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First Person: Nothing Unusual
2019 Parliamentary Elections in Belarus
Friday, December 20, 2019

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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Other companies are offering biometric options, using apps to verify that a passport showing the appropriate age belongs to the person offering the passport as verification. “We now have the technology to protect children online,” said Allen.  “A few data points sent to a third party can effectively verify age without necessarily disclosing identity.” The pending supplementary item received sponsorship from 54 parliamentarians representing 26 countries.  President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Christine Muttonen, has offered her support. Since raising this issue at the St. Petersburg Annual Session in 1999, Rep. Smith has introduced or cosponsored a supplementary item or amendments on trafficking at every annual session of the OSCE PA, including on issues such as prevention of sex tourism, situational awareness for the detection of trafficking victims in transit, and corporate responsibility for trafficking in supply chains.

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  • OSCE Debates Future of European Security

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Can an organization of 57 participating States which includes both the United States and Russia come to agreement on the causes of instability in European security today, let alone re-commit to the basic rules of the road governing states’ behavior?  And are all participating States – especially Russia – still able and willing to participate in good faith in a positive-sum, cooperative approach to building security, rather than a competitive, beggar-thy-neighbor approach? These were the questions that underpinned the OSCE Security Days conference of non-governmental experts and governmental representatives on “Countering fragmentation and polarization: Re-creating a climate for stability in Europe,” held on May 18-19, 2017 in Prague.  While the Czech hosts were proud to inform attendees that the meeting was held in the very hall in which the July 1, 1991 protocol dissolving the Warsaw Pact was signed, it seemed unlikely that this historical spirit would deliver positive breakthroughs in the current challenges facing the post-Cold War order in Europe, which was declared dead by more than one speaker. The great majority of interventions focused on the deliberate undermining of other countries’ security and independence by Russia. Additional challenges raised by speakers included increasing polarization within and among states, the rise of populist movements, a post-truth environment that feeds instability and mistrust, and the emergence of the cyber domain and its use in interstate competition. Russian revisionist perspectives on the European security order, declared on such occasions as President Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, underline the extent to which Russian leaders see the post- cold war order as detrimental to Russia’s interests and therefore obsolete, according to several speakers. Conference participants from Russia, for their part, painted an entirely different reality than that described by most other participants. In the former’s telling, the west took advantage of Russia in the post-cold war period despite positive actions by Russia, ranging from the withdrawal of troops and armaments previously stationed across Europe, to more recent collaboration in fighting against piracy or eliminating Syrian chemical weapons. Stressing the concept of indivisibility of security, Russian speakers underlined that Russia would make no more of what they called unilateral concessions, and called for a new European Security Treaty.  NATO’s concept of deterring Russia is not compatible with OSCE commitments, they asserted. Seeking to address these widely differing perspectives among its membership, the German Chairmanship in 2016 and the Austrian Chairmanship in 2017 have launched an informal working group on “structured dialogue” to discuss participating States’ differing views on security threats and possible ways forward.  Conference participants were of mixed views on the prospects for the structured dialogue effort, with skeptics citing what they saw as similar past processes such as the Corfu Process or Helsinki +40, which failed to show concrete results.  Many participants were keen to underline the need for the structured dialogue to avoid calling existing institutions or principles into question.  The challenges facing European security were not institutional in nature, these voices argued, but rather the result of one OSCE participating State – Russia – failing to uphold its commitments or respect the sovereignty and independence of other participating States. Conference participants offered a number of policy recommendations for strengthening the OSCE (such as providing a small crisis response fund under the Secretary General’s authority; providing additional tangible assets like unmanned aerial vehicles; supporting historical research to better understand the sources of divergent perspectives; or modernizing arms control and confidence building measures).  The OSCE should pay more attention to the increasing instability in the Western Balkans, it was suggested, and ongoing work on cyber norms had real potential utility. Individual participating States were urged to combat disinformation campaigns by investing in tools to rapidly rebut false claims, educate publics, and discredit outlets that serve as propaganda, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms.  Despite these and other positively-inclined recommendations, however, the general mood at the conference was one of urgency, not optimism. If one point of general consensus emerged among the widely differing perspectives, it was that in the face of increasingly complex and urgent challenges (many of them caused by or closely linked to Russia’s geopolitical stance, according to the great majority of conference attendees) the absence of shared views and approaches was unlikely to resolve itself in the near term. This dynamic was likely to contribute to a worsening of existing and emerging security crises – and ultimately the further loss of lives. Alex Tiersky attended the conference as a representative of the U.S Helsinki Commission.

