Title

Georgia’s Parliamentary Election: How free and fair has the Campaign been, and how should the U.S. Government Respond?

Thursday, September 20, 2012
12:30pm
2255 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C., DC 20024
United States
Official Transcript: 
Members: 
Name: 
Hon. Christopher Smith
Title Text: 
Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Statement: 
Name: 
Hon. Steve Cohen
Title Text: 
Commissioner
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Hon. Benjamin Cardin
Title Text: 
Co-Chairman
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Thomas Melia
Title: 
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
Body: 
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor/Department of State
Statement: 
Name: 
Archil Gegeshidze
Title: 
Senior Fellow
Body: 
Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies
Name: 
Ariel Cohen
Title: 
Senior Research Fellow
Body: 
Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy
Statement: 
Name: 
Mamuka Tsereteli
Title: 
Professor
Body: 
Center for Black Sea-Caspian Studies at School of International Service at American University

Georgia’s upcoming election will be a critical moment in the country’s development of democratic governance. An energized opposition coalition has posed the first serious challenge in years to the ruling party. The opposition has accused the government of harassment and skewing the playing field, while the government has denied these allegations and charged opposition with violating campaign laws. The atmosphere of the campaign and contending claims has been unusually heated, with both sides employing lobbyists to make their case in foreign capitals, especially Washington.

The focus of the hearing will be on the election’s fairness during the run-up to the vote and vote count, human rights issues connected to the election, and U.S. policy in response. The administration witness, Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Melia, has just returned from leading an interagency delegation to Georgia to assess the pre-election environment.

Relevant issues: 
Relevant countries: 
Leadership: 
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  • OSCE Representative Cites Threats to Free Media

