed his wife as his unelected successor. The Muslim world’s first parliamentary republic today has a rubber-stamp legislature. The government systematically uses harassment, surveillance, imprisonment, and even torture to suppress political opposition. The National Assembly lacks a single parliamentarian from a major opposition party. The story is the same in the judiciary. For years, the country’s criminal justice system has punished opposition leaders, youth activists, and independent journalists with trumped-up charges of drug use, tax evasion, and “hooliganism.” Aliyev directs retribution against his opponents from behind the scenes and subsequently basks in fawning media coverage of his occasional pardons of some political prisoners. Despite these periodic releases, Azerbaijani civil society activists report that more than 140 prisoners of conscience are behind bars today. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), nearly a dozen of those jailed are journalists.  Aliyev’s government has taken particular aim at the free press to evade accountability. Having already harassed, coopted, or shuttered independent print, radio and TV outlets, in 2017 the government went a step further and blocked virtually all remaining major sources of independent online news. In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, RSF ranked Azerbaijan 163rd out of 180 countries—just one spot above Iran. In September 2017, I introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that urges the Trump administration to raise and prioritize these human rights and democracy concerns in our bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan. The resolution calls on the administration to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Azerbaijani officials responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. It also recommends visa bans against violators of religious freedom, as provided for in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The government of Azerbaijan wants us to overlook its human rights record because it offers itself as a security partner for the United States. It is willing to help counter transnational threats such as terrorism and supports the NATO mission in Afghanistan through troop contributions and logistical assistance. Its oil and gas pipelines that transport energy from Azerbaijan’s Caspian shores westward also further the U.S. goal of limiting Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.  Yet by failing to respect the basic rights and dignity of its people, Azerbaijan becomes a long-term security liability. Younger generations of Azerbaijanis have no living memory of the nation’s nearly 70 years as a Soviet socialist republic and have higher hopes and expectations for their lives. The same week that Azerbaijan held its ersatz presidential election, a youth-led, non-violent protest movement was emerging in neighboring Armenia to bring down a prime minister that embodied Armenia’s entrenched political elite. It is unlikely that Azerbaijan can hold back the tide that brought tens of thousands into the streets in Armenia in 2018 and to join Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003. As Azerbaijan marks 100 years of independence, the U.S. must urge the government to rediscover the state’s original democratic roots and reestablish it for a new century, rooted in respect for human rights and liberty. Whether or not the government seizes this opportunity, the United States ought to stand in solidarity with the people of Azerbaijan, whose desires for dignity and justice will not be indefinitely denied.   Smith represents New Jersey’s 4th District and is chairman of the Foreign Affairs' Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organization Subcommittee.

  • Helsinki Commission Observation of Russia’s Presidential Elections

    Presidential elections were held in the Russian Federation on March 18, 2018; incumbent Vladimir Putin took about 76 percent of the votes cast among eight candidates, with a voter turnout topping 67 percent. These lopsided results were unsurprising in a country where the current regime has steadily and systematically decimated the democratic norms that gained a foothold in the 1990s. Nevertheless, international observers traveled to Russia under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to provide an authoritative assessment of electoral conditions and to encourage Russia to adhere to its OSCE commitments. The Russian Federation, along with the 56 other OSCE participating States, has committed to hold free and fair elections, as well as to invite international observers. An OSCE presence also indicated an ongoing willingness to support democratic development by engaging not just the government but all players in Russian society. Despite a variety of official efforts to suppress critics and marginalize opposition, independent and democratic forces remain active in Russia. Based on an December 21, 2017, recommendation to deploy a comprehensive OSCE observation mission for the Russian election, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed a Moscow-based core team of 13 experts supplemented by 60 long-term observers deployed throughout the country. On election day, 481 observers from 44 countries visited more than 2,000 polling stations. The election day deployment included a 101-member delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), including two Helsinki Commission staffers who were the only U.S. government officials to observe the elections. They observed in Istra and other towns northwest of Moscow and in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, and Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor

  • Democracy Deferred

    After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission examined these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.  In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Review State of Fundamental Freedoms in Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DEMOCRACY DEFERRED: THE STATE OF ELECTIONS AND FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS IN AZERBAIJAN Wednesday, May 9, 2018 10:30 a.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission After amending the constitution to extend the length of a presidential term and abolish term limits altogether, Azerbaijan’s ruler since 2003, Ilham Aliyev, recently prevailed in elections that secured his position until 2025. International election observers described this vote as “lack[ing] genuine competition” given the country’s “restrictive political environment and…legal framework that curtails fundamental rights and freedoms.” The presidential election took place after a year of growing concern over the state of fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. In March 2017, the government blocked nearly all remaining major sources of independent news; it continues to harass and detain independent journalists. That same month, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative suspended Azerbaijan’s membership over the government’s onerous regulation of civil society organizations. In December 2017, the Council of Europe began exploring unprecedented punitive measures against Azerbaijan for flouting a European Court of Human Rights ruling ordering the release of former presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, jailed since 2013.  As Azerbaijan approaches 100 years of independence in May, the Helsinki Commission will examine these recent developments and the country’s implementation of its freely undertaken human rights and democracy commitments.   The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Audrey L. Altstadt, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts – Amherst Emin Milli, Director, Meydan TV Maran Turner, Executive Director, Freedom Now Additional panelists may be added. In September 2017, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) introduced H.Res.537 calling on the U.S. Government to prioritize democracy and human rights in its engagement with Baku and examine the applicability of targeted sanctions against the most egregious violators of basic rights.

  • How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

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  • Boris Nemtsov: 1959-2015

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  • Nemtsov Murder Investigation Under Scrutiny at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: BORIS NEMTSOV, 1959-2015: SEEKING JUSTICE, SECURING HIS LEGACY Wednesday, February 28, 2018 3:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 138 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce022818 Three years after Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge in front of the Kremlin, and one day after the unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Helsinki Commission will examine the outcome of the official investigation and trial into his assassination. An officer of the Russian Interior Ministry with links to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was convicted of pulling the trigger; four others were sentenced as perpetrators. Gen. Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee has declared the case “solved.” Yet, three years on, the organizers and masterminds of the Nemtsov assassination remain unidentified and at large. The United States has sanctioned both Kadyrov and Bastrykin for gross human rights violations under the Magnitsky Act. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has appointed a Special Rapporteur to assess the status of the case and report on its shortcomings. At this hearing, the Commission will consider whether similar oversight is needed within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This hearing will also examine the particular importance of Boris Nemtsov’s legacy of public and competitive politics as Russia looks to Vladimir Putin’s fourth official term in office. Witnesses scheduled to testify include: Zhanna Nemtsova, Daughter of Boris Nemtsov Vadim Prokhorov, Lawyer for the Nemtsov family Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chairman, Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom

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    Kyrgyzstan’s presidential elections on October 15, 2017, provided for an orderly transfer of power despite curbs on political opposition and media freedom in the run-up to the election, as well as allegations of administrative pressure on voters, vote-buying, and other irregularities during the electoral process. The OSCE Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions stated that the elections “contributed to the strengthening of democratic in-stitutions by providing for an orderly transfer of power from one elected president to another. The election was competitive, as voters had a wide choice and candidates could, in general, campaign freely, although cases of misuse of public resources, pressure on voters, and vote-buying remain a concern….While televised debates contributed to greater pluralism, self-censorship and limited editorial coverage of the campaign signaled deficiencies in media freedom.” Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: U.S. Helsinki Staff

  • Religious Freedom Violations in OSCE Region Topic of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM VIOLATIONS IN THE OSCE REGION: VICTIMS AND PERPETRATORS Wednesday, November 15, 2017 2:00PM Russell Senate Office Building  Room 385 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission All 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have committed to recognize and respect religious freedom as a fundamental freedom. However, some OSCE countries are among the worst perpetrators of religious freedom violations in the world. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are currently designated by the U.S. State Department as “Countries of Particular Concern,” a designation required by U.S. law for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that Russia also be designated as a CPC and includes Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey in its list of “Tier 2” countries that “require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by governments.” This briefing will happen just two days after CPC designations are due on November 13 (U.S. law requires the State Department to issue new CPC designations no later than 90 days after releasing its annual International Religious Freedom report). Panelists – including a representative from a frequently targeted religious group – will discuss religious freedom victims, violators, and violations in the OSCE region. The conversation will include recommendations for what governments and the OSCE institutionally should do to prevent and respond to violations. The intersection between security, a chronic justification for violations, and religious freedom will be featured. The following panelists will offer brief remarks, followed by questions: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State Dr. Daniel Mark, Chairman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Dr. Kathleen Collins, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, and Scholar, Under Caesar’s Sword (a global three-year research project investigating how Christian communities respond when their religious freedom is severely violated) Philip Brumley, General Counsel, Jehovah’s Witnesses  

