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FIRST PERSON: UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Monday, July 29, 2019

By Alex Tiersky,
Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs

 

“Why aren’t you doing your job?!”

An unexpectedly tense early morning on July 21, 2019—Election Day in Ukraine: the polling station was more than 30 minutes late in opening. The shouted reprimand came from a voter, an older man who was one of several Kyiv residents who had been present and seeking to vote at this school in the center of the Ukrainian capital since well before 8:00 a.m., when the polls for the national parliamentary elections were supposed to open. His indignation was directed at the beleaguered leadership of the local polling station, who struggled to organize their work and follow the extensive procedures required to meet Ukrainian law and international best practices.

***

As an official election observer representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I was at the polling station to observe the extent to which those best practices were followed. With my capable interpreter Natalya beside me, and in partnership with my experienced observation team partner Latvian MP Aleksandrs Kiršteins, I had arrived days earlier on the invitation of the Ukrainian government for a series of preparatory briefings. On Election Day, we would follow a prescribed plan of observation as part of a larger team of more than 800 international observers spread across Ukraine (with the exception of illegally occupied Crimea, and the Donbas region under the occupation of Russian-controlled forces, where holding a free and fair election would be impossible).

***

The disorganized polling station was the first stop of the day for our team. While this was my first time serving as an election observer, I didn’t need the extensive and detailed procedural checklist and questionnaire provided by the OSCE to know that something was seriously amiss. My Latvian colleague confirmed, based on his extensive observation experience, that the situation was extremely unusual.

The key problem seemed to be that the leadership of the team responsible for proper running of the polling station (the chair and the secretary, among others), recently had been replaced and the newcomers had little experience with their assigned duties. It was clear that they had done precious little preparation to be able to effectively direct the work of their team on Election Day. We had been warned during the extensive pre-election briefings provided by the OSCE that many local election officials across Ukraine had been replaced. The experts were concerned that this loss of institutional memory had the potential to hamper the operations of local electoral bodies—a warning that, in our case, proved prescient.

At 8:45 a.m., a full 45 minutes after its scheduled opening time and to the relief of several increasingly agitated voters and local observers, the polling station finally began to process votes. Judging that tensions at the school building had de-escalated and the situation had achieved some normalcy, we dutifully finalized our observation—promptly reporting our findings to the OSCE election experts compiling statistics from other teams deployed across the country—and moved on to observe voting procedures at several other polling stations. Before leaving, given the challenges at the polling station, we resolved to return in the evening to observe closing procedures and the counting of the vote.

***

We spent much of the rest of the day visiting several polling stations in the west of Kyiv. Contrary to our first observation, all the other polling stations we visited were extremely well-organized, with experienced and well-functioning teams of officials ensuring an orderly and transparent voting process. The civic pride demonstrated by the election officials and voters in properly exercising their democratic choice was evident in each location we visited. We witnessed voters of all ages casting their ballots in serene conditions, which we learned from other observation teams was largely the norm across Ukraine that day.

***

As the afternoon turned to evening, it was time to return to our initial polling station to assess closing procedures and the start of the counting of ballots. With the station closing as planned at 8 p.m. on the dot, we were quietly hopeful that the morning’s problems had been resolved.

Our optimism quickly proved misguided. The election officials were even more poorly directed by their leadership than they had been in the early hours of the day. After two hours of inconclusive progress toward beginning a count of actual ballots, the procedures ground to a halt in a cloud of remonstrations among several hard-working poll workers and local observers on one hand, and the polling station’s leadership on the other. In what I understood to be an extremely unusual development, the majority of the poll workers essentially sidelined their grievously underperforming leadership on the spot in order to better organize themselves. At this point, we needed to return to our home base to report on our observation, leaving behind several other international and local observers to witness what surely would be a long and challenging night of tabulation of ballots.

***

As we returned to the hotel, I reflected on the day’s remarkable events. It struck me how counterintuitive some might find it that we had been allowed to witness the poor performance by the leadership of this particular polling station. After all, who wants to air their dirty laundry in front of international observers taking careful note of every discrepancy?