    Mr. HASTINGS of Florida. Madam Speaker, as Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I wish to draw the attention of colleagues to the timely and informative testimony of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, who testified earlier today at a Commission hearing on ``Threats to Free Media in the OSCE Region.'' She focused on various threats to journalists and independent media outlets, including physical attacks and adoption of repressive laws on the media as well as other forms of harassment. Most troubling is the murder of journalists because of their professional activities. According to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 52 journalists have been killed in Russia alone since 1992, many reporting on corruption or human rights violations. Ms. Mijatovic also flagged particular concern over existing and emerging threats to freedom on the Internet and other communications technologies. She also voiced concern over the use of criminal statutes on defamation, libel and insult which are used by some OSCE countries to silence journalists or force the closure of media outlets. With respect to the situation in the United States, she urged adoption of a shield law at the federal level to create a journalists' privilege for federal proceedings. Such a provision was part of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009, which passed the House early in the Congress and awaits consideration by the full Senate.  As one who has worked to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the 56 countries that comprise the OSCE, I share many of the concerns raised by Ms. Mijatovic in her testimony and commend them to colleagues.    ORGANIZATION FOR SECURITY AND CO-OPERATION IN EUROPE REPRESENTATIVE ON FREEDOM OF THE MEDIA  (By Dunja Mijatovic) [From the Helsinki Commission Hearing on the Threats to Free Media in the OSCE Region, June 9, 2010]  Dear Chairmen, Distinguished Commissioners, Ladies and Gentlemen,  I am honored to be invited to this hearing before the Helsinki Commission at the very beginning of my mandate. I feel privileged to speak before you today. The Helsinki Commission's welcoming statement issued on the day of my appointment is a clear manifestation of the strong support you continuously show toward the work of this unique Office, and I assure you, distinguished Commissioners, that this fact is very much appreciated.  It will be three months tomorrow since I took office as the new Representative on Freedom of the Media to the OSCE. Even though three months may sound short, it has proved more than enough to gain a deep insight, and unfortunately also voice concerns, about the decline of media freedom in many of the 56 countries that today constitute the OSCE.  Although the challenges and dangers that journalists face in our countries may differ from region to region, one sad fact holds true everywhere: The freedom to express ourselves is questioned and challenged from many sides. Some of these challenges are blatant, others concealed; some of them follow traditional methods to silence free speech and critical voices, some use new technologies to suppress and restrict the free flow of information and media pluralism; and far too many result in physical harassment and deadly violence against journalists.  Today, I would like to draw your attention to the constant struggle of so many institutions and NGOs around the world, including your Commission and my Institution, to combat and ultimately stop violence against journalists. I would also like to address several other challenges that I want to place in the center of my professional activities, each of which I intend to improve by relentlessly using the public voice I am now given at the OSCE.  Let me first start with violence against journalists.  Ever since it was created in 1997, my Office has been raising attention to the alarming increase of violent attacks against journalists. Not only is the high number of violent attacks against journalists a cause for concern. Equally alarming is the authorities' far too-prevalent willingness to classify many of the murders as unrelated to the journalists' professional activities. We also see that more and more often critical speech is being punished with questionable charges brought against the journalists.  Impunity of perpetrators and the responsible authorities' passivity in investigating and failing to publicly condemn these murders breeds further violence. There are numerous cases that need to be raised over and over again. We need to continue to loudly repeat the names of these courageous individuals who lost their lives for the words they have written. I am sorry for all those whom I will not mention today; but the names that follow are on the list that I call ``the Hall of Shame'' of those governments that still have not brought to justice the perpetrators of the horrifying murders that happened in their countries.  The most recent murder of a journalist in the OSCE area is the one of the Kyrgyz opposition journalist Gennady Pavlyuk (Bely Parokhod), who was killed in Kazakhstan in December last year. It gives me hope that the new Interim Government of Kyrgyzstan has announced to save no efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice, as well as those involved in the 2007 murder of Alisher Saipov (Siyosat).  The Russian Federation remains the OSCE participating State where most members of the media are killed. Paul Klebnikov (Forbes, Russia), Anna Politkovskaya (Novaya Gazeta), Anastasia Baburova (Novaya Gazeta), are the most reported about, but let us also remember Magomed Yevloyev (Ingushetiya), Ivan Safronov (Kommersant), Yury Shchekochikhin (Novaya Gazeta), Igor Domnikov (Novaya Gazeta), Vladislav Listyev (ORT), Dmitry Kholodov (Moskovsky Komsomolets) and many others.  We also should not forget the brutal murders of the following journalists, some remain unresolved today:  Hrant Dink (Agos) Armenian Turkish journalist was shot in 2007 in Turkey.  Elmar Huseynov (Monitor) was murdered in 2005 in Azerbaijan.  Georgy Gongadze (Ukrainskaya Pravda) was killed in 2000 in Ukraine.  In Serbia, Slavko Curuvija (Dnevni Telegrat) was murdered in 1999, and Milan Pantic (Vecernje Novosti) was killed in 2001.  In Montenegro, Dusko Jovanovic (Dan), was shot dead in 2004.  In Croatia, Ivo Pukanic (Nacional) and his marketing director, Niko Franjic, were killed by a car bomb in 2008.  Violence against journalists equals violence against society and democracy, and it should be met with harsh condemnation and prosecution of the perpetrators. There can be no improvement without an overhaul of the very apparatus of prosecution and law enforcement, starting from the very top of the Government pyramid.  There is no true press freedom as long as journalists have to fear for their lives while performing their work. The OSCE commitments oblige all participating States to provide safety to these journalists, and I will do my best to pursue this goal with the mandate I am given and with all professional tools at my disposal.  We also observe another very worrying trend; more and more often the imprisonment of critical journalists based on political motivations including fabricated charges. Let me mention some cases:  In Azerbaijan, the prominent editor-in-chief of the now-closed independent Russian-language weekly, Realny Azerbaijan, and Azeri-language daily, Gundalik Azarbaycan, Eynulla Fatullayev was sentenced in 2007 to a cumulative eight-and-a-half years in prison on charges on defamation, incitement of ethnic hatred, terrorism and tax evasion. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found Azerbaijan in violation of Article 10 and Article 6, paragraphs 1 and 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, so there is only one possible outcome--Fatullayev should be immediately released.  In Kazakhstan, Ramazan Yesergepov, the editor of Alma-Ata Info, is serving a three-year prison term on charges of disclosing state secrets.  Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, bloggers from Azerbaijan, are serving two and a half years and two years in prison respectively since July 2009 on charges of hooliganism and infliction of light bodily injuries.  In Uzbekistan, two independent journalists, Dilmurod Saiid (a freelancer) and Solijon Abdurahmanov (Uznews), are currently serving long jail sentences (twelve-and-a-half-years and ten years) on charges of extortion and drug possession.  I will continue to raise my voice and demand the immediate release of media workers imprisoned for their critical work.  I join Chairman Cardin for commending independent journalists in the Helsinki Commission's recent statement on World Press Freedom Day. These professionals pursue truth wherever it may lead them, often at great personal risk. They indeed play a crucial and indispensable role in advancing democracy and human rights. By highlighting these murder and imprisonment cases, by no means do I intend to neglect other forms of harassment or intimidation that also have a threatening effect on journalists. Let me just recall that, with the heightened security concerns in the last decade, police and prosecutors have increasingly raided editorial offices, journalists' homes, or seized their equipment to find leaks that were perceived as security threats. Suppression and restriction of Internet Freedom  Turning to the problems facing Internet freedom, we can see that new media have changed the communications and education landscape in an even more dramatic manner than did the broadcast media in the last half century. Under my mandate, the challenge has remained the same: how to safeguard or enhance pluralism and the free flow of information, both classical Helsinki obligations within the OSCE.  It was in 1998 that I read the words of Vinton G. Cerf in his article called ``Truth and the Internet''. It perfectly summarizes the nature of the Internet and the ways it can create freedom.  Dr. Cerf calls the Internet one of the most powerful agents of freedom: It exposes truth to those who wish to see it. But he also warns us that the power of the Internet is like a two-edged sword: it can also deliver misinformation and uncorroborated opinion with equal ease. The thoughtful and the thoughtless co-exist side by side in the Internet's electronic universe. What is to be done, asks Cerf.  His answer is to apply critical thinking. Consider the Internet as an opportunity to educate us all. We truly must think about what we see and hear, and we must evaluate and select. We must choose our guides. Furthermore, we must also teach our children to think more deeply about what they see and hear. That, more than any electronic filter, he says, will build a foundation upon which truth can stand.  Today, this foundation upon which truth could indeed so firmly stand is under continuous pressure by governments. As soon as governments realized that the Internet challenges secrecy and censorship, corruption, inefficiency and bad governing, they started imposing controls on it. In many countries and in many ways the effects are visible and they indeed threaten the potential for information to circulate freely.  