  • Belarus: 25 Years after Signing the Helsinki Final Act

    In July 2017, Belarus hosted the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Annual Session.  However, two decades ago, the OSCE PA refused to even recognize the legitimacy of Belarus’ putative elected representatives.  What has changed? Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, and Michael Newton, Intern

  • Organization Profile: Forum 18

    The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 recognizes religious freedom as a “human right and fundamental freedom.” Participating States of the OSCE “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 Helsinki Commission promotes and defends the religious freedom of people in the OSCE region, particularly prioritizing the cases of individuals and communities whose religious freedom has been violated and laws and policies that conflict with the Helsinki Final Act. Forum 18 is a news organization dedicated to reporting on violations of religious freedom in several OSCE participating States, including in Central Asia and the South Caucasus; Russia; Belarus; and Turkey. Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Nathaniel Hurd interviewed the editors of Forum 18 by email to learn more about their work and views about religious freedom in the countries they cover. According to the editors, “The mission of Forum 18 is to provide original, reliable and detailed monitoring and analyses of threats and actions against the freedom of religion and belief of all people, whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism), in an objective, truthful and timely manner.” Violations of Religious Freedom in the Former Soviet Union Forum 18 focuses its work on the states of the former Soviet Union, which the organization considers the worst violators of freedom of religion in the region. “The worst violators of freedom of religion and belief in the territories Forum 18 monitors – governments – target anyone and any religious community they see as actually or potentially outside their control,” the editors noted. “Azerbaijan, for example, claims to be ‘an example of tolerance’ yet has repeatedly closed Sunni Muslim mosques. A 2014 police list of banned books [in Azerbaijan] includes Islamic texts by theologian Said Nursi, Jehovah's Witness texts, and the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible used by Christians and Jews. Police have long confiscated these texts and others during raids on Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, and Baptist private homes and meetings of people exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. There are many prisoners of conscience, especially human rights defenders and journalists. On July 3, 2017 Shia Imam Sardar Babayev was jailed for three years for leading mosque prayers because he was educated abroad.” “The reality of freedom of religion and belief violations by governments in these territories and the necessity of documenting them is why we were founded,” noting that they work to protect the freedom of everyone whatever their religion or belief (including atheism and agnosticism). “Our founders and staff were and are totally convinced as a matter of Christian conviction that everyone with no exceptions – including people who would completely disagree with the Christian faith – must…be able to freely exercise the freedom of religion and belief, and related rights such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly…Our personal experience in the territories we monitor and other states (such as the former East Germany), as well as our own convictions, make us committed to Forum 18’s work of monitoring and analyzing governments’ violations of their international human rights law obligations.” In addition to its work on Azerbaijan, Forum 18 is also focusing on Uzbekistan’s raids, fines, jailing, and torture of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the increasing number of prisoners of conscience being jailed in Kazakhstan for exercising freedom of religion and belief, including alleged adherents of Muslim missionary movement Tabligh Jamaat, Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov, and Seventh-day Adventist Yklas Kabduakasov. Kazakhstan has also banned all mosques outside state control; expressions of non-Sunni Hanafi Islam; and discussion of faith by people without state permission, or not using state-approved texts, or outside state-approved locations. Kazakhstan’s persecution of atheist writer Aleksandr Kharlamov is also of concern. In Russia, Forum 18 actively monitors the government’s “anti-extremist” nationwide ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as “anti-extremist” prosecutions, fines and jailing of Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, including cases like that of Muslim Yevgeny Kim, who in in June 2017 was sentenced to three years in prison. Forum 18 is also concerned about nationwide religious literature bans, with the possessors of such texts being liable to criminal prosecution. Accuracy and Objectivity Are Key “Our overriding editorial objective is to as accurately as possible present the truth of a situation, both implicitly and explicitly,” note the editors of Forum 18. “It is vitally important that we cross-check information with local people, including religious communities and other human rights defender organizations where these exist. It is equally vital that in our published articles we carry the views of local people and human rights organizations – this enables local people to make their views on human rights violations known.” “Similarly, we always seek the comments of relevant officials, such as public prosecutors, police and secret police officials, within the country being written about,” they continued. “Every article we publish includes information on all the sources used, even if some have to be described as remaining anonymous for fear of state reprisals.” According to Forum 18, the organization’s efforts have resulted in “significant respect and usage among victims of human rights violations, human rights defenders (including journalists), diplomats, intergovernmental organizations, academics and others.” “Accuracy is in itself an effective advocacy for human rights by countering with accurate information the false information presented by repressive regimes, who often seek to conceal their human rights violations,” the editors said. The Worst of the Worst? When asked which of the countries Forum 18 monitors should be considered the “worst of the worst,” the editors noted that developing such a ranking is difficult. “Territories where serious…violations take place are places where people have a strong incentive to not discuss the state’s violations, for fear of state reprisals, making any reliable ranking of territories difficult,” they observed. “Because in all the territories Forum 18 monitors governments violate individuals’, informal groups’, and communities’ freedom of religion and belief apparently as part of a declared or undeclared policies of increasing state control of society – even in states such as Georgia in the south Caucasus – we think it is best for readers to judge for themselves which countries are the worst violators of freedom of religion or belief at any one time,” the editors added. Similarly, Forum 18 finds it difficult to rank the individual cases monitored by the organization. “In our view, each one of these cases where a government has violated an individual’s or group’s freedom of religion and belief can fairly be described as compelling. We think this view is reinforced by the individual cases being part of a much broader pattern of intentional, systemic government violations of the human rights of everyone they rule.” One case Forum 18 has followed close is that of Protestant Pastor Bakhrom Kholmatov in Tajikistan, who was jailed for three years for allegedly “singing extremist songs in church and so inciting ‘religious hatred.’” The regime has threatened family members, friends, and church members with reprisals if they reveal any details of the case, trial, or jailing. Cooperation is Key Cooperation is vital to the Forum 18 approach. “Cooperation in defense of human rights for all is both right in principle and more effective than competition,” the Forum 18 editors argue. “It is important to cooperate with others – including in our case providing accurate information – to help responses to violations of freedom of religion and belief and interlinked other fundamental freedoms to be as effective as possible. Our work with victims of freedom of religion and belief violations and other human rights defenders convinces us that this approach is the right one to follow.” Twitter: @Forum_18 Facebook: @Forum18NewsService

  • Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-Karabakh

    Last year, the worst outbreak of violence over Nagorno-Karabakh in more than two decades erupted as the so-called Four Day War in April 2016 claimed approximately 200 lives and demonstrated that the conflict is anything but “frozen.” The Line of Contact separating the parties sees numerous ceasefire violations annually and each one risks igniting a larger-scale conflict that could draw in major regional players, such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Since 1997, the United States, France, and Russia have co-chaired the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the principal international mechanism aimed at reaching a negotiated solution to the conflict. The U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted two former United States Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group process as well as a renowned, independent expert on the conflict to assess the current state of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Group format, and the prospects for achieving a lasting peace. Magdalena Grono, an expert from the International Crisis Group, underlined the serious potential for further flare-ups in the fighting, which could have severe humanitarian impacts and draw in regional powers. She contextualized the recent clashes and assessed that the conflict was among the most deadly, intractable and risky in Europe. According to her assessment, the conflict is beset by two worrisome trends: deteriorating confidence between the parties and in the settlement process itself as well as increasingly dangerous clashes due in part to the deployment of heavier weaponry. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh discussed the role of the Minsk Group in the settlement process while voicing his concern that positions have hardened on all sides. Growing tensions have created risks not only of intentional but also accidental conflict, he said. The Ambassador outlined the limits of the Minsk Group’s mandate, underscoring that it is charged with helping the sides find a solution rather than imposing one from the outside. He lamented that the recent meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents apparently failed to achieve agreement on certain confidence and security building measures (CSBMs). In order to stem further escalation, he noted the importance of implementing CSBMs and establishing a direct communication channel between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. He concluded by calling on the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan to demonstrate the political will to work toward a resolution, for instance by preparing their populations for the compromises that will inevitably be required to achieve peace. Ambassador James Warlick asserted that while this was a time of significant danger, peace remains within reach. He urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to engage together on principles that they know can lead to peace, saying that meetings without progress undermine confidence in negotiation efforts. Citing past negotiations, Ambassador Warlick laid out six elements that will have to be part of any settlement if it is to endure.  The Ambassador concluded by underlining that it is up to the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to take the first step toward peace by considering measures, even unilateral ones, that will demonstrate their stated commitment to making progress, reducing tensions, and improving the atmosphere for negotiations. 

