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First Person: The Role of the Peace Corps in Promoting Democracy
Tuesday, July 30, 2019

By Gabriel Cortez,
Charles B. Rangel Fellow & Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Ukraine 2016-2019

Getting a high five has never felt as satisfying as it did in rural Ukraine. Even after three years serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer I cannot help but smile every time I remember one of my students extending their hand out for a “dye pyat.” I grew up in a large Mexican-American family in small-town California. Removed from the centers of international politics, the only diplomacy I knew was my brothers and sisters deciding who could use the family TV and when. Even as a kid I knew I wanted to be a part of something greater, to explore not only the United States but the other countries around the world, the ones they talked about in the news. The Peace Corps gave me and thousands of others that opportunity.

For 58 years, the Peace Corps has sent Americans young and old to live and work in communities worldwide. Over 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries, ranging from Mongolia and Albania to Morocco and China. Volunteers commit to 27 months of service in the country they serve, working in several sectors including education, health, agriculture, community development, and youth development. As of July 2019, there are around 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 62 countries. Montenegro, an OSCE participating State, is the newest addition to the Peace Corps family, with volunteers slated to launch the program in 2020.

The promotion of democracy is one of the central tenets of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Helsinki Final Accords. To that end, the Helsinki Commission has monitored aspects of the transition to democracy throughout Europe, including challenges to the rule of law, free and fair elections, and the impact of corruption. Peace Corps volunteers work concurrently in this field to demonstrate the strength democracy brings and help promote civic engagement in their sites.


Schoolchildren from my site participating in an English Language Summer Camp in Krasyliv, Ukraine.

When President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, the program was designed for large groups of Americans to live abroad and promote the American way of life, including the best aspects of democracy. That mission continues today in the OSCE region, with volunteers serving in Ukraine and eight other OSCE countries, including Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia.

My Peace Corps service began in September 2016 but was inspired years prior. In 2014, when the Maidan Revolution occurred, I watched it on TV with amazement, drawn by the images of Ukrainians from all walks of life marching on their capital to advocate for a better future. Already eager to work with the Peace Corps, I knew from that moment that Ukraine was the country I wanted to serve in as a volunteer.

Peace Corps Ukraine, which began in 1992, is the largest Peace Corps program operating anywhere in the world. Nearly 300 volunteers have served in the education, youth development, and community development sectors, as well as the President’s Emergency Plan for Emergency AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) programs. When volunteers arrive, they dedicate the first three months to training, learning the Ukrainian and/or Russian languages, discovering local culture, and exploring Ukraine’s history. After training, volunteers move to their permanent sites where they live and work for two years, tasked with the three goals of the Peace Corps.

The first goal of Peace Corps is “to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.” For Ukraine, this translates to projects focusing on English education, combatting corruption, and working with youth to develop healthy lifestyles. Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has made progress in reorienting itself to the West; a strong partnership with the U.S. has been crucial in this journey. Peace Corps volunteers contribute to this mission every day. Whether it is through teaching English at schools, organizing a summer camp on gender rights, or helping a local NGO secure a grant to fund health projects, Peace Corps volunteers have a tremendous impact on the communities they live in. Volunteers ultimately help promote entrepreneurship and civic engagement, critical facets of the Helsinki Accords.

The second goal, and perhaps the most important in Peace Corps Ukraine, is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” As a former Soviet country, Ukrainians were disconnected from the world for over 70 years, learning about the United States through the limited movies, newspapers, and clothes smuggled past the Iron Curtain. Today, Peace Corps volunteers act as a bridge between both countries, promoting a positive image of the U.S. and bringing back a better understanding of Ukrainian culture. In communities like the one I served in, a small town with no other Americans, a volunteer’s presence is truly felt. I led discussions on race and gender, hosted events highlighting different American groups, introduced my students to American holidays, and much more. Acting as a cultural ambassador is an honor for any Peace Corps volunteer, and a role the program is founded upon.

The third and final goal of the Peace Corps is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” Volunteers return from service eager to share their experiences with their friends and families. This may include organizing a speech at a local school, attending a Ukrainian-American event, or even joining an organization that focuses on Ukrainian issues. This allows returned Peace Corps volunteers the chance to talk to Americans about their experience in the country: their successes, challenges, memories, and more. In turn, Americans learn about Ukraine and other countries they have never had experience with or knowledge of.


