Title

Lies, Bots, and Social Media

Thursday, November 29, 2018
10:30am
Senate Dirksen Office Building
Room 562
Washington, DC
United States
What is Computational Propaganda and How Do We Defeat It?
Moderator(s): 
Name: 
Paul Massaro
Title Text: 
Policy Advisor
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Name: 
Mark Toner
Title Text: 
Senior State Department Advisor
Body: 
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Witnesses: 
Name: 
Matt Chessen
Title: 
Acting Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State
Body: 
U.S. Department of State
Name: 
Karen Kornbluh
Title: 
Senior Fellow and Director, Technology Policy Program
Body: 
The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Name: 
Nina Jankowicz
Title: 
Global Fellow, Kennan Institute
Body: 
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

From the latest revelations about Facebook to ongoing concerns over the integrity of online information, the U.S. public has never been more vulnerable or exposed to computational propaganda: the threat posed by sophisticated botnets able to post, comment on, and influence social media and other web outlets to generate a desired outcome or simply sow distrust and disorder. 

What can be done to confront and defeat these malevolent actors before they dominate civil discourse on the Internet? One possibility is the use of algorithmic signal reading which displays for users the geographic origin of a given post. Another answer may lie in improving how websites like Facebook curate their content, so the user can make more informed choices. 

At this Helsinki Commission briefing, distinguished experts examined the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explored options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence.

Relevant issues: 
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  • Chairman Hastings Denounces Unchecked Power Granted To Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Following the Hungarian Parliament’s decision on Monday to accept Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s request for unlimited power to rule by decree in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Prime Minister Orban has taken gross advantage of the fear and uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic to secure the power to rule by decree in perpetuity. Instead of focusing on the well-being of Hungarian citizens likely to suffer from the coronavirus, he has chosen to prioritize preserving his parliamentary majority and permanently consolidating his control of the Hungarian Government.  “At both the global and national levels, defeating the coronavirus will require extraordinary social solidarity, not unchecked executive power.  The further concentration of powers in Hungary will only pave the way for the further concentration of corruption.” Among other provisions, the new law allows for up to a five-year prison sentence for spreading false or distorted information regarding the fight against the coronavirus, which could be used against journalists reporting on the state of Hungary’s hospitals or health care delivery.  The law also suspends elections.  Hungary has recently completed a cycle of elections (parliamentary, European Parliament, and municipal) with no other major elections scheduled until 2022. In the meantime, by-elections and referenda are prohibited.  The law, which lacks a sunset clause, may only be repealed by a two-thirds vote of parliament, or terminated by the Prime Minister himself. In 1991, Hungary—along with all other OSCE participating States—adopted the Moscow Document in the aftermath of a coup attempt in Russia. The agreement includes specific provisions on states of emergency.  In particular, the OSCE participating States agreed to “in conformity with international standards regarding the freedom of expression, take no measures aimed at barring journalists from the legitimate exercise of their profession other than those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”   On March 30, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir warned that emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region, including Hungary, must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight. Since 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing to explore developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption.  

  • E.U. Tries Gentle Diplomacy to Counter Hungary’s Crackdown on Democracy

    European leaders were reluctant to pick a fight with Prime Minister Viktor Orban a day after he secured powers to rule by decree indefinitely. BRUSSELS — The European Union’s written response to Hungary’s effective suspension of democracy omitted one important word: Hungary. A day after the Hungarian Parliament passed sweeping emergency measures allowing the far-right populist leader Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely, ostensibly as part of the country’s response to the coronavirus, the European Commission on Tuesday reminded its members to respect rights. But it was a muted first response from the one institution that can take on Mr. Orban, and it appeared aimed at balancing the political imperative of cooperation in the era of the coronavirus with the risk of emboldening him. “It’s of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in a statement that made no mention of Mr. Orban or Hungary. The European Commission is the European Union’s executive branch, and it often describes itself as “the guardian of the treaty” that created the bloc of 27 democracies. But Mr. Orban has long been in an open struggle with parts of that treaty. He has said frankly that he does not believe in liberal democracy — which the European Commission says is fundamental to the European Union’s values. The severe measures adopted Monday in Budapest may dramatically ratchet up the confrontation between the Orban government and European Union institutions in Brussels. Hungary’s new legislation suspends elections and also allows the prime minister to suspend existing laws and rule by decree. One vaguely worded section also says that people found to be spreading “falsehoods” or “distorted truths” that obstruct the authorities from protecting the public may be punished with prison sentences of up to five years. That new tool that may allow Mr. Orban to further curb the press freedoms long in his cross hairs. To be sure, in the face of the epidemic, European countries have all to lesser or greater extent adopted emergency measures curbing liberties, including measures that require citizens to register any movement and observe curfews. But Hungary’s new rules are the most far reaching. And rights experts, political analysts and academics say that, given Mr. Orban’s track record and espousal of “illiberal democracy,” the measures he says he is taking to fight the virus could become fixtures in Hungarian public life, used to crack down on opposition well after the threat of the virus passes. European Union officials believe that the statement issued Tuesday, which came from Ms. von der Leyen personally, sent a clear message to Mr. Orban — even without naming him. European Commission lawyers are now closely watching how he enforces Hungary’s new measures, the officials said. But they said that now — as Europe battles to stem the spread of the virus and mitigate its catastrophic economic damage, and with many nations suspending some liberties — was not the moment to pick a fight with just one member. That measured approach surprised some observers, despite the fact that the commission often takes a conciliatory stance toward wayward members in a bid to entice them to reform voluntarily. (That has never worked with Hungary.) “It is bizarre,” Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament who belongs to the German Greens political party, said of Ms. von der Leyen’s statement. “The decision that the Hungarian Parliament took yesterday is a watershed moment,” Mr. Freund said. “Now you have to do something, or we really lose democracies.” Mr. Freund and other members of the European Parliament believe that even before the European Commission opens a formal investigation into Hungary’s new law, which would take months, it should use existing rules to put pressure on Mr. Orban. “If we end up after the crisis with a virus well fought but democracy lost in several member states, that’s an unacceptable situation,” Mr. Freund said. Daniel Kelemen, a professor European Union politics and law at Rutgers University, said the epidemic could prove an opportunity for the Hungarian leader. “Throughout his consolidation of power, Orban has counted on the European Union to be distracted with other crises,” he said. “But now,” Mr. Kelemen said, “the scale of this crisis does call for consolidation of power for the executive, so it gives him more effective cover for this next stage of escalation.” Mr. Orban’s hold on power was unparalleled by European Union standards well before Monday’s vote authorizing him to rule by decree. In practical terms, Mr. Orban and his allies already controlled the legislative and executives branches of government, and had stacked the Constitutional Court. With Mr. Orban’s parliamentary opposition unable to slow his political machine, the European Union has shown itself to be the only entity capable of curbing his power, but the results have been mixed. Lengthy and cumbersome European Union legal proceedings could not stop Mr. Orban and his allies from taking over the Hungarian media landscape, weakening the independence of the judiciary, levying a special tax on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding, or ejecting the Central European University from the country. In the end it may be Mr. Orban’s love for European financial aid, not freedoms, that acts as a brake on his government. “Aware that the European Union is watching, Orban is likely to tread modestly at first,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the head of Europe at Eurasia Group consultancy. “He will not wish to put at risk the €5.6 billion windfall granted to Hungary by the European Parliament last week as its portion in the union’s efforts to battle the coronavirus." President Trump has warmly embraced Mr. Orban. Mr. Trump’s ambassador in Hungary has spoken glowingly about Mr. Orban’s grip on power and said that Mr. Trump would love to have the powers of his Hungarian counterpart. But Mr. Orban’s autocratic tendencies have long alarmed others in Washington, particularly lawmakers who serve on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission. A congressional delegation visited Hungary last year to investigate democratic backsliding.