  • The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

    The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains one of the world’s most intractable and long-standing territorial and ethnic disputes. Its fragile no-peace, no-war situation poses a serious threat to stability in the South Caucasus region and beyond.  The conflict features at its core a fundamental tension between two key tenets of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act: territorial integrity and the right to self-determination. As part of the Helsinki Commission’s continued engagement on security challenges across Europe and Eurasia, this short primer on the conflict lays out the conflict’s origins and recent evolution, as well as the role of key players including Russia, the United States, and the OSCE. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor, Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor, and Anna Zamejc, Lantos Fellow

  • OSCE Debates Counterterrorism Approaches

    By Alex Tiersky, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs Advisor Several hundred officials, academics, journalists, NGO representatives and youth ambassadors gathered in Vienna on May 23-24, 2017 for the OSCE’s annual counterterrorism conference.  The event was convened around the subject of “Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization that Lead to Terrorism.” The subject matter could hardly have been more pressing, with the conference taking place in the immediate wake of the tragic terrorist attack in Manchester, England.  That attack – and those suffered by so many OSCE participating States in recent months and years – served to heighten the sense of urgency towards finding ways to address all aspects of the problem, from effectively preventing radicalization that leads to violence, to ensuring societies are resilient in the face of future attacks. OSCE participating States were particularly concerned about the continued threat posed by so-called “foreign terrorist fighters” – citizens of their countries who traveled abroad to fight, in particular to Iraq and Syria, who could return with the intent to inflict attacks on their home countries.  Experts at the meeting voiced concern that many countries are unprepared for the challenge of mitigating any threat posed by these individuals – including children who may have been radicalized as a result of travel as part of families – upon their return. Youth are particularly vulnerable to radicalization and a key element of any sustainable and effective strategy to counter it, according to the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. He stated that recent OSCE youth workshops had called for greater inclusion of young people in anti-radicalization discussions and strategies; efforts to eliminate propaganda from social media; and broader dissemination of narratives describing the negative results of radicalization. Conference participants differed somewhat on whether best practices in countering extremism developed in one country were universally applicable, or whether local (or even family-level) actors, who may be best placed to identify early warning signs of radicalization and counter it, should be emphasized. Still, most participants underlined that counterterrorism approaches that failed to emphasize the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and support to civil society, or that singled out religious or ethnic communities, would ultimately prove counterproductive.  The OSCE itself served as a useful platform on this issue, according to head of the U.S. Delegation Irfan Saeed (the Director of the Department of State’s Office of Countering Violent Extremism), who commended ongoing OSCE programs such as the capacity-building work of OSCE Field Missions and the #UnitedCVE social media campaign.  Among the many recommendations offered by various conference participants for heightened national or international efforts were the following: Supporting capacity building efforts by OSCE field missions in the Balkans and Central Asia. Strengthening border controls. Improving governmental interoperability of information systems and access to encrypted information, as well as the ability to process large amounts of data rapidly. Increasing the sharing of biometric data collection to improve effectiveness of policing and border controls. Greater sharing of financial information to detect terrorist networks and their financing. Ensuring cooperation between local communities and law enforcement. Fighting online radicalization and propaganda, in collaboration with the private sector. Addressing the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls and empowering their contributions to countering extremism. Strengthening legal systems to prevent impunity. Using data-driven approaches to assess the effectiveness of programs. Developing and promoting a positive, inclusive vision for Western societies to serve as an alternative to the hate-filled narrative of violent groups. Combatting the challenge of radicalization in prisons. Despite a number of areas of agreement, there were some differences of opinion among the conference participants, including how prominently values should feature in any counterterrorism approach; the characterization of specific groups as “terrorist;” or the use of censorship to address potentially extremist speech on line. One consistently outlying view was expressed by Russian delegates, including Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov, who claimed that (unnamed) partners often committed only rhetorically to countering terrorism rather than acting as part of a global anti-terrorist front, and chastised Western partners who, he said, put their own “geopolitical ambitions” above the need to counter terrorism.  Other Russian interventions included accusations that Western states tolerated or even supported terrorist groups and suggestions that excessive liberalism allowed for terrorists to go unchecked in Western societies.  The interventions served as a reminder of the obstacles that remain to fully maximizing the utility of international cooperation to address this common challenge. Alex Tiersky attended the conference as a member of the U.S. delegation, which was led by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.