The digital age offers the promise of a truly democratic culture of participation and interactivity. Realizing that promise is the challenge of our times. In the age of the borderless Internet, the protection of the right to freedom of expression ``regardless of frontiers'' takes on a new and more powerful meaning.  In an age of rapid technological change and convergence, archaic governmental controls over the media are increasingly unjust, indefensible and ultimately unsustainable. Despite progress, many challenges remain, including the lack of or poor quality of national legislation relating to freedom of information, a low level of implementation in many OSCE member states and existing political resistance.  The importance of providing free access for all people anywhere in the world cannot be raised often enough in the public arena, and cannot be discussed often enough among stakeholders: civil society, media, as well as local and international authorities.  Freedom of speech is more than a choice about which media products to consume.  Media freedom and freedom of speech in the digital age also mean giving everyone--not just a small number of people who own the dominant modes of mass communication, but ordinary people, too--an opportunity to use these new technologies to participate, interact, build, route around and talk about whatever they wish--be it politics, public issues or popular culture. The Internet fundamentally affects how we live. It offers extraordinary opportunities for us to learn, trade, connect, create and also to safeguard human rights and strengthen democratic values. It allows us to hear each other, see each other and speak to each other. It can connect isolated people and help them through their personal problems.  These rights, possibilities and ideals are at the heart of the Helsinki Process and the OSCE principles and commitments that we share. We must find the best ways to spread access to the Internet, so that the whole world can benefit from what it can offer, rather than increasing the existing gaps between those who have access to information and those who do not. And to those governments who fear and distrust the openness brought along by the Internet, let me emphasize over and over again:  The way a society uses the new communications technologies and how it responds to economic, political and cultural globalization will determine the very future of that society. Restrict access to information, and your chances to develop will become restricted. Open up the channels of free communication, and your society will find ways to prosper.  I was delighted to hear Secretary of State Clinton speak about a basic freedom in her January speech on Internet freedom in the ``Newseum''. This freedom is the freedom to connect. Secretary Clinton rightly calls this freedom the freedom of assembly in cyber space. It allows us to come together online, and shape our society in fundamental ways. Fame or money is no longer a requisite to immensely affect our world.  My office is rapidly developing a comprehensive strategy to identify the main problems related to Internet regulation in the 56 countries of the OSCE, and ways to address these issues. I will count on the support of the Helsinki Commission to advance the universal values that this strategy will attempt to extend to those countries where these values are still being questioned.  Let me also mention the importance to protect the freedom of other new technologies.  Only two weeks ago, my Office organized the 12th Central Asia Media Conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where media professionals from all five Central Asian countries adopted a declaration on access to information and new technologies. This document calls on OSCE governments to facilitate the freer and wider dissemination of information, including through modern information and communication technologies, so as to ensure wide access of the public to governmental information.  It also reiterates that new technologies strengthen democracy by ensuring easy access to information, and calls upon state institutions with legislative competencies to refrain from adopting new legislation that would restrict the free flow of information. And only this spring my Office published a guide to the digital switchover, to assist the many OSCE countries where the switch from analogue to digital will take place in the next five years. The aim of the guide is to help plan the digitalization process, and help ensure that it positively affects media freedom, as well as the choice and quality available to the audience.  Besides advocating the importance of good digitalization strategies, I will also use all available fora to raise attention to the alarming lack of broadcast pluralism, especially television broadcast pluralism, in many OSCE countries. As television is the main source of information in many OSCE regions, we must ensure that the laws allow for diverse, high-quality programs and objective news to easily reach every one of us. Only well-informed citizens can make good choices and further democratic values. Whether we talk about Internet regulation, inventive ways to switch to digital while preserving the dominance of a few selected broadcasters, attempts to limit access to information or broadcast pluralism, we must keep one thing in mind: No matter what governments do, in the long run, their attempts to regulate is a lost battle.  People always find ways to obtain the rights that are denied to them. History has shown this over and over again. In the short run, however, it is very clear that I will intervene with governments which try to restrict the free flow of information. Defamation  Similar to fighting violence against journalists, my Office has been campaigning since its establishment in 1997 to decriminalize defamation and libel in the entire OSCE region.  Unfortunately, in most countries, defamation is still punishable by imprisonment, which threatens the existence of critical speech in the media. This is so despite the consistent rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, stating that imprisonment for speech offences, especially when committed by criticizing public figures, is a disproportionate punishment.  Let us again remind ourselves of the journalists and bloggers I have mentioned above when discussing violence against journalists. They are currently in prison because their writing was considered defamatory. Their fate reminds us all of the importance of the right to freely speak our mind.  This problem needs urgent reform not only in the new, but also in the old democracies of the OSCE. Although the obsolete criminal provisions have not been used in Western Europe for decades, their ``chilling effect'' remained.  Furthermore, the mere existence of these provisions has served as a justification for other states that are unwilling to stop the criminalization of journalistic errors, and instead leave these offenses solely to the civil-law domain.  Currently, defamation is a criminal offence in all but ten OSCE countries--my home country Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Estonia, Georgia, Ireland, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.  Last year, three OSCE countries decriminalized defamation, which I consider to be an enormous success: Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom; the last being the first among the Western European participating States to officially decriminalize defamation.  Some other countries, such as Armenia, are currently reforming their defamation provisions, and I hope that I can soon welcome the next country that carries out this important and very long overdue reform.   Concluding remarks  Dear Chairmen,  Dear Commissioners,  Ladies and Gentlemen,  The above problematic areas--violence against journalists, restrictions of new media including the Internet, lack of pluralism and resistance to decriminalize defamation--are among the most urgent media freedom problems that need our attention and concentrated efforts today. However, we will also not forget about the many other fields where there is plenty of room to improve. Of course, I will not miss the excellent opportunity that we are here together today to raise your attention to the topic that my distinguished predecessor, Miklos Haraszti, has already raised with you: the establishment and the adoption of a federal shield law in the United States.  As you know, my Office has been a dedicated promoter of the federal shield law for many years. If passed, the Free Flow of Information Act would provide a stronger protection to journalists; it could ensure that imprisonments such as that of Judith Miller in 2005, and Josh Wolf in 2006, could never again take place and hinder investigative journalism. But the passage of such legislation would resonate far further than within the borders of the United States of America. It could send a very much needed signal and set a precedent to all the countries where protection of sources is still opposed by the government and is still not more than a dream for journalists.  I respectfully ask all of you, distinguished Commissioners, to continue and even increase your efforts to enable that the Free Flow of Information Act soon becomes the latest protector of media freedom in the United States.  And of course I cannot close my speech without mentioning my home country, Bosnia and Herzegovina. As you know, not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also most of the emerging democracies in the Balkans enjoy modern and forward-looking media legislation. We can openly say that they almost have it all when it comes to an advanced legal and regulatory framework enabling free expression to thrive. But it is not that simple. I use this moment to pose several questions: if there are good laws, then why do we still face severe problems in relation to media freedom, why do we stagnate and sometimes even move backward? Where does the problem lie? And, more importantly, how can we solve it and move ahead?  What Bosnia and Herzegovina shows us is that good laws in themselves are not enough. Without their good implementation, they are only documents filled with unrealized potential. In countries that struggle with similar problems, we must stress over and over again: without the full implementation of valid legislation, without genuine political will, without a comprehensive understanding of the media's role in a functioning democracy, without the creation of a safe environment for journalists to do their work, and without true commitment by all actors, these countries risk falling far behind international standards.  Apart from unmet expectations and disillusioned citizens, we all know that the consequences of politicized and misused media could be very serious. In conclusion, let me assure you, dear Commissioners, that I will not hesitate to openly and vigorously remind any country of their responsibilities toward implementing the OSCE commitments to the freedom of the media.  I am also asking you to use this opportunity today and send a clear message to the governments of all OSCE countries to do their utmost to fully implement their media legislation safeguarding freedom of expression. The governments have the power to create an environment in which media can perform their unique role free of pressures and threats. Without this, no democracy can flourish.  Thank you for your attention.