  • Kyrgyzstan election: A historic vote, but is it fair?

    For the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan, an elected president is due to peacefully hand over power after elections take place on Sunday. But critics say the political environment in Central Asia's "island of democracy" is deteriorating. Here's a look at the issues there - and who's likely to come out on top. Elections in Central Asia are usually easily predictable - the incumbent or the ruling party's candidate wins the vote with an overwhelming majority. But the vote in Kyrgyzstan offers a real competition and choice. Nearly 60 people applied to run in the race, 13 of whom were registered to stand. Two later dropped out. The incumbent, President Almazbek Atambayev, must leave office after six years. Under the Kyrgyz constitution, he may only serve one term. In neighbouring states, laws have often been changed to allow the incumbent to run again but this did not happen in Kyrgyzstan. President Atambayev also promised not to go for the prime minister's job in order to stay in power. Although one of the main candidates - Sooronbay Jeenbekov - is from the president's party, he is not guaranteed to win the vote. He faces a strong opponent - Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and a former prime minister. Some candidates made the unusual move of endorsing their opponents after the campaign started. Experts say that they went through all the trouble of getting into the race in order to increase their political influence. They try to build a greater support base, which they use to negotiate a favourable deal with stronger candidates before pulling out of the race. Politicians can easily change sides, because it's not ideology or a political platform but their own personality that they use to appeal to the voters. Observers say that over the last couple of years the political climate in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating. The Helsinki Commission wrote that "the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government's treatment of political opposition, civil society and human rights defenders". President Atambayev has demonstrated increasing intolerance to criticism. The Sentyabr TV station which opposed him was closed last year for extremism, and activists say that there were blatant procedural violations during the trial. Several popular independent media outlets were sued and heavily fined for insulting the president. The government also tried to intimidate critics on social media. Security services identified Facebook users who criticised the president, and gave them warnings. Several political opponents of President Atambayev have also been sent to prison. Earlier this year, leaders of the opposition People's Parliament movement were jailed for allegedly plotting a coup. Omurbek Tekebayev, a former ally of President Atambayev who turned into a prominent critic, was sentenced to eight years in prison for corruption and fraud and subsequently barred from running for the presidency. Experts saw this case as politically motivated. The atmosphere got particularly tense following a major diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It started last month after a meeting between the president of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Mr Babanov. In an unusually harsh speech, President Atambayev accused his Kazakh counterpart of interfering in Kyrgyzstan's affairs, and warned them of worse to come. "I will speak differently if our neighbours don't come to their senses," he said. Since the beginning of the campaign, there have been numerous reports of violations by various candidates. There have been reports of people going house-to-house with a list of names and addresses and offering money to citizens if they vote for Mr Jeenbekov. Mr Babanov was also accused of vote-buying, and the Central Elections Committee issued him three warnings for violation of campaign rules. The Babanov team complained that security services were putting pressure on their candidate by recording their meetings and conversations and arresting his supporters. An influential MP, Kanatbek Isakov, was detained and charged with an attempt to organise a coup. Security services denied any political motive for the arrest, but Mr Babanov said that Mr Isakov had been arrested because he endorsed him. Despite all this, many voters feel encouraged by the fact that there are several strong candidates. In their view, this will ensure that the outcome is not rigged. "Our politicians know that the people will rise if there are serious violations, so they won't go into that," said one voter in the second city, Osh. Kyrgyzstan has experienced two major uprisings that ousted presidents in the past. And in both cases, rigged elections fuelled the protest mood.    