  • CANCELLED: Austrian Foreign Minister to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    CANCELLED WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “AUSTRIA’S CHAIRMANSHIP OF THE OSCE: PRIORITIES AND CHALLENGES” Tuesday, June 6, 2017 10:30AM Russell Senate Office Building Room 188 In 2017, Austria holds the Chairmanship-in-Office of the world’s largest regional security body: the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE is currently facing a series of challenges including Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine; ongoing “frozen” conflicts;  human rights violations and backsliding in implementation of OSCE commitments; increased violence throughout the region ranging from terrorist attacks to hate crimes; human trafficking; and several high-level institutional vacancies that impact the organization’s effectiveness. Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sebastian Kurz, will discuss Austria’s priorities and progress to date as it nears the midway point of its year holding the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office.

  • A Call to OSCE Commitments in Aftermath of Turkish Referendum

    Mr. President, I rise today to express my concerns about the outcome of the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey, when more than 50 million Turkish citizens voted on constitutional amendments to convert Turkey’s parliamentary government into a presidential system.   Turkey is a longstanding friend of the United States and a NATO ally.  Our bilateral partnership dates back to the Cold War when Turkey served as an important bulwark against the creeping influence of the Soviet Union.  Time has not diminished Turkey’s geostrategic importance. Today, Ankara finds itself at the intersection of several critical challenges: the instability in Syria and Iraq, the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups, and the refugee crisis spawned by this regional upheaval.     The United States relies on Turkey and other regional partners to help coordinate and strengthen our collective response.  I was deeply troubled when renegade military units attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government last July.  Turkey’s strength is rooted in the democratic legitimacy of its government – a pillar of stability targeted by the reckless and criminal coup attempt.         As Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or U.S. Helsinki Commission, I take very seriously the political commitments made by the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  These commitments – held by both the United States and Turkey – represent the foundation of security and cooperation in the OSCE region.  They include an indispensable focus on human rights, rule of law, and democratic institutions.    In the OSCE’s founding document, the Helsinki Final Act, participating States affirm “the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and consider respect for these to be an “essential factor” for international peace and security. This vision is consistent with long-established U.S. foreign policy promoting human rights and democracy as cornerstones of a safer, more stable international order.      With these principles in mind, the United States must pay urgent attention to the current situation in Turkey and the danger it poses to Turkish and regional stability.  Eroding respect for fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and democratic institutions in Turkey has proceeded at an alarming pace.  The government’s planned “executive presidency” will further decrease government accountability. Since the attempted coup more than nine months ago, Turkey has operated under a state of emergency that gives the government sweeping authority to curtail rights and silence opponents.  Certain extraordinary measures may have been justified in the immediate aftermath to restore order, investigate events, and bring perpetrators to justice, but the government’s actions have stretched far beyond these legitimate aims.  The ongoing purge has touched every institution of government, sector of society, corner of the country, and shade of opposition – military or civilian, Turk or Kurd, religious or secular, nationalist or leftist, political or non-political.   An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has settled over Turkish society as more than 100,000 people have been detained or arrested.  Tens of thousands have been fired from their jobs, had their professional licenses revoked, and had their names released on public lists without any recognizable due process.  The government removed and replaced thousands of judges and prosecutors within hours of the coup’s defeat, compromising the independence of the judiciary at a moment when an impartial justice system had become more important than ever. The government has also closed more than 150 media outlets.  Upwards of 80 journalists are behind bars.  The offices of the country’s oldest newspaper were raided, and the paper’s editor-in-chief and other staff were arrested.  The media environment was already under extraordinary pressure before the coup. Last spring, the government seized control of the country’s highest-circulation paper.  Self-censorship is now widely practiced to avoid provoking the government’s ire.   Additionally, state of emergency decrees have given regional governors the ability to curtail freedom of assembly rights, harming the ability of civil society organizations to organize rallies concerning the referendum.  Since July, the government has detained more than a dozen opposition parliamentarians. Many more continue to face criminal charges for political statements they made before the coup attempt.    It is difficult to overstate the chilling effect these measures have had on political debate in Turkey. And yet, these are the circumstances under which Turks voted on April 16.  These major constitutional changes passed with a slim majority of 51 percent.  The OSCE’s international observation mission stated in its preliminary conclusions that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field” and that “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”  Under the revised constitution, the once largely ceremonial position of president will convert into an “executive presidency” and the position of prime minister will be abolished.  The president will be elected along with the national assembly every five years and has the ability to dissolve the assembly and call new elections at will.  The president will also appoint a larger proportion — nearly half — of the country’s supreme judicial council.  In a report on these new constitutional provisions, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the amendments are a “step backwards” and pose “dangers of degeneration … towards an authoritarian and personal regime.”    Turkey is undergoing a disturbing transformation, and I am concerned these changes could undermine the strength of our partnership.  President Erdogan’s government has dramatically repressed dissent, purged opponents from every sector of government and society, and is now poised to consolidate power further under his self-described “executive presidency.” In the short term, the Turkish government should act swiftly and transparently to investigate credible claims of voting irregularities in the referendum as well as the legality of a surprise electoral board decision to admit an unknown number of ballots that should be deemed invalid under existing rules.  Public trust in the outcome of such a consequential vote is of utmost importance.  Sadly, until now, the government has responded to these challenges with dismissiveness and suppression.  In the past week, dozens of activists have been detained for participating in protests against the election results. Furthermore, the government should lift the state of emergency, stop all forms of repression against the free press, release all imprisoned journalists and political activists, and urgently restore public confidence in the judiciary.  Only then can it credibly and independently adjudicate the tens of thousands of cases caught up in the government’s months-long dragnet operations. A country where disagreements are suppressed rather than debated is less secure. A country where institutions are subordinated to personalities is less stable.  A country where criticism is conflated with sedition is less democratic.  Unless President Erdogan moves urgently to reverse these trends, I fear our partnership will inevitably become more transactional and less strategic.  It will become more difficult to justify long-term investment in our relationship with Turkey if the future of the country becomes synonymous with the fortunes of one party or one individual. The United States and Turkey need a solid foundation for enduring cooperation to tackle regional instability, terrorism, migration, and other challenges. The future of this partnership is difficult to imagine in the midst of a prolonged state of emergency, wide-scale purges, and weakened democratic institutions.