  • Representative Millicent Fenwick

    By Annie Lentz, Max Kampelman Fellow On August 1, 1975, after years of negotiation and debate, the leaders of 35 nations gathered in Helsinki, Finland to sign the Helsinki Final Act, also known as the Helsinki Accords. The Helsinki Final Act—the founding document of today’s OSCE—is not a treaty, but rather an international agreement outlining 10 guiding principles for inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Helsinki Final Act marked the first time that the Soviet Union had signed a transnational agreement that included language on protecting human rights. With the passage of the act came a wave of hope that renewed value would be placed on human rights and freedom in the signatory countries. However, U.S. public opinion was not behind the Helsinki Final Act. Public understanding of the document was mired in misperceptions, and the agreement remained controversial even after it was signed by President Gerald Ford. While the Helsinki Final Act was eventually met with hard-won respect in the U.S.—including that of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was originally skeptical of its utility—not all signatory countries adhered. The biggest transgressor was the Soviet Union, which jailed its citizens, restricted them from leaving the country, and limited their freedoms, all in direct violation of the Helsinki Final Act. Some in Congress began looking for ways to hold the Soviet Union accountable for its actions. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the Helsinki Commission)—the brainchild of the courageous and tenacious Rep. Millicent Fenwick—was the result. Rep. Millicent Fenwick Millicent Fenwick was born in New York City on February 25, 1910. Raised in New Jersey, she became involved with politics in the 1950s through the civil rights movement. Finding her footing in New Jersey politics, Fenwick ran and won a seat in the New Jersey Assembly, ultimately becoming elected to Congress as a representative for New Jersey in 1974. She was 64 years old. Appalled by the Russian neglect of the Helsinki Final Act and the theft of freedom from its citizens, the newly elected Rep. Fenwick projected a resounding voice on the topic of human rights advocacy and accordance to the Helsinki Final Act. Rep. Fenwick’s activism was prompted by a 1975 visit to Russia, one week after the Helsinki Final Act was signed. As noted in Amy Shapiro’s book, Millicent Fenwick: Her Way, the visit brought on a revelation. “You read about an automobile accident and you’re shocked,” Rep. Fenwick said. “But you come upon that accident and see the blood on the victims and hear their cries – how different it is. Well, that’s what it was like to go to Russia and hear the cries of all these desperate people.” Specifically, Rep. Fenwick empathized with the case of Lelia Ruitburd, whose husband and son were arrested by the police at the Yalta Airport for conspiring to emigrate. While Ruitburd’s son was eventually released, her husband disappeared forever. Ruitburd lived the remainder of her life worried, anxious, and utterly alone, all because her family had hoped for a better life outside of the Iron Curtain. Witnessing such devastation first-hand, Rep. Fenwick leapt into action, becoming one of the two primary advocates for the creation of a U.S. body to observe and promote compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, alongside Sen. Clifford Case, also of New Jersey. Establishment of the Helsinki Commission Rep. Millicent Fenwick, President Gerald Ford, and Senator Clifford Case at the signing of Public Law 94-304. Rep. Fenwick’s advocacy manifested in Public Law 94-304 of June 3, 1976, the legislation that created the Helsinki Commission. Her partnership with Senator Case was instrumental in passing the law. The new law authorized the Helsinki Commission “to monitor the acts of the signatories which reflect compliance with or violation of the articles of the Final Act…with particular regard to the provisions relating to human rights and Cooperation in Humanitarian Fields.” This mandate extended to other areas covered by the Helsinki Final Act, including economic cooperation and the exchange of people and ideas between participating States.  The primary goals of the commission were to strengthen the legitimacy of human rights monitoring; to defend those persecuted for acting on their rights and freedoms; to ensure that violations of Helsinki provisions were given full consideration in U.S. foreign policy; and to gain international acceptance of human rights violations as a legitimate subject for one country to raise with another. Backlash for Oversight Within the U.S. the establishment of the Commission was controversial. Public Law 94-304 was signed against the advice of senior foreign policy advisors, including Secretary of State Kissinger. As noted in Shapiro’s book, Kissinger “preferred bilateral negotiations between Washington and Moscow rather than dealing with another thirty-plus nations assembled at the table,” and was equally skeptical of the value of the Helsinki Commission. When questioned whether the establishment of the Helsinki Commission was provocative, Fenwick maintained it was not. In an interview with Meet the Press in 1977, Fenwick argued, “It is not our actions that are probing this sensitive thing. It is the fact that the government of the Soviet Union signed something saying to its citizens that they have the right to travel, that they have the right to reunification of families, that they have the right to information.” Fenwick continued, “We must abide by the condition that the international organizations are living by.” After its establishment, Rep. Fenwick became an original member of the Helsinki Commission and served as a commissioner until she retired from Congress. Her time in the House of Representatives continued to be impactful and courageous. She was lauded by the press for her diligence and ethics, classified by Walter Cronkite as “the conscience of Congress.” She remained a strong opponent of corruption and a driving advocate for human and civil rights throughout her tenure. Rep. Fenwick set the tone for the continued commitment of the U.S. Congress to the Helsinki Final Act and established a base from which human rights could be prioritized in U.S. policy that is still in use today.