It was then, for the first time, that I truly understood the key purpose of our election observation mission. OSCE participating States like Ukraine make the choice to invite international observation missions to their elections precisely because only in providing full transparency can a fair judgment on the electoral process be made.

In other words, our observation and reporting of the procedural imperfections we witnessed only underlined the relatively excellent performance witnessed by observation teams in the vast majority of other polling stations across Ukraine. Only through the full transparency provided by impartial external observers using a standardized methodology can the people of Ukraine be sure that their electoral process, to the maximum extent possible, allows for the full and fair expression of their democratic choice.

I feel honored to have been able to play even a very small part in this extremely consequential democratic process, and to help an OSCE participating State hold itself accountable to its commitment to the rule of law. I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to serve as an election observer.

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  • Ranking Member Joe Wilson on July 2021 Congressional Delegation

    Mr. Speaker, this month, I was grateful to participate in a Congressional delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly led by Senator Roger Wicker and Senator Ben Cardin. It was inspiring to see the extraordinary economic advances of Estonia and Bulgaria. In Tallinn, Estonia, we were welcomed by the dynamic Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas, and the dedicated Foreign Minister, Eva-Maria Liimets. While in Tallinn, we learned that Russian diplomats had been expelled in April across the Baltics to join the protest of the Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, exposing the irrefutable evidence that two Russian GRU agents were behind the 2014 ammunition depot explosion at Vrbetice, which killed two persons. The same two Russian agents named by the Czech Republic are suspected by British authorities for poisoning former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in 2018. The Czech Republic has correctly demanded Russia pay for damages.