Teacher training at the Window on America in Kharkiv, Ukraine

The Peace Corps is a unique agency that continues to change lives all over the world and receive bipartisan support in Congress. On the 49th anniversary of the Peace Corps, Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission Senator Roger Wicker (MS) noted, “The Peace Corps invests time and talent in other countries, but it pays dividends back here in the United States as well.”

Helsinki Commissioner Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) reaffirmed his support of the Peace Corps on its 55th anniversary, stating, “Peace Corps volunteers represent the best qualities of American foreign policy. They come from all walks of life and from across the country [and] are saving lives. I could not be more proud of these Americans.” The introduction of the bipartisan H.R.3456 - Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2019 demonstrates Congress’ commitment to the Peace Corps. Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Gwen Moore (WI-4) are co-sponsors of the bill, which would increase support for current and returned Peace Corps volunteers.

Peace Corps volunteers work every day to develop the foundational tenets outlined by the Helsinki Accords. From promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, to developing education programs, to confronting corruption, Peace Corps volunteers exhibit the strength of the partnerships between OSCE participating States and work to improve the lives of others.

True progress is rooted in the sustainable and long-term projects of Peace Corps volunteers and their communities. In Ukraine, I saw firsthand the impact the Peace Corps can have in developing communities: a summer leadership camp for middle school students, a newly built community center with music and dance classes in a small village, and an accounting transparency workshop that reduced corruption in several city management offices. Substantive changes are happening every day in villages, towns, and cities across the country and throughout Peace Corps-partnered OSCE countries. Peace Corps volunteers exemplify the foundations of the Helsinki Accords, promote democracy abroad, and help bolster OSCE participating States and other nations like Ukraine build a bright, hopeful, and prosperous future, one high-five at a time.

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As the gold standard of international election observation, the OSCE’s recommendations over many electoral cycles have helped Ukrainian officials to improve the conduct of their elections. Further, praise from the OSCE following election day is powerful validation of the process in the eyes of Ukraine’s voters and gives other states a democratic model to emulate. No sooner had the election ended than the hundreds of thousands of electoral commissioners overseeing Ukraine’s nearly 30,000 local electoral precincts started to prepare for the presidential runoff election on April 21—this time with just two names on the ballot and a decisive outcome. These commissioners are the unsung heroes of a maturing democracy that is simultaneously at war in the East and on an irreversible path to the West. At least they will get a proper break before having to, once again, regroup and oversee Ukraine’s parliamentary elections expected to take place in the fall of this year.

  • First Person: A Divided Island’s Long Road to Peace

    By Mark Toner, Senior State Department Advisor There are two images seared into my brain from my visit to Cyprus during a recent congressional delegation led by Sen. Roger Wicker (MS). The first was a darkened, underground garage filled with the rusting hulks of mid-1970s Toyotas.  They were once the sparkling-new inventory of a car dealership situated in the heart of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital. Following the 1974 incursion by Turkish forces in the wake of a failed coup attempt, the dealership became part of a buffer zone that runs like a scar across the length of Cyprus, separating the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). The dealership’s owner fled when the fighting erupted and never returned. The cars sit frozen in time, waiting for customers who will never come. Abandoned vehicle in Nicosia, Cyprus. The second was both jarring and moving: at the Committee on Missing Persons, we entered a clean, cavernous room full of long tables on which an array of partially-reconstructed skeletons were arranged—the remains of some of the more than 2,000 people who disappeared during the outbreak of violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in 1963-64, as well as during the later 1974 conflict. Located in a compound in the United Nations Protected Area near the old Nicosia airport, the Committee is an organization established by both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities that recovers, identifies, and ultimately returns these remains to their still-grieving families and loved ones, using state-of-the-art DNA technology and an exhaustive scientific process. These were just two of the places we visited during our two-day stay on the island as part of a bipartisan, bicameral delegation on its way to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vienna, Austria. As part of our jam-packed schedule, the delegation met with the President of the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish-Cypriot leadership, and toured the UN buffer zone with the hardworking and good-natured UN peacekeepers who police the 112-mile ceasefire line. Cyprus is among the world’s oldest and most intractable frozen conflicts, and the social, political, and economic tensions the conflict created still feel fresh today. Since the island was effectively split in two in 1974, there have been repeated UN-led attempts to broker a settlement and reunify the island, but all have ended in failure. It is also a tale of two realities. While Greek Cypriots enjoy the benefits of EU and Eurozone membership and seek to exploit the potential of untapped hydrocarbon reserves located in an Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds the island, those who live in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus remain politically and economically isolated from the rest of Europe and rely heavily on their big brother to the north, Turkey, for security and economic assistance. Our visit to Cyprus was a stark reminder of the difficulty of moving past an unresolved conflict, in a place where grievances are often passed from generation to generation, and the ghosts of the past remain as tangible as the neglected shell of a crumbling 15th-century church in the UN buffer zone or the rusting hulks of airplanes still sitting on the runway of the abandoned Nicosia International Airport. Our brief visit to the Committee on Mission Persons, however, was a poignant reminder of the vital importance of civil society in restoring a sense of normalcy once the fighting ends.  It is a calming place, where dedicated people from both sides of the conflict work together to bring a sense of closure to those who lost loved ones in the fighting; it speaks to the fierce resiliency of the people of Cyprus and the enduring hope that old wrongs can yet be overcome.       