  • Reflecting on Chechnya

    By Mia Speier, Max Kampelman Fellow On December 11, 1994, Russian forces advanced into Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus near Georgia and Azerbaijan, to stop an attempt at secession. A Chechen separatist movement started to gain momentum following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians refused to allow any chance at separation. This marked the start of the First Chechen War, a conflict that erupted after decades of hostilities between the former Soviet government and the Chechen forces. The war dragged on for nearly two years, destroying the capital city of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of people—mostly civilians. The conflict, which started as an internal national movement, was complicated by flows of foreign money and foreign fighters. Militant Islamists joined the fight against Russia during the latter half of the war as part of a declared global jihad. Officials in Russia feared a repetition of the violence that occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan nearly a decade prior. Though Russia withdrew from Chechnya for a short time after the first war, the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. This second war began after Putin blamed Chechen secessionists for bombings that killed Russian civilians, although there was no evidence of Chechen involvement in the bombings. Russian forces were sent into the republic again, and the Russian government succeeded in putting Chechnya under its control. Since then, the region has been a republic of Russia and is governed by Putin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov. Amid the conflict, however, the international community took steps to confront Russian aggression and violence in the region. On March 13, 1997, the U.S. Helsinki Commission convened a hearing called “The Future of Chechnya,” to discuss the efforts of Chechen citizens to free themselves from Russia’s painful yoke and fight back against Moscow’s defiance of international principles and the rule of law. The Helsinki Commission hearing focused on the 1994 Organization for Security and Cooperation Budapest Document that requires all participating States, including Russia, to ensure that their armed forces are commanded in a way that is consistent with international law. At the time of the hearing, an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 people had died in the territory, and tens of thousands of citizens had been displaced. The violence against and displacement of citizens in Chechnya was a clear violation of the Budapest Document. Then-Chairman Rep. Alfonse M. D’Amato chaired the hearing and noted that though many people were paying attention to the ongoing conflict in Bosnia at the time, it was important to also pay attention to the conflict in Chechnya and, more specifically, to think about the role of the OSCE in the region. “The world watched, horrified, as the Russian military used massive firepower against the Chechen guerrillas,” D’Amato said. “While the international community recognizes the principles of territorial integrity, there can be no doubt that in its effort to keep the Chechens in the Russian Federation, the Russian Government violated recognized international principles.” Since 1997, the Helsinki Commission has held several other public events related to human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, abductions, and disappearances and the plight of Chechen refugees. In 2003, the commission penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the U.S. delegation at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to express concern over reported rights violations in Chechnya. Though it has been nearly 30 years since the First Chechen War, the situation in Chechnya remains bleak. In 2017, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution condemning widespread anti-LGBT persecution and violence in Chechnya after it was revealed that state law enforcement officials beat, imprisoned, and murdered hundreds of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. In June 2018, then-Chairman (and current Co-Chairman) Sen. Roger Wicker and Sen. Benjamin Cardin penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the United State to invoke the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism in response to escalating human rights abuses in Chechnya. The Moscow Mechanism allows for the establishment of a short-term fact-finding mission to address a specific human rights concern in the OSCE region. In November 2018, the 16 of the 57 OSCE participating States invoked the Moscow Mechanism to investigate the alleged disappearances, killings, and torture taking place in Chechnya—all of which were concerns raised at a Helsinki Commission hearing just months prior.  Though Russia failed to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, the resulting report concluded that the evidence clearly confirmed the allegations of very serious human rights violations and abuses in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation. Today, multiple reports of journalists and bloggers in Chechnya being beaten or murdered calls for even more concern for individual freedom and civil liberties in the region. In early February, Yelena Milashina, a prominent Russian journalist and lawyer who exposed the cruelty against gay Chechen men, was beaten in Grozny. Imran Aliev, an outspoken Chechen blogger who criticized President Ramzan Kadyrov, was found murdered in France earlier this year. Aliev’s death is one of many deaths and disappearances in recent years of Chechen dissidents throughout Europe, sparking heightened fears of Chechen death squads hunting down those seeking asylum outside of the republic.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces LITE Act to Strengthen Ties with U.S. Allies, Support Visionary Leadership on Both Sides of the Atlantic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced the Leadership Institute for Transatlantic Engagement (LITE) Act (H.R.6239) to strengthen ties with U.S. allies, protect democratic institutions, and support visionary leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. “Numerous challenges are putting western democracies and the transatlantic partnership at risk, including disparities in wealth, health, employment, education, and justice that lead citizens to question whether democracy can deliver on its promise of freedom and opportunity for all,” said Chairman Hastings. “We must find new and better ways to help democratic leaders ensure that laws are equitable, transparent, and enforced; elections are free and fair; and the same protections, rights, and laws are extended to all in their constituencies.”  LITE would further codify transatlantic leadership exchanges and knowledge-building activities to equip western policymakers with legislative, communications, conflict resolution, and other leadership tools to strengthen democratic institutions in their societies as well as the transatlantic relationship.  Recognizing the rapid and ongoing demographic change on both sides of the Atlantic, LITE focuses on inclusive and intergenerational solutions to current challenges and would empower individuals across generations and from diverse backgrounds with the knowledge, tools, opportunity, and access to fully participate in their democracies. In addition, LITE would assist in community reunification by helping leaders develop strategies to build resilience against the exploitation of community grievances that can lead to dangerous divisions in society. For more than a decade, the Helsinki Commission has convened U.S. and European policymakers with the State Department and other partners under the banner of the Transatlantic Minority Political Leadership Conference and Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network to support increased political representation in western democracies.  In 2019, Helsinki Commission held hearings featuring European lawmakers, and focusing on global leadership, democracy, and public diplomacy.  In February 2020, the Helsinki Commission hosted more than 30 young legislators from OSCE participating States and partner countries to discuss the role of young people in peace and security efforts and forge a transatlantic network for political action to address emerging human rights and security challenges.