  • Cardin and Wicker Discuss July 2021 Congressional Delegation in Colloquy

    Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, I take this time to talk about the work of the U.S. Helsinki Commission in a recent opportunity we had to participate in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. I am joined on the floor by Senator Wicker, who is the Republican chair of the Helsinki Commission. The two of us have worked together in a nonpartisan, bipartisan manner in regards to the work of the Helsinki Commission. I just want to spend a few minutes, and then I am going to yield the floor and allow Senator WICKER to give his comments. The OSCE, as the chair is fully aware as a member of the Commission, represents the U.S. participation in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—57 states, which includes all of Europe, all of the former Republics of the Soviet Union, and Canada and the United States. The Commission works on the principle of three buckets: one for political affairs and security, another for economic and environmental progress, and the third on democracy and human rights. But it recognizes—and I think this has been the hallmark of the Helsinki Commission—that you can’t have advancements on political affairs or security or economic or environmental progress unless you make progress on democracy and human rights, that they are interwoven. In the Helsinki Commission, the OSCE is best known for its advancements for basic human rights. So I think of the initiatives that we have had in the Helsinki Commission for dealing with trafficking in humans and the legislation that came out of that and how we led the global response to dealing with trafficking. I think about the efforts we made in regards to tolerance, dealing with anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance and how we have made progress throughout the entire OSCE region. I think about the issues we did in regards to sanctions against human rights violators so they cannot use our banking system or visit our country, the Magnitsky-type sanctions. All of that came out of the work of the Helsinki Commission. So one of the major arms of our work is the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which is the group of parliamentarians who meet every year and have meetings throughout the year to exchange views and to carry out the principles of the Helsinki Final Act. For the last year and a half, we have been compromised because we haven’t had an opportunity to meet in person, and it required us to meet by internet, and we have, but we had a unique opportunity during the last recess period to actually travel and meet with the parliamentarians. We had an OSCE Parliamentary Assembly annual meeting in Vienna. And we had a chance to do this in a hybrid manner. So we were able to travel 12-strong from the U.S. Congress to be at that meeting, and we were joined by five others here in the United States, including our Presiding Officer, to participate in the Parliamentary Assembly, and we were able to advance a lot of very important issues. But I must tell you, we were noticed at this meeting. The U.S. presence was critically important in dealing with some very timely issues. I know that Senator Wickerwill talk about this. He is one of the great leaders of the Parliamentary Assembly. He is Vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly. We are very proud of the leadership position that he holds. By the way, his election was in Vienna to be the Vice President of the Parliamentary Assembly. We had multiple candidates and several elected to Vice-Presidents, but Senator Wicker led the ballot with the largest number of votes, which I think speaks to his well-thought-of respect among the OSCE parliamentarians. We wanted to make sure that this was a substantive meeting. Quite frankly, the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly said: Let’s just get in there and get it over with and not bring up anything controversial. But that is not the way we operate. We have to take up current issues. So we took up the issue of tolerance. I was happy to sponsor a resolution that ultimately passed by unanimous vote that speaks to anti-Semitism, racism, intolerance, and the growth of hate in the OSCE region. But we also made sure that we considered the recent elections in Belarus and how unfair those elections were and how Mr. Lukashenko has been acting in a way that is so contrary to the human rights of the people who live there, and the election results there do not reflect the will of the people. We also had a chance to make sure we took up the issues concerning Ukraine. Once again, there was a lot of controversy on why you should bring that up during this meeting. We did. We supported that to make it clear that Russia’s aggression and its occupation of Crimea and its interference in eastern Ukraine will never be recognized as legitimate by the United States or, by that matter, the Parliamentary Assembly, because we responded in all of those areas. I am pleased to tell you that we supported Margareta Cederfelt, who is going to be the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Sweden, and we look forward to her visit here in the United States. Richard Hudson, Representative Hudson, will be the chair of the first committee. So we are going to have active participation in the Parliamentary Assembly. We had the chance to visit some other countries. But if I might, I think I am going to yield the floor and give my good friend and the leader of our congressional delegation trip an opportunity to expand on some of the things we were able to do in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. With that, I yield the floor. Mr. WICKER. Madam President, I thank my colleague from Maryland, who has been such a leader in the area of human rights and international recognition of the challenges that our world faces today. I do appreciate his leadership and his partnership. We have worked shoulder to shoulder on so many issues. Yes, I proudly rise with him this afternoon to talk about a very valuable series of meetings that our 12-member delegation had in 4 countries in Europe in recent days. This was Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate, a truly bipartisan and bicameral delegation—a very large delegation—which I think my colleague will agree made a strong statement on behalf of the United States of America and on behalf of the U.S. House and Senate