  • Helsinki Commission Marks Fifth Anniversary of Illegal Referendum In Crimea

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the illegal Russian-organized referendum in Crimea, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Five years ago, the Government of Russia tried to legitimize its illegal occupation of Crimea by organizing a fake referendum in Ukrainian territory.  By orchestrating this so-called vote, the Kremlin blatantly flouted international law. By definition, citizens living under armed occupation lack the freedom to determine their collective destiny.  “This tragic anniversary also reminds us of the suffering this occupation continues to inflict on innocent Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee Crimea, as well as on those who remain behind. Ethnic minorities such as Crimean Tatars and activists who object to the illegal Russian occupation, including Oleg Sentsov, are targets of persecution and violence by the Government of Russia. “We will not forget; Crimea is Ukraine.”  Russian forces first invaded Crimea in February 2014. Since then, the Helsinki Commission has hosted numerous hearings and briefings on the war in Ukraine, including an April 2014 hearing with then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; December 2015 and November 2016 briefings on human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea; an April 2017 briefing on Oleg Sentsov and Russia's human rights violations against Ukrainian citizens; a May 2017 hearing on the growing Russian military threat in Europe; and briefings with Alexander Hug, then-Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

  • U.S. Congressional Delegation Defends Human Rights, Regional Security at OSCE PA Winter Meeting in Vienna