  • Turkey Post-Referendum: Institutions and Human Rights

    Human rights abuses by the Turkish government have proliferated under the state-sanctioned emergency measures imposed in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt.  Turkish authorities have fired as many as 130,000 public workers, including teachers, academics, police officers, and soldiers, and thousands have been arrested. Hundreds of journalists have had their credentials revoked and dozens of media outlets have been shut down. Human rights groups have documented widespread reports of intimidation, ill-treatment and torture of those in police custody. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on a package of amendments that transforms the country’s institutions in major ways. The position of prime minister was eliminated and the executive powers of the president were expanded, enabling him to appoint ministers without parliamentary approval, exert more influence over the judiciary, and call early elections. Coming on top of the post-coup crackdown, how will Turkey’s changing institutions affect human rights in the country? Panelists at the briefing discussed how U.S. policymakers can most effectively encourage the protection of human rights to promote the interests of the Turkish people given the strategic importance of the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship.

  • How the State of Russian Media Becomes the State of International Media

    It was a bad week for reports on freedom of the media in Russia. On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders released its 2017 world press freedom index. Russia came in at 148, after such bastions of independent media as South Sudan and Thailand. On Thursday, a Ukrainian human rights delegation briefed the Helsinki Commission on the case of Oleg Sentsov — a Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in a Siberian penal colony for his opposition to the annexation of Crimea — and abuses of Ukrainian journalists and creative professionals more broadly. On Friday, Freedom House unveiled its Freedom of the Press 2017 report. That report gives Russia partial credit for the world’s 13-year low in press freedom. “Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia has been a trailblazer in globalizing state propaganda. It continues to leverage pro-Kremlin reporting around the world,” the report states. The three taken in tandem tell a story — one in which violence against journalists in Russia and the region is connected to violence against journalism around the world. Consider the case of Oleg Sentsov. In 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. In his trial, he said he had been tortured. The international human rights community believes this to have been payback for the filmmaker’s outspoken stance against the annexation of Crimea (it is also worth noting that Russia treated Sentsov, a Ukrainian, as though he were a Russian citizen; after the annexation of Crimea, Russia considered all who did not explicitly apply for Ukrainian citizenship to be Russian, to which Sentsov objected in court by saying, “I am not a serf to be transferred with the land”). Russian-backed media reported it as a terrorism case. And so the case contains both the physical threat that looms over journalists and creative types who fail to parrot the party line and also the threat that Russian state-backed media can pose to understanding in the wider world. “Many people perceive [Russian state-backed media] not as propaganda, but as an alternative point of view,” Natalya Kaplan, Sentsov’s cousin, told Foreign Policy in an interview before heading to the Helsinki Commission briefing. “They tend to trust what Russian propaganda says.” In the case of Sentsov, that means some outside of Russia (to say nothing of those in it) thought he was neither filmmaker nor terrorist, but some combination of the two. Americans can no longer tell the difference between actual fake news and fake fake news, Ukrainian PEN member Halya Coynash told FP. “The thing is that you really think the media and information you get from Russian media, it is media. Which is wrong. We have state media, and state media are part of [the] strategy of [the state],” said Mustafa Nayyem, journalist turned Ukrainian member of parliament. Alternative facts are not facts, and false equivalences are not equivalent. But consumers of Russian state-backed media around the globe can be duped into treating them as such, Nayyem said. He argued Russia presents reality and a bold-faced lie as though they are but two different perspectives, the truth of which lies somewhere in the middle, for viewers to decide for themselves. “We know that [Sentsov] never was involved in some attacks, or in some revolution, in terroristic things. He’s a filmmaker, and his movies are recognized internationally. The lie is that this guy was a terrorist, and no one even tried to understand the basis of this [accusation] … There is guy: a filmmaker, and a terrorist. What is true? They think that