about the way we view European engagement and our partnership and friendship with the 50-plus member countries of the OSCE and their Parliamentary Assembly. We visited Vienna, Austria, for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. As Senator Cardin mentioned, we met with great success. Yes, I was reelected to the position of vice president, and I appreciate the support of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate in helping me get those votes to receive another three-year term there. Richard Hudson, our colleague from the House of Representatives, has been very active as chairman of Committee No. 1 in the Parliamentary Assembly. He is highly regarded. He was reelected without opposition. So there are two bits of success there. And then the great piece of work, actually, was with regard to Senator Cardin's initiative on the rising hate and intolerance that we are seeing all around the world, particularly among member countries of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Senator Cardin actually took the lead in challenging the leadership of the Parliamentary Assembly in saying that issues should be discussed. Even though they weren’t in an immediate, like, three-week crisis mode, they deserved to be brought forward. And Senator Cardin was able to get his resolution considered and passed overwhelmingly, and we made a strong statement on behalf of countering the rising hate and intolerance and countering the use of these things to buttress authoritarianism and to stoke conflict around the world. We also passed a very important resolution about the tragedy, the outrage that has gone on in Belarus. I can tell you, the opposition party leader from Belarus was in this Capitol building just yesterday talking about the importance of support from places like the United States Congress. I can tell you, Madam President, that Senator Shaheen and I are about to send a letter to our colleagues asking any and all of us to join a Freedom Caucus for the Belarusian people, the Belarus Freedom Caucus. We asked the opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to tell us whether that would be helpful. She said the formation of this caucus to support the freedom movement in Belarus would be a strong signal. It would be well received and effective on behalf of the opposition leadership there in Belarus. Then, again, we reiterated our opposition to what Russia has done in Ukraine and particularly to the recent Russian military buildup and ongoing aggression in Ukraine. We did a lot there with the Parliamentary Assembly. We went on to Estonia, met with leadership there—a former President, the current Prime Minister, other leaders. And, also, we had a chance to travel to the very easternmost part of Estonia and actually travel on the Narva River and look right across to Russia and the security guards there, understanding what our Estonian allies are up against with Putin’s Russia staring right across the river at their freedom and democracy. From there, we joined the Three Seas conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. I can tell you, this is a group of Eastern European former Soviet Bloc countries that are striving to be in charge of their own infrastructure and rely less on the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. I think the fact that 12 Americans showed up, participated, met with Heads of state at that conference made a very strong statement of American support for freedom and for looking westwardly in trying to get their problems solved and their infrastructure needs met. We also had a very meaningful visit to Norway, where we saw some American-Norwegian defense initiatives. I am very proud of the partnership that this Helsinki Commission—our organ of the American OSCE PA—and the way that we joined together to express our support for freedom, for democracy, for the rule of law, for opposing corruption, both at the petty local level and also at the larger State-sponsored level. One other thing before I yield back and let my friend close. Particularly in Bulgaria, but also all during our trip, we were met with hearty thanks for the United States leadership in the global Magnitsky Act. This began as an initiative with Senator Cardin, Senator Lieberman, Senator McCain, and me several years ago directed—during the Obama administration—directed toward individual Russians who had violated human rights and individual liberty in a very outrageous and gross way, allowing us to sanction individuals rather than causing harm to the people of Russia in that case. That has been expanded now to the global level and other countries are adopting this. But I can tell you, when we arrived in Bulgaria, we were met with great thanks from people who are trying to combat lawlessness and corruption at the top level of government. I just have to say, of course, Ben Cardin has been the premier leader in this worldwide effort. It was gratifying to know and to learn firsthand on the ground there in Sofia, Bulgaria, that an initiative that began right here in this U.S. Senate years ago, and continues to this day, is having a beneficial effect on the people all across Europe and particularly in some of the countries that we visited. I yield back to the Senator from Maryland. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Maryland. Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, let me again thank Senator Wicker. Thank you for your leadership on so many issues. But on this congressional delegation, for those who are not familiar, it is not easy to put together the type of opportunities to advance American values. And Senator Wicker took the responsibility as the leader of our delegation to make sure that we had the opportunities to advance American values. I thank him for all the effort he put into it. It was certainly extremely successful. I just want to emphasize a few things before closing. One, in Vienna, we did have an opportunity to meet with Rafael Grossi, who is the Director General of the IAEA. That is the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has the responsibility of monitoring the nuclear programs throughout the world. Obviously, it has played a bigger role in regard to the program in Iran, and it was monitoring exactly what was happening in Iran under the JCPOA. They now don’t have the same access, and we had a chance to talk with the Director General as to the challenges with the Iranian program. And I think it was helpful for all of us to understand exactly the role that the IAEA can play in regard to getting us information about what is happening on the ground in Iran. Senator Wicker talked about our visit to Estonia, a strong ally partner, NATO partner. We showed our support by going to Narva, which is on the Russian border. It is a town that has a majority of Russian-speaking Estonians. It is an interesting community. But we could see across the river, very clearly, the Russian patrol boats. We know and heard firsthand of the concern of the Estonians. They saw what happened in Ukraine and they worry that same thing could happen in Estonia with Russian aggression. I must tell you, our presence to reinforce the NATO commitment, I think, was an extremely important message that we gave to the Estonian people. Mr. WICKER. Would the gentleman yield on that point? Mr. CARDIN. I would be glad to yield. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Mississippi. Mr. WICKER. If I might add, people in Narva, Estonia, and people in the city across the river have access to each other across a bridge there. And it is clear to the people on the Russian side that their cousins and friends in Narva, Estonia, live a better life and have a better standard of living in this free country, this NATO ally called Estonia, than the Russian cousins and friends have on the other side. I just thought I would add that to the discourse before Senator Cardin moves on to discussing Norway and Bulgaria. Thank you. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Maryland. Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, let me move onto Bulgaria very briefly. Senator Wicker did cover Bulgaria. The Three Seas Initiative, I wasn’t that familiar with it before traveling to Bulgaria. It is an initiative by twelve states that are basically part of the Eastern European Coalition, states that are developing democratic institutions and democratic economies after the fall of the Soviet Union. They need to build up their resilience as a collective entity in energy, transportation, and digital infrastructure. The Three Seas Initiative is to attract investment to connect the twelve countries together on infrastructure needs. It is for many reasons. It is for its own economic strength and growth, but also for resiliency against the efforts of China on its Belt and Road Initiative, which is trying to infiltrate these countries and convert their way of economy to more of the Chinese system. The Three Seas Initiative is an effort to have their own independent way of attracting capital. The United States is participating in the Three Seas. We are not a member, but we are participating and providing resources for the fund that is being developed that would be leveraged for these type of investments. While we were in Bulgaria, we had a chance to have bilateral meetings. There were twelve heads of state there. We had bilateral meetings with the President of Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia, and Romania. We had very constructive discussions about what is happening in their country. We raised Helsinki issues with all these countries. Senator Wicker already talked about how we were welcomed by the Bulgarian leadership in regards to the imposition of the Magnitsky sanctions. We are heroes. They feel like they have a second chance to try to develop the type of anti-corruption mechanisms that they desperately need. Our visit to Varna, which is on the Black Sea, was very educational to see how Russia is trying to dominate the Black Sea area and one of the reasons why they are so aggressive in Ukraine and the Crimea. I think that was extremely helpful for us to understand the security risks and how we have to work with our NATO partners to protect the Black Sea area, particularly from the potential aggression—not potential—from the aggression of Russia. Also in Bulgaria, we had a chance to visit a Roma village. It is not my first visit to a Roma village. I have visited over the years. It is a real tragic situation. The Roma population have been in Europe for centuries. They lived in communities for hundreds of years, yet they do not have property rights. They have lived in their homes, and yet they do not have the opportunity to have their homes registered. And at any time, the government can come in and take away their property without compensation. They rarely have reliable utilities. The village we visited did not have water systems, so they had to use outhouses, et cetera. They had limited availability of fresh water. Their utility service is not reliable. And they go to segregated schools. They don’t have the same employment opportunities. So we, once again, will raise the rights of the Roma population as part of our commitment under the Helsinki Commission, and we are following up with the local officials to try to help in that regard. Then, lastly, on our way back, we visited Norway. I learned a lot because I did not know about the pre-positioning program. I know my friend Senator Wicker already knew about this from his Armed Services service, but it is where we pre-position equipment so that we can respond rapidly to a circumstance anywhere in the world. The Norway pre-positioning is actually used to help us in regard to the Middle East and our needs in the Middle East. So it was an extremely, extremely, I think, productive visit to these countries. I think we did carry out our commitment under the Helsinki Commission, and we advanced American values. I think we represented our country well, and we were very well noticed. With that, I yield the floor. The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Mississippi. Mr. WICKER. Madam President, one other thing that our colleagues might not understand about the OSCE is their role in election observation. As we were leaving Sofia on the morning of July 11, we crossed paths with some other representatives from the OSCE from European countries who were there to observe the parliamentary elections being held in Bulgaria that very day. Also, on the same day, Moldova, another member of the OSCE, was having parliamentary elections.  We have every hope that the results of these elections will be a further resolve in those two nation members to counter the corruption at the highest level, and we want to congratulate both of those member states of the OSCE for free and fair elections in Europe. With that, I thank my colleague. I yield the floor.