    Led by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), 12 members of Congress traveled to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Winter Meeting in Vienna in late February to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to security, human rights, and the rule of law in the 57-nation OSCE region. Sen. Wicker, who also serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA, was joined in Austria by Sen. Bob Casey (PA), Sen. Martin Heinrich (NM), Sen. Tom Udall (NM), Sen. Mike Lee (UT), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (MD), Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Lee Zeldin (NY-01). The bipartisan, bicameral delegation was one of the largest U.S. delegations to a Winter Meeting in OSCE PA history. During the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security, Sen. Wicker criticized the Russian Federation for its interference in U.S. elections, as well as in elections held by other OSCE countries. “It is indisputable that the Russian Government seeks to attack and even undermine the integrity of our elections and of our democratic processes,” he said. “We must all be more aware of—and proactive in countering—Russia’s efforts to undermine the democratic process throughout the OSCE region.” In the same session, Rep. Hudson lamented Russian non-compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, underlining that “an INF Treaty with which all parties comply contributes to global stability; an arms control treaty that one side violates is no longer effective at keeping the world safer.”  Rep. Hudson further stressed that “in light of our six-months’ notice of withdrawal, the Russian Government has one last chance to save the INF Treaty by returning to full and verifiable compliance. We hope and pray Russia will take that step.” In the meeting of the Committee on Economic Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, Rep. Hudson also noted the danger that the Nord Stream II pipeline poses to Europe. “Simply put, we cannot allow Russia to dramatically increase its stranglehold on European energy,” he said. “We must look for alternatives and make sure our democratic institutions cannot be held hostage over energy supply as Nord Stream II would promote.” Later in the same session, Rep. Moore advocated for the adoption of beneficial ownership transparency to combat globalized corruption. “Anonymous shell companies are the means through which much modern money laundering occurs,” she said. “We in Congress are working hard to plug the loopholes in the U.S. financial system that have enabled anonymous shell companies to proliferate.” In a debate on restrictions on human rights during states of emergency during the meeting of the Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions, Rep. Jackson Lee argued, “A state of emergency is not a free pass to dismantle a free press,” nor to threaten academic freedom or freedom of religion. She called on Turkey to release local U.S. Consulate employees Metin Topuz and Mete Canturk, as well as American physicist Serkan Golge. At the closing session, participants reviewed reports submitted by Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), OSCE PA Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues. Rep. Moore encouraged other delegations to share with Sen. Cardin their efforts to implement their commitments to address violence and discrimination, while Rep. Zeldin called for legislative action and enforcement to make “every community in the OSCE region trafficking-free.” While in Vienna, Rep. Jackson Lee also attended a meeting of the OSCE PA Ad Hoc Committee on Migration, of which she is a member, while Rep. Hudson took part in a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Countering Terrorism, where he serves as a vice chair. Prior to attending the Winter Meeting, most members of the delegation also attended the Munich Security Conference, the world’s leading forum for debating international security policy. On the margins of the conference, the group met with leaders including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, INTERPOL Secretary General Jurgen Stock, and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. The delegation was briefed by NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Curtis Scapparotti and Commander, U.S. Army Europe Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli. Members also visited Cyprus, where they met with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to discuss opportunities to advance U.S.-Cyprus relations, resume reunification negotiations on the island, and counter the threat of money laundering to Cyprus’ banking sector. Major General Cheryl Pearce of Australia, Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, briefed the delegation on UNFICYP’s mission and the status of conflict resolution efforts. Following her briefing, the delegation toured the UN Buffer Zone to examine the work of the UN’s peacekeeping force and the physical separation that afflicts the island.

  • Asset Recovery in Eurasia

    Asset recovery—the process of repatriating funds previously stolen by corrupt officials—remains one of the most contentious points in the fight against transnational corruption. Though only a small percentage of stolen funds are ever recovered, major questions exist about the best ways to ensure that repatriated funds don’t simply reenter the same patronage cycle from which they came. This briefing explored approaches to repatriation in Armenia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Panelists discussed best practices and challenges in asset recovery as well as appropriate policy responses, both by the state in question and the international community, and compared the respective approaches of the three countries. Brian Earl, who worked the Pavlo Lazarenko case for years as a detective in the FBI, spoke of uncovering massive amounts of unexplained assets that were initially generated by fraudulent schemes in Ukraine but were scattered abroad. Earl underscored the importance of a multiparty investigation between authorities from the United States, Ukraine, and Switzerland in unearthing evidence of fraud against Lazarenko. Joint investigative liberty and resources were crucial to asset recovery efforts in the 1990s—resources he said were drastically reduced once attention was turned away from investigating capital flight from former Soviet states to antiterrorism efforts after the September 11 attacks. Professor Kristian Lasslet of Ulster University asked the question of what to do with restituted assets when the government to which the asset belongs may be part of the corruption scheme. Lasslet cited the example of Kazakhstan Two, in which seized assets flowed back into questionable hands by bungled efforts from the World Bank and the Swiss government. He contrasted the case with Kazakhstan One, in which asset recovery was handled well at arm’s length of parties that may be interested in funneling assets back into the cycle of fraud. Sona Ayvazyan of Transparency International Armenia offered optimism in the Armenian government’s renewed approach toward transparency and anticorruption efforts but warned of the serious lack of capacity on asset recovery infrastructure. Though the leadership may be serious about removing corruption, she spoke of a discredited judiciary that poses serious problems for Armenia’s future anticorruption policies. According to Karen Greenaway from the FBI (ret.), civil society and non-governmental societies must reassert their role in the conversation on asset recovery. She highlighted the severe lack in bureaucratic infrastructure for asset recovery in many nations afflicted with corruption—particularly Ukraine. The paradox, she asserted, was between the structure of corruption, which is designed to dissipate large quantities of money very rapidly, and the system to repatriate those assets, which is painfully slow and often lacking in resources.  