  • Chairman Hastings Introduces Bill to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday introduced H.R.6240, a bill to establish a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure fair access and opportunity to federal jobs for all Americans.  “Estimates indicate that by 2050, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be made up of Americans from diverse populations,” said Chairman Hastings. “Effectively governing our nation will require that we fill federal jobs—whether they are in the military, intelligence, foreign service, health, or education sectors—with an equally diverse federal workforce who can meet the needs of our country.” The bill would require the development of a government-wide diversity and inclusion plan to ensure that all branches of the federal government are engaged in multi-year strategic planning to recruit, hire, promote, retain, and support workers representing America’s diverse talent pool. It also calls for a review of diversity in government contracting and grant-making. “Diversity and inclusion are the underpinnings of democratic societies,” said Chairman Hastings. “It is time to ensure that those from all segments of our society have an equal opportunity to contribute to the future of our nation as part of the vibrant workforce that is at the heart of our democracy.” The introduction of the bill follows the February 2020 GAO report highlighting problems in the State Department and legislative initiatives to increase diversity in the national security workforce.  Advancing societies that are safe, inclusive, and equitable is central to the work of the Helsinki Commission. The commission supports programs to address inequities in employment, political participation, and other sectors for women and minorities and strives to empower communities to unite against bias and discrimination to foster truly democratic, inclusive, and free societies.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Commend Political Compromise in Georgia

    WASHINGTON—After a March 8 announcement that Georgia’s political leadership reached a deal paving the way for the adoption of compromise electoral reforms ahead of the October 2020 parliamentary election, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “Debate and compromise, two hallmarks of democracy, have rebuilt hope that Georgia’s leaders can bridge divisions and meet the demands of the people for accountability in electoral processes and outcomes,” Chairman Hastings said. “Having led an international election observation mission to Georgia, I commend the hard work it took to reach this agreement and the role of international ambassadors, particularly U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan, in facilitating it. As the agreement’s implementation proceeds, I hope to see prioritization of the parties’ joint commitment to address perceptions of politically-motivated criminal charges in recent months.” During the January 2008 presidential election in Georgia, Chairman Hastings served as head of the OSCE PA election observation mission and was appointed by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office as the Special Coordinator leading all OSCE short-term observers. “As a longtime champion of the United States’ strategic partnership with Georgia, I am glad to see Georgia’s political leaders take the path of dialogue to resolve this months-long crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “The coming months should serve as an opportunity for the Georgian people to regain confidence in the ability of their democratic institutions to represent their voices and render independent justice.” In December 2019, Co-Chairman Wicker sent a letter to Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia urging the ruling Georgian Dream party to address growing public discontent with preparations for the 2020 national election and a string of decisions that undermined public confidence in the rule of law. Since November, Georgia has been embroiled in a political crisis sparked by the surprise defeat in parliament of constitutional amendments that would have transitioned the country to a fully proportional electoral system for 2020 parliamentary elections. In response to a political crisis last summer, Georgian Dream Party Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili pledged his party would pass the amendments, which enjoyed broad support from Georgian political factions and international democracy advocates. Despite this pledge, a group of Georgian Dream parliamentarians voted last month to scuttle the proposal, prompting angry reactions across the Georgian political spectrum. This political controversy coincided with criminal prosecutions against several prominent opposition figures that created the appearance of selective enforcement of the law. Georgian Dream parliamentarians also disregarded an opposition boycott last week to approve 14 justices to lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court despite serious questions about some of their legal qualifications. 

  • Moldova

    Presidential elections in Moldova are quickly approaching. However, the country’s self-proclaimed “technocratic” government has yet to demonstrate a departure from the country’s post-Soviet history of grand kleptocracy and political strife. Moldovans have demanded greater access to the global economy through European integration, yet some political leaders are pivoting East with substantial security implications for the enduring frozen conflict in the breakaway territory of Transnistria. To this day, Moldovans demand accountability for the more than $1 billion siphoned from Moldova’s biggest banks between 2012 and 2014. However, key former political leaders implicated in this and other crimes are alleged to have escaped international sanctions, notably, ousted oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is allegedly at large in the United States. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore the societal fissures, security implications, and governance challenges at stake in the Republic of Moldova. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioner Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), a member of the U.S. delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed the existing conditions in Moldova under pro-Russian president Igor Dodon and affirmed U.S. support for stability and democracy in Moldova. “We hope to see Moldova reach its potential as a European nation of prosperity and the rule of law, rather than just another post-Soviet country under the thumb of Moscow,” he stated. The hearing exposed Moldova’s existing struggles with corruption and Russian influence and highlighted opportunities for the United States to support Moldova’s democratic aspirations. Ambassador William H. Hill, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies and former Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, emphasized continuing problems of corruption in Moldovan institutions, security issues regarding Russia and Transdniestria, and the role of the U.S. and the EU in supporting Moldova. Although he explained that Moldova has “strayed into a familiar pattern of cronyism, political reprisals, and geopolitical posturing,” Ambassador Hill expressed hope for progress. Tatyana Margolin, Regional Director of the Eurasia Program at Open Society Foundations,  highlighted the resilience of Moldova’s civil society and the lack of public trust in the government. She also called for free and fair elections, for criminal justice reform, and on the U.S. to find Plahotniuc and bring him to justice. Valeriu Pașa, Program Manager at WatchDog.MD,  testified to the problems of corruption and the absence of justice in Dodon’s administration. “Judges, prosecutors, as well as other officials are easily drawn into supporting illegalities,” leading the government to be highly incompetent, he explained. Pașa voiced his support existing U.S. sanctions under the Magnitsky Act and asked that the U.S. impose tougher sanctions on corrupt low-profile Moldovan officials.