  • Systematic Attacks on Journalists in Russia and Other Post-Soviet States

    Representative Steve Chabot, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, opened the briefing with a statement highlighting the importance of a free and independent press in Russia and Eastern Europe, saying that it was more important now than ever to counter an increasingly bold Vladimir Putin and the spread of Kremlin-backed media. The Congressman affirmed support for the Broadcasting Board of Governors and how their work helps foster a greater independent press in the region. Jordan Warlick, U.S. Helsinki Commission staffer responsible for freedom of the media, introduced the panelists: Thomas Kent, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Amanda Bennett, Director of Voice of America (VOA); Nina Ognianova, Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Karina Orlova, Washington correspondent for Echo of Moscow. Thomas Kent summarized the work and reach of RFE/RL in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He outlined the pressures that RFE/RL journalists face in the region covering the issues that matter to local people. Kent described the plight of several RFE/RL journalists who have been either attacked or detained due to their work, including Mykola Semena in Russian-occupied Crimea and Mykhailo Tkach in Ukraine. He added that reporting on corruption is often the most likely cause for attacks on journalists and that social media has expanded the reach of journalists work in the region. Amanda Bennett discussed the work of Voice of America in the region and its efforts to expand freedom of speech in the region. She outlined the vast audience of VOA broadcasting and emphasized that the Russian government has directly attacked VOA reporters. Bennett stated that VOA’s mission in Russia and the former Soviet Union, as with other regions around the world, was not only to provide high quality content to the audience and journalists alike, but also help foster an independent media, free from harassment. Representative Adam Schiff, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, gave remarks about the importance of an independent media in the former Soviet Union. He noted that journalists are often the first to suffer a backlash from authorities, as they investigate and report on issues that regimes do not want to draw attention to. Representative Schiff told the panel that he, along with then-Congressman Mike Pence, reestablished the House Freedom of the Press Caucus not long before the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. He thanked the panelists for the work to not only highlight attacks and harassment against journalists in the region, but also their efforts to protect and assist them and to further press freedom. Nina Ognianova highlighted numerous cases that the Committee to Protect Journalists had worked on in recent months with specific discussion of the situations in Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan. Ognianova detailed the case of the harassment and temporary flight of Russian reporter Elena Milashina following her work on the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. Also listed were the cases of Belarus-born journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car bombing in Kyiv in July 2016, the abduction and detention of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli for his investigation of President Ilham Aliyev’s assets in Georgia, and the concerning claims of slander against journalists by the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Providing the audience with a firsthand perspective, Karina Orlova described her decision to flee Russia due to her work as a journalist. Karina spoke of how her Radio Echo of Moscow talk show garnered unfavorable attention from Chechens, following discussion of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on 7 January, 2015, and the magazine’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Ramzan Kadyrov directly threatened her station and her editor, Alexey Venediktov, right after the show. She detailed threatening phone calls from self-described Chechens her that labeled her as an enemy of the state. Karina raised other incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists, such as the attack on Oleg Kashin, which was directly ordered by the Governor of Pskov, and a lack of action to bring the perpetrators to justice. She also spoke of censorship by the Russian authorities, particularly towards any journalists that refer to the annexation of Crimea. Karina emphasized that sanctions against the Russian state and elite are working, despite claims to the contrary. Although some journalists are unfortunately forced to self-censor due to safety concerns, Karina refuses to do so herself.