  • Mitigating Inter-Ethnic Conflict in the OSCE Region

    This hearing, presided over by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, discussed the Helsinki Process’s role in mitigating inter-ethnic conflict in the OSCE region. The hearing discussed the situation in Kyrgyzstan, ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus, the still-lingering effects of the 1944 mass deportation of Crimean minorities, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Witnesses at the hearing included Heidi Tagliavani, Ambassador and Under Secretary of State for Switzerland and head of the European Union investigation of the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict; Peter Semneby, Special Representative for the South Caucasus for the European Union; and Mr. Soren Jessen-Petersen, former Special Representative for Kosovo for the United Nations.

  • Ukraine: Moving Beyond Stalemate

    This hearing examined how the U.S. can best continue to encourage and assist Ukraine in developing democracy, rule of law, and a market economy.   The panel also discussed Ukraine’s relationships with its neighbors, the United States, and European states and organizations. The panel of witnesses explored the democratic developments and progress since the Orange revolution and U.S. policy implications of Ukraine’s interest in further integration with Europe.

  • U.S. Helsinki Group Slams Baku Court's Refusal of Bloggers' Appeal

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission has criticized a Baku court's rejection of appeals by two Azerbaijani bloggers against their prison sentences, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports. Emin Milli was sentenced in November to 2 1/2 years in prison and Adnan Hajizade to two years on charges of hooliganism arising from what the commission chairmen said "appeared to be a crude, government-arranged incident at a restaurant" in July 2009. Both bloggers were well-known for their satirical comments on Azerbaijani government policy. The Baku court rejected their appeal on March 10. Both men, and a number of rights groups, have insisted the incident behind the jailing was a provocation and the motives connected to their very public criticism of the government. Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), the U.S. Helsinki Commission chairman, said the bloggers' case "is the latest in a long series of setbacks for independent journalism and civil society in Azerbaijan." Commission Co-Chair Congressman Alcee Hastings (Democrat, Florida), said it "illustrates the lack of independence of Azerbaijan's judicial system." Congressman Robert Aderholt (Republican, Alabama) said the bloggers' conviction "seems to indicate a determination to stifle dissent before the parliamentary election later this year." The U.S. Helsinki Commission wrote in December to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev expressing concern about the convictions and calling for a fair appeal process. Azerbaijani authorities did not reply to that letter.