  • Moldovan Governance and Accountability to be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: MOLDOVA Access and Accountability Tuesday, March 10, 2020 12:30 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Presidential elections in Moldova are quickly approaching. However, the country’s self-proclaimed “technocratic” government has yet to demonstrate a departure from the country’s post-Soviet history of grand kleptocracy and political strife. Moldovans have demanded greater access to the global economy through European integration, yet some political leaders are pivoting East with substantial security implications for the enduring frozen conflict in the breakaway territory of Transnistria. To this day, Moldovans demand accountability for the more than $1 billion siphoned from Moldova’s biggest banks between 2012 and 2014. However, key former political leaders implicated in this and other crimes are alleged to have escaped international sanctions. Witnesses at the hearing will explore the societal fissures, security implications, and  governance challenges at stake in the Republic of Moldova.  Can a country marred by deep corruption reverse its trajectory, and is there even any will to do so in this government?  What role will civil society play in Moldova’s reconstruction?  Will Socialist president Igor Dodon prioritize relations with Russia over the West, or manage to navigate between the two?  This hearing will explore these questions and more. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Ambassador William H. Hill, Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies & former Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova Tatyana Margolin, Regional Director – Eurasia Program, Open Society Foundations Valeriu Pașa, Program Manager, WatchDog.MD   

  • Helsinki Commission Chairman Condemns Russian-backed Syrian Government Offensive in Idlib

    WASHINGTON—In response to mounting casualties from clashes between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces in northwestern Syria and the Turkish government’s decision to open its borders to refugee flows toward mainland Europe, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “A vicious Russian and Syrian government offensive in Idlib province is responsible for the unacceptable military escalation, civilian suffering, and displacement crisis we have witnessed in recent days and weeks,” said Chairman Hastings. “Presidents Putin and Assad must stop this assault immediately and comply with international humanitarian law requiring them to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure. I further urge the Trump administration to deploy appropriate resources to address these pressing security and humanitarian challenges, which will undoubtedly impact the OSCE region. We must sustainably meet the needs of the most vulnerable and the countless refugees resulting from Russian and Syrian aggression.” On February 27, Russian-backed Syrian forces killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria. Following this incident, the Turkish government announced the opening of Turkey’s borders for refugees and migrants to go westward to European Union member countries, despite the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement “to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.” That agreement is founded on the multi-billion euro EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey established in 2015. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in a March 2 statement, the daily rate of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in Greece from Turkey has increased in March.     Since early December, fighting in northwestern Syria has displaced more than 948,000 people, including 569,000 children and 195,000 women, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Along with the United States, Tukey is a NATO ally. The United States, Russian Federation and Turkey, are  participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

  • Restrictions on Civil Society in Hungary

    Since returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government, which is now in its fourth (third consecutive) term. This has included introducing significant changes to the legal framework for parliamentary elections; stripping hundreds of faiths of their state recognition in 2011 and then channeling money to religious groups that do not challenge government positions (increasing dependence of those groups on the state); overseeing the consolidation of most Hungarian media, first into the hands of government-tied oligarchy and then into a single foundation exempt from anti-trust regulation; and eroding judicial independence by, for example, expanding and packing the constitutional court. In light of restrictions imposed on political opposition, faith organizations, the media and the judiciary, the role of Hungarian civil society in holding the government to account (by, for example, suing the government for non-compliance with the Hungarian constitution or Hungary’s international legal commitments) has taken on heightened importance. At the same time, civil society organizations have become the targets of escalating rhetorical attacks and legislative restrictions, including laws that significantly lower the bar for what it takes to jail people who seek to exercise their freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law and Daniela Ondraskova, Max Kampelman Fellow

  • Chairman Hastings on Anniversaries of Sumgait Pogrom and Khojaly Massacre

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) yesterday issued a floor statement on the anniversaries of the Sumgait Pogrom and the Khojaly Massacre, two pivotal tragedies in the in the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The statement reads in part: “Although separated by four years and 200 miles, the Sumgait Pogrom in 1988 and Khojaly Massacre in 1992 both demonstrated the heinous potential of interethnic hatreds to tear apart communities and trample human dignity. The commemoration of these horrific events is an opportunity to reflect on the innocent lives lost in this ongoing conflict as well as a chance to affirm the need for urgent steps to heal these wounds and sue for peace once and for all… “I strongly encourage the political leadership in Yerevan and Baku to use these solemn commemorations of Sumgait and Khojaly this week to turn a new page in this terrible conflict. The most fitting way to honor the lives of those lost would be through words of reconciliation and steps toward peace. Together, the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan can ensure such atrocities are never be repeated and that future generations will know a life of secure and prosperous coexistence.” Download the full statement.  