  • Helsinki Commission Advisor Observes German Elections in Berlin

    By Scott Rauland, State Department Senior Advisor On September 24, 2017, over 50 parliamentarians and staff from 25 countries fanned out across Germany as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) team that was invited to observe German parliamentary elections.  This marked the first time that an OSCE PA Election Observation Mission (EOM) has deployed to Germany.  Although the OSCE PA does not have the resources to observe every election, the organization tries to be present in major elections that are politically important. I was pleased to represent the U.S. in that effort as the State Department’s Senior Advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Members of the OSCE PA team were briefed by German government officials, representatives of the major political parties, political analysts, and other experts in the two days leading up to the election.  On election day, members of the OSCE PA observation mission visited over 300 polling stations in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Duesseldorf, just a fraction of the more than 90,000 polling stations located in Germany in 299 constituencies.  In a press conference held on September 25, George Tsereteli, the Special Coordinator for the EOM, noted, “Germany has once again demonstrated that its commitment to democracy is undiminished. Highly competitive and well-run, these elections were an opportunity for voters to express their choice in a process that benefits from and is based on broad trust among society.”  One sign of that trust was the almost complete absence of election observers from any of the participating political parties at the 14 polling stations my team visited in Berlin – all six major parties seemed to be relatively confident that the elections were being administered fairly. While the OSCE PA team was in Germany at the invitation of the German government, and although the public has the right to observe the voting process in Germany, my observation team was denied access to one of the polling stations we had hoped to observe.  That incident was thankfully the exception amongst the 300 polling stations visited by the OSCE PA EOM, but was a reminder that efforts to promote transparency in the conduct of elections must be ongoing, even in countries where the commitment to democratic elections is high. With more than 4,800 candidates running, and numerous strong political parties, Germany’s 61 million voters had a wide range of options to choose from. Women represented slightly less than 30 per cent of candidates, but played a prominent role in leadership positions in parties’ campaigns. “This was the first time we’ve deployed a full observer team to Germany, and the welcome of our mission by all German officials and political parties that we met is a positive signal that the country is ready to pay continued attention to democratic processes,” said EOM Head of Mission Isabel Santos. “Changing political cultures in many countries and new challenges such as cyber attacks mean that we must all dedicate time and effort to preserving democratic systems.”

  • Helsinki Commission, House Freedom of the Press Caucus to Hold Briefing on Attacks on Journalists in Russia, Post-Soviet States

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the House Freedom of the Press Caucus today announced the following joint briefing: “SYSTEMATIC ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS IN RUSSIA AND OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES” Wednesday, October 4, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center SVC-208 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is an essential pillar of democracy, keeping governments accountable and citizens informed. Autocratic regimes seek to intimidate and silence the press by systematically targeting journalists. A muzzled independent media is powerless to prevent the domination of the state-driven news narrative and public misinformation. Today, journalists in Russia and post-Soviet states risk intimidation, harassment, arrest, and even murder for their work. Those who criticize the government or investigate sensitive issues like corruption do so at their own peril. More often than not, cases remain unresolved and victims and families do not see justice. This briefing will address key questions regarding journalists in Russia and other post-Soviet states: their important role and impact; concerns over their rights, safety, and protection; and future support and promotion of media freedom in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) region. Opening remarks will be provided by the Co-Chairs of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) The following panelists are scheduled to speak: Thomas Kent, President and CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Amanda Bennett, Director, Voice of America Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists Karina Orlova, Washington DC Correspondent, Echo of Moscow

  • Kyrgyzstan: Prospects for Democratic Change and the Upcoming Presidential Election

    Two weeks before the upcoming presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan—potentially the first peaceful transfer of power under regular circumstances in the region—campaigning is in full swing. On October 15, Kyrgyz citizens will participate in democratic elections, though serious concerns remain.   This briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Everett Price. In his remarks, he positively noted the current president’s decision to respect his constitutionally-determined term limit and hold regularly-scheduled elections for his successor. He cautioned, however, that the country’s weak political institutions and the ruling party’s abuse of administrative resources could undermine the fairness of the vote. He also observed that the disqualification of certain opposition candidates and restrictions on journalists have adversely affected the election climate. Dr. Erica Marat from the National Defense University discussed the political situation on the ground in Kyrgyzstan and reviewed the political background of the two main candidates, Atambayev loyalist Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Kyrgyz billionaire, Ömürbek Babanov. Anthony Bowyer, Senior Program Manager for Europe and Eurasia at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), reviewed ongoing electoral monitoring efforts in Kyrgyzstan, underscoring the importance of these elections for the region and U.S. interests therein. Finally, Freedom House representative Marc Behrendt offered his insight on Kyrgyzstan’s enduring interethnic tensions and poor human rights record, offering a sobering reminder of the work that remains to be done in order for the Kyrgyz Republic to become a full-fledged democracy. During the briefing, questions pertaining to Russian influence over the country and its politics, as well as other regional, geo-political considerations were also highlighted as part of a general discussion of Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development and the trajectory of Central Asian politics.

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