  • Democratic Change and Challenges in Moldova

    2009 was a year of tremendous political change in Moldova as nearly a decade of Communist rule came to an end.  Following two elections and massive street protests, Moldova’s ruling coalition, the Alliance for European Integration, still lacks the 61 votes needed in parliament to elect a new president.  As the poorest country in Europe in the midst of a global economic downturn, a prolonged impasse poses serious challenges to reform and recovery in Moldova.

  • Ukraine Presidential Hopefuls Fear Election Fraud

    In the final hours of the Ukraine's bitterly fought presidential campaign, candidates accused one another of planning to commit campaign fraud and experts warned of the possibility of post-election unrest. But among many Ukrainian voters, the no-holds barred campaign may have inspired as much apathy as outrage and some observers were predicting a relatively smooth first-round vote Sunday. Prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who helped lead the 2004 Orange Revolution, has accused front-runner Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions of planning a campaign of voter fraud through falsified absentee ballots and other methods. ''Yanukovych and the Party of Regions are preparing a large-scale falsification in Ukraine,'' Tymoshenko said, speaking to the media Thursday. ''For this purpose, they have formed on a corrupt basis a puppet majority in the Central Election Commission.'' Most polls show Tymoshenko running second behind Yanukovych in the race. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday, as expected, there will be a runoff between the two top vote getters sometime in February. Sergei Markov, a member of the Russian parliament and an election observer, said Tymoshenko's fraud charges are part of an effort to prepare her supporters to challenge a Yanukovych victory. ''Claims that the opposition is trying to rig the vote show that the other side is ideologically preparing to reject the election in case they lose,'' said Markov, whose views on many issues are thought to reflect the thinking of the Kremlin. He spoke at the expert panel Friday. Yanukovych meanwhile has warned that his supporters will not allow any candidate to steal the current presidential contest, as he claims happened in 2004. The pro-Russian candidate's initial victory in that race was thrown out by the Supreme Court following the Orange street protests and accusations of widespread fraud by authorities on Yanukovych's behalf. ''No such scenario will be allowed,'' Yanukovych told reporters during a campaign trip to eastern Ukraine Thursday, referring to the street rallies that helped reverse his victory. ''If anybody is hoping for that, we will disappoint them.'' Yanukovych noted that in 2004 he called off plans for mass demonstrations by his supporters in the capital to avoid clashes with Orange protesters. He suggested that this time, his partisans would not back down against those who challenge a Yanukovych victory. Vladimir Fesenko, the head of Ukraine's Penta Center for Applied Political Research, predicted that neither Tymoshenko nor Yanukovych would accept defeat in the runoff, which is expected to pit the two old adversaries against one another. Instead, he said, they would challenge any defeat with peaceful protests. But he warned that if Tymoshenko's and Yanukovych's demonstrators face off, it could escalate into violence. ''Neither wants a real war,'' Fesenko said. ''But unfortunately there are risks. Often it is difficult to control people once they're on the streets. There could be adventurists from either camp that could provoke a clash.'' Authorities say they are planning to deploy thousands of police Sunday to ensure an orderly first round ballot. Foes of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko released a tape this week of a purported conversation between her and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in which he supposedly says he is sending 2,000 ''battle-ready'' observers to monitor the race. ''No worries, we are sending the best prepared and most battle-ready people to you,'' the voice alleged to be Saakashvili's says on the tape, which was played Friday at a panel of analysts and sociologists. Some here interpreted Saakashvili's purported comment as a pledge to support Tymoshenko in post-election street protests. Spokespeople for both Tymoshenko and Saakashvili declined to comment, and the authenticity of the tape could not be determined. Evgeny Kopatko, chief sociologist at Ukraine's R&B Group, a consultancy, said Friday that if tensions rise after the election, that ''could split the country in two, and this is a very serious risk, economically and politically. The country would be virtually uncontrollable.'' Parliament speaker Vladimir Litvin on Friday appealed to supporters of Ukraine's rival political leaders, urging not to take to the streets as they did in 2004. ''Today I'm calling on all of the politicians not to deal in actions on the Maidan,'' Litvin said, referring to Kiev's central square where tens of thousands rallied every day for weeks in late 2004. President Viktor Yushchenko, the eventual winner in 2004, is standing for re-election, but his popularity has plunged and his chances look slim. He warned that the elections could usher in an authoritarian government. ''Should there be an authoritarian regime of either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko, with the criminal elements that will come along, it will take away the freedom of expression,'' he said. Five years after the Orange Revolution brought tens of thousands of people to the streets of the capital, public cynicism appeared widespread. Voters have offered to sell their votes on Web sites for the equivalent of between about $10 and $100. Despite the dire warnings, Alcee Hastings, a U.S. congressman who is deputy head of the international observer mission, told reporters Friday that so far no one has come up with evidence of intended voting irregularities. ''While the candidates accuse each other of fraud, neither of them has presented you in the media with a smoking gun,'' he said. ''I don't think there's going to be widespread fraud.'' Hastings noted that the election will come under intense scrutiny. He said there are more international observers in Ukraine for the presidential contest than for any previous election in the former Soviet Union. But Hastings did not rule out isolated efforts to falsify votes. ''Remember, I'm from Florida, the land of the hanging chads and the butterfly ballots,'' he said, referring to the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential contest and the controversial Florida vote count.