  • Chairman Hastings, Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate Fifth Anniversary of Nemtsov Murder

    WASHINGTON—On the five-year anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “We must never forget the ultimate price Boris Nemtsov paid for seeking true democracy and political justice for the Russian people,” said Chairman Hastings. “Five years ago today, Russia lost one of its most fervent advocates, targeted for his activism and speaking truth to power.  Justice still has not been served in his case. I regret that Russian authorities clearly have chosen politics over finding and prosecuting those responsible for orchestrating Nemtsov’s death. International voices must keep Boris Nemtsov’s memory alive until—and after—we receive answers.” “The anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination is a reminder of the repression in Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Nemtsov knew well the dangers he faced as a critic of Putin and as an advocate for real democracy and freedom for the people of Russia. He was gunned down in the middle of Moscow five years ago today, and still the Russian government has refused to conduct a thorough investigation into who ordered his murder. There is no doubt that Nemtsov’s death was a meticulously plotted political hit, and I hope that one day Nemtsov’s family, friends, and fellow Russian citizens will see justice delivered in his case. Until then, we honor his memory and salute those brave individuals who carry on his legacy.” On February 27, 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge directly in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Although various people have been arrested in connection with Nemtsov’s death, Russian authorities have failed to truly investigate who ordered and organized the murder. A recent report authored by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Rapporteur Margareta Cederfelt of Sweden is the most conclusive study of the case to this date; however, the Government of Russia did not cooperate with her requests for information. In 2018, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing to help to shed light on the circumstances of Nemtsov’s murder, the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia.

  • Human Rights and Democracy

    For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. Although best known for international election observation, ODIHR has also been instrumental in countering various forms of intolerance, helping governments combat human trafficking, protecting human rights defenders, and implementing OSCE commitments to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to demonstrate bipartisan support for ODIHR, to reinforce the U.S.’s support related OSCE initiatives, and to hear about the ongoing work of ODIHR.  Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Wilson’s opening remarks highlighted the historic achievements of ODIHR, which include assisting countries to “transition from communism to democracy,” supporting “civil society participation in OSCE events,” and facilitating “strong cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly.”  In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir addressed multiple challenges that have impeded the effectiveness of ODIHR activities. She then outlined ODIHR’s role in offering proactive solutions.  In particular, Ambassador Gísladóttir stressed the importance of dialogue and asserted that democracy is about “respect and trust, an acceptance of differing opinions, an exchange of views, and the willingness to share power and seek compromise.” She concluded on an optimistic note, emphasizing unity within the OSCE and its “commitment to democracy and to the wellbeing of its people.” Although conscious of ODIHR’s efforts, commissioners voiced concerns that some OSCE participating States are not complying with their commitments to uphold basic human rights standards. Commissioners specifically acknowledged restrictions on religious freedom in Russia, poor conditions for activists and journalists, and rising anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma people across the region. This hearing continued the Helsinki Commission practice of regularly engaging with senior OSCE officials.The Commission typically holds hearing with the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE. The Commission has also held hearings with previous ODIHR directors as well as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

  • Life Under Occupation

    Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate. Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened the hearing to explore Russia’s ongoing assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for human rights. As an occupying power, Russia bears the full weight of responsibility for the abuses being inflicted on the population of Crimea. Panelists discussed Russia’s repression of basic freedoms in Crimea and persecution of those who don’t recognize Russian authority. Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) chaired the hearing and was joined by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and commissioners Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Chairman Hastings’ opening remarks addressed Russia’s attempts to stymie Ukraine’s relationship with the European community and the brutal tactics used throughout Crimea’s occupation. Hastings shed a light on the harsh reality of Russia’s continued occupation, which is “aimed at forcing a proud people into submission, whether they be civil society activists, community or religious leaders, artists, journalists, or simply those whose religion and ethnicity are viewed with distrust and fear.”   This hearing featured testimony from Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He was released in September 2019. Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, also served as witnesses. Sentsov addressed Russia’s “fabricated legal cases” and “long-term imprisonment” against those who simply think differently. He also testified about the various forms of torture he endured in a Russian prison. Sentsov voiced his appreciation for the United States’ continued efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and asked that Congress maintain pressure on the Putin regime. Tasheva focused her testimony on Russia’s persecution and internal displacement of “disloyal” groups, specifically the Crimean Tatars. Tasheva also called for the creation of an “international platform for negotiations on the return of the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to sovereign Ukrainian jurisdiction.” Haring addressed the lack of free press in Crimea, asserting that “the media is controlled by the government.” She praised Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Crimea service, which tracks developments in Crimea and broadcasts them in three languages to the Crimean population. Haring also warned that the situation in Crimea is worsening, and that Russia has “effectively turned Crimea into a Russian military base.”  Throughout the hearing, commissioners expressed their concerns for freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of the press in Crimea. Commissioners also assured witnesses that support for President Zelensky and the fight for freedom in Ukraine is bipartisan and resolute.

  • Director of OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY Obstacles and Opportunities in the OSCE Region Wednesday, January 29, 2020 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For nearly three decades, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been at the forefront of efforts to promote human rights and democracy throughout the 57-nation OSCE region. In her first appearance before Congress, ODIHR Director Ambassador Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir will discuss the organization’s flagship work in international election observation; countering anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance; and helping governments to combat human trafficking, protect human rights defenders, and better implement their commitments to fundamental freedoms including assembly and religion. The OSCE, the world’s largest regional security body, is based on a comprehensive concept of security that recognizes that respect for human rights and functioning democratic institutions underpin regional peace and security. ODIHR provides support, assistance, and expertise to participating States and civil society to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and tolerance and non-discrimination. ODIHR observes elections at the invitation of participating States, reviews legislation, and advises governments on how to develop and sustain democratic institutions. The office also works closely with the OSCE’s field operations and organizes Europe’s largest annual human rights meeting, bringing together annually hundreds of government officials, international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists.  