  • Chairman Hastings Appoints Alex T. Johnson Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), today announced the appointment of Alex T. Johnson as Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff. Johnson will be the commission’s first African-American chief of staff since it was established in 1976. “I am pleased to welcome Alex Johnson back to the Helsinki Commission,” said Chairman Hastings. “His broad range of experience—including several years at the U.S. Mission to the OSCE in Vienna—and deep understanding of issues related to fundamental freedoms and human security in North America, Europe, and Central Asia will keep the commission at the vanguard of regional policymaking.” “I have learned from Chairman Hastings over the years that transatlantic security is contingent on advancing human rights and human dignity, including for the most marginalized populations in the OSCE region,” said Johnson. “I am honored to once again empower our commissioners' legacy as the moral compass for transatlantic cooperation.” Johnson, a former policy advisor at the Helsinki Commission, returns to the organization after serving as the senior policy advisor for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations, where he led U.S.-focused advocacy for 12 national foundations and regional programs ranging from Central Asia to Western Europe. An expert on European human rights and transatlantic security, he served as an Obama Administration official at the Pentagon, where he focused on furthering security cooperation with Eurasia and the Western Balkans. Johnson is also known for his research and leadership of advocacy coalitions of diverse foreign policy professionals and is recognized as a leader in advancing inclusion for the U.S. national security workforce. He is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. Johnson’s first day as chief of staff of the Helsinki Commission will be February 14, 2019.

  • Representative Alcee L. Hastings to Helm Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has appointed Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) to chair the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, during the 116th Congress. “For more than four decades, the Helsinki Commission has championed human rights and democracy across North America, Europe, and Central Asia,” said Chairman Hastings. “While we have worked to keep these concerns on the U.S. agenda, much remains to be accomplished. Rogue actors are challenging the integrity of elections at home and abroad; Russia’s internal repression threatens its citizens while its external aggression imperils its neighbors; and members of vulnerable communities are targets of bigotry, discrimination, and violence. All of these challenges undermine comprehensive security in the region and place our societies at risk. “I’m honored to once again chair the Helsinki Commission, and look forward to continuing the bipartisan, bicameral cooperation that is vital to promoting human rights, military security, and economic cooperation in the 57 countries of the OSCE.” Chairman Hastings has served on the Helsinki Commission since 2001, and in 2007, he became the first African American to chair the commission. Hastings is also the only American to have ever served as President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and is the former Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs of the PA.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Focus on Asset Recovery In Eurasia

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: ASSET RECOVERY IN EURASIA Repatriation or Repay the Patron? Wednesday, February 13, 2019 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Asset recovery—the process of repatriating funds previously stolen by corrupt officials—remains one of the most contentious points in the fight against transnational corruption. Though only a small percentage of stolen funds are ever recovered, major questions exist about the best ways to ensure that repatriated funds don’t simply reenter the same patronage cycle from which they came. Is it possible to ensure that recovered assets actually serve the people from whom they have been stolen? This briefing will explore approaches to repatriation in Armenia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Panelists will discuss best practices and challenges in asset recovery as well as appropriate policy responses, both by the state in question and the international community, and compare the respective approaches of the three countries. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Sona Ayvazyan, Executive Director, Transparency International Armenia Bryan Earl, Retired Supervisory Special Agent/Assistant General Counsel, Federal Bureau of Investigation Karen Greenaway, Retired Supervisory Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation Kristian Lasslett, Professor of Criminology and Head of School, Ulster University

  • Unorthodox?