  • U.S. Diplomats Rap Astana's Democratization Performance

    As Kazakhstan prepares to assume the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, US diplomats are exerting pressure on Astana to enact promised reforms. Kazakhstan’s laws on media, elections and political parties continue to "fall short of OSCE standards," Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, asserted in written testimony submitted for a hearing October 28 of the US Helsinki Commission. Gordon also pointed out in his testimony that "Kazakhstan has not held an election that the OSCE has deemed fully to have met OSCE commitments and international standards." Both Gordon and Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, called attention to the case of Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights activist convicted in September for vehicular manslaughter. The trial was allegedly marred by procedural violations. Even so, a Kazakhstani judge rejected an appeal of the conviction. The US Helsinki Commission’s chair, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, said the Obama administration and the State Department has given short shrift to human rights, adding that the issue of the OSCE summit in Kazakhstan presented an opportunity for the United States to take a strong stand on human rights.  

  • Advancing U.S. Interests in the OSCE Region

    The hearing examined U.S. policy toward the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the largest regional security organization in the world, ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers to be held in Athens in early December.  Greece held the chairmanship of the 56-nation OSCE focused on enhancing security, promoting economic cooperation, and advancing democracy and human rights in 2009. Kazakhstan assumes the chairmanship in January, 2010. The Commission will examine timely issues, including: security arrangements in Europe, simmering tensions in the Caucasus region, relations with Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union, developments in the Balkans, OSCE engagement on Afghanistan and developments in Central Asia.  The hearing will also assess ongoing efforts to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance and backsliding on fundamental freedoms.

  • The Western Balkans: Policy Responses to Today's Challenges

    This hearing reviewed the Vice President Biden’s meeting in Sarajevo and the Congressional delegation to Bosnia to speak about democratization process in the Balkan states. The Commissioners mentioned the need for governing bodies and systems that include every voice, particularly the ethnic communities in each country. These issues have correlated to potential instability in Bosnia resulting from the gridlock in government there.   The democratization and integration efforts, in relation to the Balkan joining closer to the greater European community and NATO, were touched upon to see the progress made.  The witness discussed examples of initiatives that moved the Balkans towards the goal of international standard of governance, for example the Model Court Initiative in Bosnia, which has helped to institute European standards in 33 local courts, upgrade court infrastructure and improve customer service.

  • Moldova’s Recent Elections: Prospects for Change in Europe’s Poorest Country

    This briefing took place in the wake of the June 20th, 2009 parliamentary elections in Moldova. Nearly 60 percent of the Moldovan populace voted, and nearly 3,000 international and local observers were present. The international election observation mission consisted of delegations from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, and the European parliament. The international election observation mission evaluated the elections positively overall, but noticed a number of shortcomings, particularly in the process of registration of electoral lists and the overall tense climate of the electoral campaign.