  • Helsinki Commission Delegation Advances Priority Issues at First OSCE PA Annual Session Since Onset of Covid-19 Pandemic

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) last week led a U.S. delegation to the 2021 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Annual Session in Vienna, Austria. The assembly was the first major gathering with an in-person component since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The 2021 OSCE PA Annual Session was held in a hybrid format, with most of the approximately 250 delegates participating remotely and others convening in Vienna. The United States had more representatives to the in-person meeting of the OSCE PA Standing Committee—comprising the heads of national delegations and other OSCE PA leaders—than any other participating State: Chairman Cardin, as the head of the U.S. delegation; Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA; and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Other members traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01), and  Rep. Trent Kelly (MS-01). Remote participants in the Annual Session included Commissioners Sen. Tina Smith (MN), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), along with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). During the Annual Session, the American legislators engaged in debates on political affairs and security, economic and environmental matters, and democracy and human rights. The U.S. legislators also played key roles in the adoption of three resolutions reflecting the major issues confronting the OSCE today: rising hate and its use to bolster authoritarianism and conflict, a call for democratic change in Belarus, and continued opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Chairman Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE PA Special Representative on Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Intolerance, sponsored the first resolution, urging OSCE participating States to adopt an OSCE Anti-Discrimination, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan, to strengthen the efforts of law enforcement, civil society, and others to tackle discrimination and extremism. In addition, parliamentarians held the first Assembly elections in two years, with both Sen. Wicker and Rep. Hudson easily retaining their leadership posts. Sen. Wicker received the most votes of any of the nine vice-presidential candidates, while Rep. Hudson was elected by acclamation. While in Vienna, members also met with OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid and other senior OSCE officials, along with International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi. The in-person delegation also traveled to Estonia, where they met with Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets, former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and Chair of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson to demonstrate the strong U.S. support for the bilateral security relationship. During a visit to Narva, delegation members engaged with representatives of the local Russian-speaking community and visited the Russia-Estonia border to gain a better understanding of the security situation. “The American alliance with Estonia is based on shared democratic values. We appreciate our bilateral relationship and mutual efforts to support the democratic opposition in Belarus and independent voices in Russia,” said Chairman Cardin. “Across the 57 nations that are part of the OSCE, rising challenges to democratic norms require a sober and sustained response from those committed to the rule of law and the defense of human rights. Estonia and the United States are staunch allies in this effort.” “As the Baltic region faces serious and continuing security challenges, the United States is proud to support our steadfast NATO allies,” Sen. Wicker said. “This visit by a bipartisan and bicameral delegation is representative of the strong consensus in the U.S. Congress to push back against the Kremlin’s malign activities in the region. We also appreciate the important and growing contributions of Estonia and our other regional allies and partners as we work to address global security challenges.” Members then traveled to Bulgaria for the Three Seas Initiative Summit, designed to promote transparent and sustainable investments in energy, transportation, and digital infrastructure that contribute to an undivided, free, prosperous, and resilient Europe. While at the summit, they held bilateral meetings with President Andrzej Duda of Poland, President Rumen Radev of Bulgaria, and President Egils Levits of Latvia to discuss a broad range of security and human rights issues. The delegation also traveled to Varna to examine Black Sea regional security issues; visited a Roma community to better understand the current situation of Roma in Bulgaria and underscore U.S. support for the rights of Bulgaria's Roma population; and met with journalists of the recently re-established Bulgarian service of Radio Free Europe. “We brought a dozen members from the U.S. Congress to Sofia to demonstrate support for the Three Seas Initiative and also to engage with Bulgaria’s leaders and its people about our shared values and basic human rights,” said Chairman Cardin. “Protecting civil and human rights is an essential component of every democracy and we look forward to hearing more about how Bulgaria is safeguarding fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.” “The Black Sea region has seen a troublesome rise in tension recently,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our visit to the area was intended to keep us abreast of the situation and to demonstrate our strong, enduring, and bipartisan support to Bulgaria and our other NATO Allies and partners in the region.” En route back to the United States, the delegation visited the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program Norway, a cooperative effort with a stalwart NATO ally that reinforces regional security and offers direct support to U.S. deployments as far away as Iraq.  