    By Thea Dunlevie, Max Kampelman Fellow “The Russian Federation is a secular state,” according to Chapter 1, Article 14 of the Russian constitution. Adopted two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which systematically repressed religious activity, Article 14 created a framework for a religious resurgence in Russia, namely the Russian Orthodox Church’s optimistic emergence from the Soviet era. However, the Russian Orthodox Church has become a battlefield of choice for the Russian government as it seeks status as the religious and regional hegemon. President Vladimir Putin’s vision for a “Russian world” has in many ways negated the country’s constitutional commitment to a religiously neutral government, particularly in relation to former Soviet Bloc countries. Vladimir Putin has coupled violent encroachments such as the 2014 invasion and illegal occupation of Crimea and the Donbas and its 2008 invasion and illegal occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia with subtler maneuvers to establish strongholds in foreign countries, including through religious interventions. The latter activities rest under the umbrella term “soft power,” which Putin identified as a foreign policy strategy in his 2017 Foreign Policy Concept. According to political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term, “Soft power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.” Rooted in Russian History and Culture The Russian Orthodox Church, which has deep roots in Russian identity, history, and culture, was revived under President Boris Yeltsin and has since been increasingly employed as a tool of soft power. The RAND Institute reports that the Russian Orthodox Church has been rated “the most-trusted institution in [Russia]”—surpassing the president and parliament. Consequentially, the Kremlin’s interconnectivity with the Russian Orthodox Church lends the state legitimacy by proxy. Capitalizing on this perceived legitimacy, the 2015 Russian National Security Strategy lists “preserving and developing culture and traditional Russian spiritual and moral values” as one of six “National Interests and National Strategic Priorities.” Religion has been instrumentalized by Russian diplomatic missions with goals beyond proselytizing or constructing churches. Putin sent Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia as a Kremlin emissary to solidify international ties under the auspices of religious, humanitarian outreach. For example, Putin has characterized Russia as the defender of persecuted Christians in the Middle East by supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government. Patriarch Kirill and Putin also vowed to rebuild churches in the region, positioning Russia as the great defender, reconstructor, and regional power. However, not all these efforts have been successful. Patriarch Kirill’s 2013 visit to the politically volatile region of Transnistria, Moldova—where 1,400 Russian troops are stationed—was met by local protests suggesting an unwelcome link between the Russian Orthodox Church’s presence and the Kremlin’s. The Russian Orthodox Church has also helped the Government of Russia maintain regional influence in former Soviet Bloc countries and the Balkans and expand its influence in Asia. The Russian government commemorated 50 years of cooperation with Singapore by building an Orthodox church there, and Patriarch Kirill’s delegation visited North Korea to establish an Orthodox church in Pyongyang alongside North Korean government officials. However, current debates primarily focus on Ukraine because it contains an estimated one-third of the Moscow Patriarchate’s churches. Russia has approached the OSCE with concerns about “Ukrainization,” alleging that 50 Russian Orthodox churches had been illegally seized by the government since 2014. Ukraine Fights Back The Russian Orthodox Church’s Kremlin-driven influence has been of particular concern to Ukraine, which struggles to maintain its political sovereignty as Russia encroaches militarily. To counter this influence, in 2018 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church sought autocephaly (independence) under the auspices of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the governing body of the Orthodox Church. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko justified the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s pursuit of autocephaly before the United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council as “a matter of national security and [Ukraine’s] defense in a hybrid war, because the Kremlin views the Russian Orthodox Church as key instruments of influence on Ukraine.”  However, the Russian Orthodox Church condemned Ukraine’s autocephaly efforts for blasphemously entangling religion and politics. Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, characterized the Ukrainian church’s move as a “pre-election political project.” The Russian Orthodox Church severed tied with the Ecumenical Patriarch in mid-October. In December, Metropolitan Epifaniy was elected head of the nascent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Prior to his election, the U.S. State Department said the United States “respects the ability of Ukraine’s Orthodox religious leaders and followers to pursue autocephaly according to their beliefs.” Immediately after his election, the State Department issued a congratulatory statement and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with him by phone.   After the January 6th announcement of autocephaly for an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Secretary described the outcome as an “historic achievement.” All of these U.S. statements explicitly referenced U.S. support for religious freedom as the context. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine now sidesteps Russian religious authority and submits to the Ecumenical Patriarch and Holy Synod alone.  The Russian government, however, maintains that Ukraine is “territory of the Russian church” and vows to “defend the interests of the Orthodox.” Ongoing Power Struggles Russia’s religious intervention has also instigated ecclesiastical divisions within the other Orthodox churches and between churches and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The Russian meddling has created opposing teams: Ukraine and its allies, like the Ecumenical Patriarch and U.S. Government, versus the Russian Government and regional churches which pledged loyalty to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the wake of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod decision on the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Putin awarded the Metropolitan of Moldova “Russia’s Order of Friendship,” perhaps  to encourage Moldovan sympathy to the Russian Orthodox Church’s cause amid the “schismatic” behavior of Ukraine. In November of 2018, St. Andrew’s Church in Ukraine was attacked with Molotov cocktails, following  the transfer of its ownership to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This attack has been interpreted by some Ukrainians as a symbolic attack on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Ukraine’s religious makeup is exceptionally diverse. However, the Kremlin’s political meddling into the inter-orthodox religious conflict raises larger concerns about how government can support or suppress certain beliefs for primarily political purposes. This phenomenon threatens the religious liberty of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and potentially the freedom of the country’s minority religious groups like Greek Catholics. All 57 participating States of the OSCE have committed to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which includes the statement that  “the participating States will respect (...) the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion… participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.”  The participating States have repeatedly recommitted themselves in subsequent agreements. The Ukrainian government and leadership of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine must be vigilant for infringements on the religious rights of Moscow Patriarchate adherents in Ukraine after the Holy Synod’s decision. As priests, imams, and pastors did during Euromaidan in 2013, so should the Ukrainian Government, the Russian Government, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox Church condemn violence, protect freedom of religion and belief, and promote inter-faith peace.