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Deteriorating Human Rights Situation in Crimea

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: LIFE UNDER OCCUPATION The State of Human Rights in Crimea Tuesday, January 28, 2020 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Nearly six years into Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, the human rights situation there continues to deteriorate.  Russian authorities have restricted freedom of speech and assembly, suppressed civil society activity, persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, muzzled dissent, and continue to implement an aggressive process of “Russification” toward residents of the peninsula.  The hearing will feature Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who was sentenced to 20 years in jail by a Russian court on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014. In 2018, Sentsov became a worldwide symbol of defiance and courage when he launched a hunger strike on behalf of all Ukrainian political prisoners being held by Russia. He and other witnesses will discuss the Russian Government’s continued assault on Crimea’s vulnerable minorities, as well as its blatant disregard for basic rights. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker held prisoner by Russia for five years Tamila Tasheva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute

  • An Assessment of the Open Skies Treaty

    By Juliet Michaelsen, Max Kampelman Fellow Recently, a somewhat obscure security and confidence-building measure returned to the headlines. In October 2019, reports surfaced that the Trump Administration was considering withdrawing from the Treaty on Open Skies, an overflight arrangement designed to boost military transparency and stability across 34 signatories in North American and Eurasia. What is the Open Skies Treaty? In 1955, President Eisenhower first proposed that the United States and Soviet Union allow aerial observation flights over each other’s territories to reduce the risk of miscommunication and subsequent war. Although initially rejected by the Soviets, the idea of Open Skies was revived by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. Bush built on Eisenhower’s vision, suggesting the agreement not just be between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In 1992, the Open Skies Treaty was signed by the United States, Canada, Russia, and 21 European states. Since the treaty entered into force in 2002, membership has increased to 34 states. The treaty requires that all participants allow observation aircraft to fly over their territory to observe and take pictures of military forces and activities. These images are shared with the observing and observed states, and available for purchase by other treaty signatories. The Open Skies Treaty’s fundamental purpose—enhancing military transparency and cooperation—flows from the same set of commitments that underpin both the Helsinki Commission and the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As Alexandra Bell noted during a Helsinki on the Hill podcast on Open Skies, this “increased openness between militaries will reduce tensions between states and limit the probability of conflict [because] if you know what another country has, if it’s clearly observable to you, you don’t have to plan for things that you’re just guessing about.” Assessing the Treaty During the treaty’s almost 18 years of implementation, the parties have conducted over 1,500 observation flights. The cooperation required to solve logistical problems (such as air traffic control) and inspect planes is one important confidence-building measure. Another is the fact that host countries also have personnel on any observation flight, thus ensuring the flight stays within its agreed plan. This collaboration increases mutual trust and encourages cooperation. Additionally, the Open Skies Consultative Commission, the implementing body of the Open Skies Treaty based at the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s (OSCE) headquarters in Vienna, provides one of the few remaining forums where the United States and Russia can discuss problems and collaborate on solutions. The treaty also allows the United States to provide an important benefit to its allies and partners, who typically ride on flights conducted by the United States. Specifically, as Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II noted during a joint hearing of the Helsinki Commission and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy and the Environment, the treaty “allows even small countries a way to get information on military activities around them [which] has been even more important given the Kremlin’s propensity to violate established borders.” One notable example came in December 2018 after Russia attached Ukrainian naval vessels near the Kerch Strait. The United States undertook an Open Skies flight, which was “intended to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations,” according to the Department of Defense, a message underscored by the flight’s inclusion of personnel from Canada, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Romania, and—crucially—Ukraine. The Open Skies Treaty also has heightened transparency, specifically between the United States and Russia. Both countries have conducted numerous observation flights over the other’s territory. The United States and its allies have flown about 500 flights over Russia since the treaty’s implementation, including 16 in 2019 alone. According to the State Department, the United States participated in nearly three times as many flights over Russia as Russia has over the United States. The images captured by these flights serve as a crucial, credible, unclassified source of information about Russian forces at a time when Europe and the United States are often uneasy about Russia’s intentions. The Open Skies Treaty does face criticism by some politicians and analysts. For example, a Senate resolution introduced by Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton calls for the United States’ withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, citing Russia’s partial non-compliance as a major problem the treaty. Specifically, Russia has restricted Open Skies flights over its military hub in Kaliningrad and restricted the conduct of flights near its border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, the State Department does not consider these problems insurmountable and has taken many steps to address these issues, including bringing the problem to the Open Skies Consultative Committee, restricting Russian flights over Hawaii, and denying access to two United States airbases. The Future of the Open Skies Treaty In the wake of President Trump’s reported plan to withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, many members of Congress have expressed support for the agreement and warned of the dangers of withdrawal. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel first sounded the alarm in a publicly released letter to National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien on October 7, 2019. In the letter, Engel expressed concern about such reports and argued that “American withdrawal would only benefit Russia and be harmful for our allies’ and partners’ national security interests.” Soon after, numerous members of Congress came together to urge foreign policy officials to keep the treaty. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith and Sens. Robert Menendez and Jack Reed (the ranking members of the foreign relations and armed services committees, respectively), joined Rep. Engel in writing a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Esper, highlighting the importance of Open Skies. A similar letter was sent to Secretary Pompeo by 11 Democratic senators two weeks later. In November 2019, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings co-sponsored the bipartisan “Open Skies Treaty Stability Act,” which would prevent the president from unilaterally withdrawing the United States from the treaty by setting conditions on any potential steps towards withdrawal. The bill specifically notes that “due to the significant benefits that observation missions under the Open Skies Treaty provide to the United States and United States allies, the United States should commit to continued participation in the Treaty; and the President should not withdraw the United States from the Open Skies Treaty.” Support for the Open Skies Treaty extends beyond Capitol Hill. For example, in an October 20, 2019, Wall Street Journal contribution, former-national security officials George Shultz, William J. Perry and Sam Nunn suggested that “Open Skies has become what Eisenhower envisioned—a critical confidence-building treaty that improves Euro-Atlantic security with every flight. The U.S. should preserve this agreement, particularly in a time of renewed tensions with Russia.”  Similar calls have come from abroad. The Political and Security Affairs Committee Chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) strongly urged the United States to stay in the treaty, citing the increased transparency and cooperation fostered by the agreement. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry expressed their interest in “maintaining and implementing this treaty” in a statement to the Wall Street Journal. The vocal advocacy both within and outside of the United States for the continuation of the Open Skies Treaty sheds light on its important role in Euro-Atlantic security and cooperation.