  • Rep. Steve Cohen Appointed to Co-Chair Helsinki Commission

    WASHINGTON—Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) has been named by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to co-chair the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the Helsinki Commission) during the 117th Congress. “Over the past decade as a Helsinki Commissioner, I’ve witnessed the commission’s unique capacity to press for progress on international human rights and cooperative security throughout the OSCE region,” Co-Chairman Cohen said. “I am honored to be appointed as co-chair, and look forward to working closely with Chairman Cardin, fellow commissioners, and our OSCE partners to find strength in our shared values. We must continue to hold human rights abusers accountable, promote democratic values among participating States, counter Kremlin aggression, and work toward a sustainable model of regional security.” “I’ve had the pleasure of serving alongside Representative Steve Cohen on the Helsinki Commission for more than ten years and am delighted to welcome him as our new co-chairman,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD). “His commitment to fighting for those who suffer from discrimination and oppression, whether at home or abroad, reflects the values of the Helsinki Commission, and I look forward to his partnership during the 117th Congress.” Co-Chairman Cohen is a leader in Congress in promoting civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans, and human rights and democracy around the world. He believes that these shared values enhance security and cooperation among members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and are a vital part of the relationship among the 57 OSCE participating States. Since joining the commission in 2011, Co-Chairman Cohen has participated in dozens of Helsinki Commission hearings and briefings with expert witnesses on OSCE-related issues: urging a peaceful de-escalation in Crimea, chairing a briefing on the Tunisian elections following the Arab Spring, and serving as an international election monitor in the Georgian Parliamentary elections. He also has traveled with numerous United States delegations to meet with representatives of other OSCE participating States and sponsored legislation to confront malign foreign influence, Russian aggression, and anti-Semitism.

  • 45th Anniversary of the U.S. Helsinki Commission

    I take this time as the Chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, as we celebrate our 45th anniversary. The Helsinki Commission is the vehicle for U.S. participation in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), representing 57 states that have come together under the OSCE, all the countries of Europe, all the countries of the former Soviet Union, including those located in Central Asia, the United States, and Canada. Mr. President, this is a unique body in that it represents both the executive and legislative branches of government. The executive branch has representatives on the Helsinki Commission, and both the House and Senate have Senators and Representatives that serve on the Helsinki Commission. I am very pleased to have as my co-leader Senator Wicker from Mississippi as the Republican leader in the Senate on the Helsinki Commission. The Helsinki Commission has been responsible for elevating our moral dimension to U.S. foreign policy. Its principles point out very clearly that you cannot have security without dealing with good governance and human rights; you cannot have economic progress unless you have governance that respects the rights of all its citizens. That is why I was so pleased when President Biden announced that his foreign policy would be value-based, that as we participate in our foreign policy challenges, it will always be wrapped in our values, and his recent trip to Europe underscored that important lesson. And then he issued, not two weeks ago, the statement that corruption is a core national security threat and that we have a responsibility to fight corruption in order to protect our national security. I am so pleased of the accomplishments of the Helsinki Commission, particularly from the human rights and human dimension. I go back to my early days in the House of Representatives, when the Soviet Union still existed and the challenges of Soviet Jews trying to emigrate from the Soviet Union. It was the Helsinki Commission that was one of the leading voices to help deal with Soviet Jews. I think about trafficking-in-persons, modern-day slavery, and the efforts that the United States did in leading that effort, including passing landmark legislation in trafficking in persons and establishing a rating system where every country in the world is rated on how well they are dealing with fighting trafficking. Now this has become the model, and so many countries have acted. It was the U.S. Helsinki Commission that led the effort for what Congress was able to pass and the international effort in order to fight trafficking-in-persons. I think about the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide, and recognize that it was the Helsinki Commission that pushed to hold those who were responsible for these atrocities accountable, particularly as it related to the Balkan conflict. Then I think about the landmark legislation that was passed in the Congress that deals with sanctions against human rights violators, first the Magnitsky sanctions and then the Global Magnitsky sanctions. It came out of hearings from the Helsinki Commission and legislation that we authored. It is not only the standard here in the United States. It has been adopted as the standard in Europe, in Canada, and in other countries, to make it clear that human rights violators will not be able to hide their illicit funds in our banking system or visit our country. Perhaps our strongest contribution is the oversight hearings that we hold. We also passed the Elie Wiesel Atrocities Prevention Act. But just last week we had a hearing in the Helsinki Commission on how we can prevent atrocities from occurring in the first place. So I am very proud of the accomplishments of the commission. Part of the responsibilities of every member state of the OSCE is that we have the right to challenge any State’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act Accords. So it is our responsibility to challenge when Russia violates those provisions or when we see violations in Turkey—any member State, we can challenge. But we also have to do our own self-evaluation. As Chairman of the commission, I have been using that opportunity to question conduct in our own country when it does not match the responsibilities that we should have. We saw that in the past in regard to the torture issues in Guantanamo Bay. My participation in the Helsinki Commission goes back to my early days in the House of Representatives and some of my proudest moments of representing our country on the international stage. Let me just give you a few examples. In February 1991, I joined a fact-finding mission to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. That is when the Soviet tanks were in Vilnius. That is when the Soviet Union was demonstrating oppression against the people of the Baltic States. It was a very sad moment of oppression, and we went there to stand up for the people of the region, to let them know that the United States never recognized the Soviet’s occupation of the Baltic States, and that we stood with the people and their independence. It was very interesting. We went from there to Moscow, and Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t want to have anything to do with us. He wouldn’t have a meeting with us, and he wouldn’t acknowledge that we were there. But we had a meeting with Boris Yeltsin, who at that time was the chair of the parliament, and we got great visibility. And Yeltsin supported our efforts to condemn the Russian use of force. I have been to Germany several times. My first trip on behalf of the Helsinki Commission was when it was a divided country, and we went to East Berlin. We were the voices for those oppressed people whose voices could not otherwise be heard, and we gave them hope that one day they would see freedom. I then returned when we were literally taking down the Berlin Wall, and I joined in taking down part of the Berlin Wall. I have part of that as a prized possession in my home. I have returned to Germany as a united country and see what a democratic Germany means and the work of our commission to bring down the Iron Curtain. Germany is now a leading democratic state and a great ally of the United States. I have been to Kyiv, Ukraine, on several occasions. I was there during the Maidan protests, where the people demanded democracy. And then I had a chance to return and monitor the elections in Ukraine with Senator Portman—again, a country that has been able to rid itself of the oppression of the Soviet Union. I have been very active in the Helsinki Commission in regards to the Parliamentary Assembly. I chaired one of their three standing committees. I had a chance to become Vice-President at the Parliamentary Assembly. Today, I acknowledge Senator Wicker, who is Vice-President. It points out the bipartisan nature of the Helsinki Commission and our work on the international platform.