  • The Trouble with the Recent Iranian Elections

    Mr. President, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which has had decades of experience monitoring election and promoting democracy and human rights, I would like to take this moment to speak on a troubling matter that has filled headlines around the world in the last few days. We have all seen the images. Violence and mass protests are erupting across Iran following the hasty vote count of a deeply flawed presidential election process in that country. Yet another unfortunate chapter is unfolding before our eyes that reinforces Iran’s record as a police state and totalitarian regime more concerned with keeping its tight grip on power than yielding to the will of the people. I stand with President Obama calling for the government to exercise restraint and the violence to end. Regrettably, at least seven people have been killed and countless others injured. We may never know the true results of this election, given the lack of international monitoring. But what we do know is that in the last few days we have witnessed tens of thousands of Iranians raise their voice in protest to ensure that their vote meant something. On Friday, voters in Iran lined up in unprecedented numbers to choose their next president. I, like many others, was dismayed on Saturday to hear the ruling clerics rush to announce that Ahmadinejad had won re-election by a large margin. Regardless of the limited official scope of his duties, President Ahmadinejad’s consistent pattern of noxious remarks and his belligerent attitude inject understandable tension around the Middle East and beyond. He has used the presidential podium to instigate conflict with the international community, pursue acquisition of nuclear weapons, and spew hatred and intolerance toward Israel and the United States. I cannot say and will not say what could have been or should have been if any other candidate was elected, but there is no doubt whatsoever as to Ahmadinejad’s unfitness as a leader. Equally troubling were the almost immediate reports coming from Tehran and elsewhere around Iran that there were deep flaws in this election. Elections do not equal democracy, nor do they guarantee that the will of the people will be reflected in their government. But this was not a free and fair election from the start. In Iranian Presidential elections, only a select group of candidates approved by a 12-person Council of Guardians are eligible to run. The Iranian regime, headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to severely restrict civil liberties including freedom of speech, expression, assembly, and association. Freedom to discuss ideas without threat of oppression is a fundamental human right that is essential to a government truly reflecting the will of its people. This freedom is absent in Iran. Typically, Iranian elections and public expressions are carefully monitored and manipulated by the ruling regime to prevent challenges to their authority. The last few days we have seen something different. The tens of thousands of people lining the streets of Tehran – in an incredible rebuttal to the ruling powers – want to know that the votes that they cast are counted properly. The deliberate lack of transparency in the vote tabulation and the blatant attempts to block mass communications among citizens, particularly the youth, are too glaring to ignore. Even the Supreme Leader has been forced to backtrack on his immediate approval of the results and has called for at least the appearance of a recount in some disputed areas. Americans know something about wanting to have their votes counted accurately. The difference between our two nations is when the results of a U.S. election were in dispute, the world spotlight shined bright on the process and the people involved resolved the conflict peacefully. Transparency and openness is not a hallmark of Iranian elections. Even before the presidential election took place, Iran’s totalitarian regime blocked personal communications like texting and access to the Internet. Media have been confined to Tehran, if they haven’t been asked to leave the country. The regime’s ongoing attempts to curtail communication and silence protests – often with brutal force – demonstrate the regime’s fear of losing a grip on power. Allegations of a fraudulent vote count are a symptom of a regime that has survived by mixing select elements of democracy into an authoritarian power structure that oppresses its people. On June 12, the people of Iran did not vote for the Supreme Leader of their country. Under the current system, Khamenei and his supporters will continue to dictate policy to the President of Iran, regardless of who that president is and whatever policy decisions the president is authorized to make. The people of Iran want their voices to be heard and they should be assured that the world is listening. I urge those in power in Iran also to listen and implement the reforms necessary to allow the will of the people to be expressed. I look forward to a future when the people of Iran have an opportunity for a free and fair election of leaders of their choosing. It is my sincere hope that one day this vision will be realized, and the voice of the Iranian people will truly be heard.

  • Albania’s Elections and the Challenge of Democratic Transition

    In this briefing, Co-Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings examined the democratic progress made in Albania on the eve of the country’s parliamentary elections, set for June 28, 2009.  This examination was to assess Albania’s overall preparedness for European integration after it had applied for candidate status with the European Union and joined the NATO Alliance. Panelists - including Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), Co-Chair, Albania Issues Caucus, Elez Biberaj, Director, Eurasia Division, Voice of America, Jonas Rolett,  Regional Director for South Central Europe, Open Society Institute, and Robert Benjamin, Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe, National Democratic Institute - discussed the prospects for the upcoming elections to be held in accordance with the standards set by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which would be observing the election.

  • The Western Balkans: Challenges for U.S. and European Engagement

    This hearing discussed the recent progress of the seven countries of the Western Balkans with regards to internal stability, democratic development, minority rights, anti-corruption efforts, and the rule of law. The witnesses evaluated each country’s progress and that of the region as a whole. In addition, the hearing also focused on the on the election process in each country and whether they had met the OSCE standards for elections.

  • Georgia Rebuilds: After the August Conflict with Russia, Political and Economic Challenges Remain