  • Chairman Hastings Urges Ukraine to Grant Akhmetova Political Asylum

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Tuesday’s trial to determine whether journalist and activist Zhanara Akhmetova will be granted political asylum in Ukraine or face extradition to her home country of Kazakhstan, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “By granting asylum to Zhanara Akhmetova, the Government of Ukraine can demonstrate its commitment to protecting the fundamental freedoms of those who peacefully express political dissent. Her request for asylum clearly is motivated by real and dangerous political persecution in her home country. Ukraine must stand firmly on the side of human rights and allow Ms. Akhmetova to remain safely in the country.” Akhmetova fled to Ukraine in 2017 after she was targeted by authorities in Kazakhstan for her reporting and for peacefully expressing her political opinions through the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) movement, an opposition party associated with the main political opponent of former President Nazarbayev. Later that year, Ukrainian authorities detained her following a request by the Government of Kazakhstan, which previously has misused Interpol mechanisms to target opposition figures. In the past, Ukrainian authorities sometimes have cooperated with requests by the authorities of Central Asian states to return persecuted individuals. Persons affiliated with the DCK have previously faced mistreatment and torture at the hands of Kazakh authorities, suggesting that Akhmetova’s extradition would seriously endanger her safety. Ukrainian migration authorities have twice denied Akhmetova’s request for asylum, although Ukraine’s Supreme Court has ordered that the case be reconsidered as political.

  • First Person: Nothing Unusual

    By Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor Election day began like every November day in Belarus: black. Without the time change that makes a late-autumn morning in DC bearable, darkness enveloped Belarus until almost 9:00 a.m. We would be rising much earlier than that to observe the opening of the polls for the November 17 parliamentary election. This was my second election observation, after the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election in March 2019. That election was widely considered free and fair—a great achievement for a new democracy plagued by a Soviet legacy. In Belarus, the last election generally considered free and fair was the 1994 election of President Alexander Lukashenko, who remains in power, with essentially complete control over the government, 25 years later.   Most Belarus-watchers suspected that much of the number-fudging was done before the arrival of election day observers. Early voting took place throughout the week before election day, providing an opportunity to inflate turnout numbers. Multiple opposition candidates could not even make it on the ballot due to selectively-imposed restrictions and technicalities applied to stamp out the competition well before voting took place. Neither I nor the other members of my election observation team (two diplomats already in Minsk: one from the U.S. Embassy, and one from the Swedish Embassy), expected many surprises from the conduct and outcome of the elections. The day started smoothly enough, with a standard, albeit sparsely attended, opening. As we moved on to other polling stations throughout the day, the conditions were mainly the same: observers registered with the chair of the election commission for that precinct and were seated at a table specifically for observers, both national and international. Sign directing voters to polling sites in Belarus. Because the vast majority of OSCE PA observers remained in the Minsk region, and we had traveled a few hours northeast to Vitebsk, we came across only Belarusian observers, whether from trade unions, political parties, or other groups. The observer tables were far enough away from the action that in most cases we could not see much of the voter sign-in and identification check process. When we asked to see the voter lists, we were denied in multiple instances. This was startling for me; in Ukraine, we wandered freely throughout polling stations and had access to everything. Nevertheless, the mood was festive and the people friendly. Music—from disco to Soviet favorites to patriotic tunes—played in the background at several polling places. We received candies in one location and a proud explanation of the region’s main industry in another. A few photos were taken with us, and at one polling place a neighboring observer remarked how interested she was that I had come all the way from the United States just for the election in Belarus! Despite the fun and frivolity, it became clear to us by the end of the day that, though we had seen no gross violations in conduct, the whole process lacked the transparency I had witnessed in Ukraine, or that should be expected in any OSCE country committed to democratic norms.   Nowhere was this more apparent than during the count. As usual, we were confined to the observers’ table just far enough from where the action was taking place to limit real observation. The mobile voting, early voting, and election day ballots were collected and counted in one pile, silently. Because we could not fully see or hear the count, there was no way of knowing whether it was accurate, even though the precinct chairwoman came over occasionally to riffle through the marked ballots for us. By only 9:15 p.m.—the polls had closed at 8—the count was finished and a winner declared. Votes being counted at a polling site. Our next step was to follow our companions from the polling station to the District Election Commission, where they would deliver the results protocol and election materials. After watching a few deliveries from around the area and encountering many familiar faces from earlier in the day, we decided to head back to the hotel, arriving at a remarkably early 10:30 p.m. Though it was still a long and exhausting day, many such elections, including the one I’d observed in Ukraine, had counts lasting long into the night. The next morning’s results were both surprising and unsurprising. It was no great shock to see that the reported turnout was over 77 percent—suspiciously high for elections to a body with no real power. According to the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, the OSCE International Election Observation Mission noted that early voting turnout in particular (35.77 percent) seemed inflated compared to the reports of observers. More disturbingly, not a single opposition candidate was elected (there had been two in the previous parliament). That Lukashenko would not permit even a semblance of pluralism calls into question the seriousness of his seeming attempts to court the West when faced with a revanchist and controlling Russia—a topic which the U.S. Helsinki Commission explored in a hearing held shortly after the election. Observers would be wise to watch the trajectory of the country as Lukashenko navigates his tricky relationships with the West and Russia. Ultimately, stability—in large part the stability of his own job—will be first in his mind as the 2020 Belarusian presidential election swiftly approaches. A major political upheaval is not likely in the cards. When my colleague stationed in Grodna asked a young independent observer if he’d seen anything interesting or unusual during election day, the observer responded, “Unusual? No. Nothing unusual. This is Belarus. There has been nothing unusual for 25 years.”

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