maybe he’s some filmmaker-terrorist. It’s insane.” Nayyem ardently believes those who want to protect freedom of media and speech need to build up conventions regulating what are accepted as media outlets and news. But there’s a thin line between banning propaganda and furthering censorship and repression. Russia’s independent Dozhd (TV Rain), for example, was recently banned in Ukraine for reporting that Crimea is part of Russia. “Recent democratic gains have bolstered media freedom overall,” the Freedom House report states, “but restrictions on Russian outlets and attempts to foster ‘patriotic’ reporting raise questions about the government’s commitment to media autonomy.” And besides, even Ukrainians, more prepared for Russian media influence than their western counterparts, are not entirely immune. “The Russian media are much better funded” than their Ukrainian counterparts, Kaplan said, and it takes time and resources to counter reports put out by the Russian state-backed media machine. “Even my Ukrainian friends who live in Kiev, after watching two hours of Russian TV, start to question themselves. ‘Am I a fascist?’” Kaplan does not, at present, see much reason for optimism. While it was a bad week for reports on the state of Russian media, it was inevitably a much worse week for those trying to correct or improve it. “Journalism in Russia is dead. It happened quite a while ago,” Kaplan said. “There are small islands of freedom of speech in Russia,” she said, but they aren’t on TV, and they aren’t available to those who don’t know how to access certain sites. Besides, she said, the sophisticated propaganda machine will figure out how to move onto the internet, too. “Russian journalists face the biggest challenge. Their job is simply to survive.” Hanging in the air is the idea that, at present, surviving is actually journalism’s job, too.

  • Oleg Sentsov and Russia's Human Rights Violations against Ukrainian Citizens

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

  • Helsinki Commission Calls for Proclamation Recognizing Importance of Helsinki Final Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Roger Wicker (MS) today introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution urging President Trump to recognize the importance of the Helsinki Final Act –  the founding document of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – and its relevance to American national security.  The resolution was cosponsored by all other Senators currently serving on the Helsinki Commission: Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. John Boozman (AR), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). “Peace and prosperity in the OSCE region rest on a respect for human rights and the preservation of fundamental freedoms, democratic principles, and economic liberty. Unfortunately, the commitment to these ideals by some OSCE participating States is eroding,” Chairman Wicker said. “The shrinking space for civil society in many nations has become reminiscent of the Communist era – a time when many Helsinki Monitoring Groups were violently persecuted for their courageous support of basic human rights,” he continued. “With its actions in Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Federation in particular has demonstrated how closely such internal repression can be tied to external aggression.  We were reminded of these abuses in this morning’s Helsinki Commission hearing. I urge the President to make it clear that Helsinki principles are vital not only to American national interests but also to the security of the OSCE region as a whole.” “What was remarkable about the Helsinki Final Act was the commitment that these standards we agreed to would not only be of internal interest to the member country, but that any country signatory to the Helsinki Final Act could challenge the actions of any other country,” said Ranking Commissioner Cardin, who is also Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We have not only the right but the responsibility to call out countries that fail to adhere to the basic principles that were agreed to in 1975.” Defining security in a uniquely comprehensive manner, the Helsinki Final Act contains 10 principles guiding inter-state relations, among them respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief (Principle VII). Other principles include respect for sovereign equality (Principle I), the territorial integrity of states (Principle IV), and states’ fulfilment in good faith of their obligations under international law (Principle X). S.Con.Res.13 encourages President Trump to reaffirm America’s commitment to the principles and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The resolution also calls on the President to urge other participating States to respect their OSCE commitments and to condemn the Russian Federation's clear, gross, and uncorrected violations of all 10 core OSCE principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act.

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