    By Shelly Han, Winsome Packer, and Kyle Parker From October 14-18, Commission staff traveled to Georgia to assess recovery efforts following the conflict with Russia in early August. Through a series of meetings with Georgian officials, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, the U.S. embassy, as well as private companies, Georgian citizens, human rights groups, local and foreign analysts, and non-governmental organizations, the staff learned that tremendous progress has been made in restoring critical infrastructure and returning many internally displaced persons to their homes. However, the political and economic situation in Georgia remains fragile. While the origins of the conflict that began on August 7 are still being debated, what is clear is the tremendous cost politically, economically and socially to Georgia. Human Rights Watch, one of the few NGOs that gained access to South Ossetia immediately after the conflict, estimates that 95 percent of Georgian villages in South Ossetia were razed, and an untold number of houses have been looted and burned. South Ossetians told HRW that the burning of houses was deliberate in order to prevent the return of Georgians. HRW estimates that most of the damage was done by South Ossetian irregulars or foreign “volunteers” - not Russian troops. Russian troops had effective control of the territory but chose not to enforce law and order, making them complicit in these crimes. HRW was not able to corroborate any of the Russian allegations of Georgian atrocities inside South Ossetia, though it has accused Tbilisi of using cluster bombs. HRW has documented instances of excessive use of force by Georgian troops, but is still sorting out the facts surrounding these actions. International Monitoring Efforts Lack Access, Coordination Both the OSCE and the European Union have deployed monitors to Georgia, but have not been granted access to South Ossetia. Representatives of the EU Monitoring Mission to Georgia told Helsinki Commission staff that the monitors were unarmed and not there to provide security. Rather, their stated mission was to observe Georgian and Russian compliance with the August 12 and September 8 peace agreements between Russia and Georgia. There also seemed to be little effort to coordinate the two observation missions. Both the EU and OSCE representatives downplayed questions about a lack of coordination (as reported in Vienna by the OSCE Head of Mission in Georgia). They said that it was a matter of time and process dictating how they proceeded. Economic Cost of Conflict The economic consequences of the conflict for Georgia have been staggering. One of the keys to recovery will be boosting consumer confidence, and also reassuring investors that Georgia is a safe and stable market. Almost 24 percent of Georgia’s GDP comes from foreign direct investment (Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are significant investors) and there are signs that FDI may decrease following the conflict. Out of a pledged $1 billion in aid, the United States is providing $250 million in direct budget support to the Georgian government to help repair infrastructure and build houses for IDPs. Other donors have agreed to provide a further $3.5 billion in aid which, if distributed properly, will help Georgia weather the crisis. Commission staff visited the Black Sea port of Poti. Georgia’s main transit point for imports and exports, the port was bombed during the conflict, resulting in the death of 5 workers and an estimated US$10 million in damages. But by mid-October, commerce was almost back to normal. Georgia’s Coast Guard offices, which had been substantially damaged, were almost completely repaired. The Navy and the Coast Guard lost eight ships during the conflict, but their newer ships were evacuated to the southern port of Batumi and escaped with only minor damage. One of the hardest hit regions was the area surrounding the city of Gori, Georgia’s “breadbasket,” where up to 60 percent of the agriculture was destroyed. The U.S. Agency for International Development is spearheading a wheat seed program to help farmers plant the next crop. Irrigation is also a significant issue, since much of the water was coming from South Ossetia and irrigation canals were damaged. Alternative irrigation sources were being quickly developed to help farmers continue supplying the market. The OSCE, which was implementing extensive economic development projects in South Ossetia, has been forced to cease all programs in that region. Other micro-enterprise development programs, such as trout farms and beekeeping located in the buffer zones around South Ossetia, have been quickly re-started. Another issue that could become a flash-point in the future is the Inguri Dam, a hydroelectric facility that supplies half of Georgia’s electricity needs. The dam itself is on territory that the Georgian government controls, but the facility that provides the electricity is on territory controlled by Abkhaz separatists and their Russian allies. They could theoretically turn off the electricity for many Georgians, but Georgian authorities could counter by shutting down the dam, thus denying the Abkhaz the ability to generate electricity. Cost of Conflict is High for those Displaced from their Homes The situation for internally displaced persons in Georgia is critical. On October 9 Commission staff visited an IDP camp in Gori that was slated to be dismantled later that day. Most of the residents were being returned to their homes in the “buffer zone” adjacent to the South Ossetian border that up until the day prior had been controlled by Russian forces. As the Russians withdrew, the Georgian government was working quickly to return the IDPs to their homes. In fact, international aid agencies believed Tbilisi was moving a bit too quickly, as safety concerns remained – specifically, unexploded ordinance in the buffer zone and reports of possible sabotage. Nevertheless, the IDPs were packing up their meager belongings and preparing to leave. Those who couldn’t do so - those from South Ossetia and Akhalgori - were going to be sent to centers in the Tbilisi area. A number of aid agencies are providing assistance with food and other daily needs. One group, CHF International, provides assistance to IDPs that are living with relatives. These host families - many of whom were barely making ends meet - are stretched to the breaking point. CHF International provides fuel, extra bedding, food, or other aid that a household might need to support extra family members for an extended period of time. The Georgian government has also launched a massive construction effort to build thousands of houses for the “new” IDPs. While this effort was praised by many, it could become a source of discontent among those displaced in previous conflicts and still living in substandard conditions. Georgia Faces a Difficult Road Ahead The effectiveness of international monitoring as a deterrent to future military conflict in Georgia is uncertain. It is clear from discussions with analysts that disagreements on the delineation of the South Ossetian “border,” particularly around the city of Akhalgori, will continue to be a point of contention. As more information becomes available on what actually happened in the lead-up to the conflict in early August, it also raises questions about the effectiveness of these missions as a deterrent. Independent reports suggest that there were nearly 100,000 Russian troops in the vicinity of South Ossetia immediately preceding the fighting and it is now clear that there was a serious breakdown of early warning mechanisms that were designed to prevent this type of conflict scenario. The exact role of the monitors and their geographical range is in dispute. Russian officials continue to argue at the OSCE and other fora that the monitors are there to ensure stability and security. At the same time Russian officials are charging that the EU monitors are failing to maintain adequate security in the areas bordering South Ossetia and Abkhazia and that Georgian military and police forces are engaged in provocations and attacks against South Ossetians and Russian personnel inside South Ossetia. Ironically, the OSCE and EU Missions reported that their monitors still did not have access to South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Akhalgori district (now administered by Russian and South Ossetian forces). This raises concerns about Russia’s intent in denying monitors access to the regions now under their control, while demanding that the monitors ensure security in these areas. Russo-Georgian relations, which have been tense for years, have reached a nadir in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia and subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made no attempt to conceal from U.S. Secretary of State Rice that getting rid of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was a key Moscow aim. As of this writing, however, he remains in office, despite Moscow’s efforts to unseat him and attempts by opposition forces to call him to account. He has so far weathered the political consequences of presiding over a stunning military defeat, the loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and having to deal with thousands more displaced people. Responding to pressure from inside and outside the country, Saakashvili has pledged to introduce serious reforms, which would help promote stability within Georgia. How Tbilisi can reestablish normal relations with Moscow is harder to divine.

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