  • December 1, 1991

    By Alexa Zouboukos, Intern On December 1, 1991, 84 percent of eligible voters in Ukraine exercised their democratic rights in a referendum on independence and the election of their president, peacefully transferring power after the long struggle of the Cold War. If the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled a symbolic end to the war, then Ukraine partaking in the democratic process was a concrete outcome. Three U.S. Helsinki Commission staffers sent to monitor the elections—Orest Deychakiwsky, Michael Ochs, and Heather Hurlburt—reported on the implementation of regulations that we recognize in today’s U.S. elections. Some of these regulations included the collection of a certain number of signatures for a candidate to be placed on the ballot, campaign finance laws, and the methodology for marking and counting ballots. Despite many accounts of a free and fair election, however, there were also indicators of information suppression. Helsinki Commission staff noted that there were reports of pro-independence literature being withheld from Crimea and Mykolaiv. Limits to the free flow of information were not the only threat Ukrainians faced, but also “dark warnings by Mikhail Gorbachev, by the central Soviet media and, to some extent, Russian media about the difficulties and dangers Ukrainian independence would pose to Ukrainians themselves, to their neighbors and to international stability.” These threats to the will of Ukrainian people did not dampen their spirits; in fact, according to the report, “many Ukrainians later told Helsinki Commission staff that such attempts to intimidate them only made them more determined to see their cause through to the end.” Ukrainian citizens demonstrated this determination through a landslide referendum. Three-quarters of participants voted in favor of independence. Helsinki Commission staff also observed a distinct feeling of festivity at polling stations, reinforced by the testimonies of Ukrainians previously imprisoned in Siberia who said that this day was the realization of a long-held dream of independence from the Soviet Union. Ukrainians were aware that there would be greater struggles ahead, but also recognized that these could be opportunities to exercise their new sovereignty. December 1, 1991 did not mark the end of Ukraine’s conflicts with Russia, but it did finally allow Ukrainians to exercise rights that were long suppressed under the Soviet yoke.

  • Lies, Bots, and Social Media

    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.

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Computational Propaganda

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing:   LIES, BOTS, AND SOCIAL MEDIA What is Computational Propaganda and How Do We Defeat It? Thursday, November 29, 2018 10:30 a.m. Senate Dirksen Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission 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 will examine the implications of computational propaganda on national and international politics and explore options available to Congress and the private sector to confront and negate its pernicious influence. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Matt Chessen, Acting Deputy Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State Karen Kornbluh, Senior Fellow and Director, Technology Policy Program, The German Marshall Fund of the United States Nina Jankowicz, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Kennan Institute

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