  • Tribute to Erika Schlager

    I want to acknowledge one individual who recently announced that she is retiring, Erika Schlager, after 34 years of service to the Commission and to the global community. Erika received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where she graduated magna cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She earned her A.M. degree from Harvard University in Soviet Union studies and her juris doctor degree with honors from the George Washington University Law School. She studied at Warsaw University as a Fulbright fellow and received a diploma from the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Quite a record. She used that academic preparation to make a difference in the world—and what a difference she made. Erika has been an unfailing professional in her dedication to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that the commission meets its mandate and defends human rights abroad. Her deep expertise, which she has honed over decades of work, is renowned both among policy professionals in the United States and in the countries of Central Europe that she followed for the commission. Erika is one of our nation’s top experts on Europe’s most vulnerable communities. She is a leading voice on Roma rights—Europe’s largest minority, with significant populations also in the United States. I have joined Erika in the crusade to speak up for the Roma population, a group that has been denied citizenship in so much of Europe. What a difference she has made in their lives. Erika has worked with Members of Congress, the Department of State and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to address issues ranging from the enslavement and sterilization of Roma to a permanent memorial in Berlin dedicated to the Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazi regime, to annual recognition of International Roma Day. She has brought to my attention the candidacy of Ethel Brooks to be the first Roma board member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I know that Erika will continue to bring Roma perspective and history on the Holocaust to further the tolerance, education, and human rights work of the museum. I have the honor of representing the Senate on the Holocaust Memorial Museum board, and I can tell you that Erika is so deeply respected by the professionals at that museum for the work she has done in furthering the goal of that institution to prevent atrocities against any groups of people. Erika has long been one of my top advisers on the Holocaust restitution and Europe’s Jewish community. She has worked closely with me over the years to raise concerns about the rise of Holocaust revisionism in countries like Hungary and Poland; to foster implementation of the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets measures to right the economic wrongs that accompanied the Holocaust; and to hold accountable a French railway that transported thousands of Holocaust victims to their deaths. She worked on all of these issues and made significant progress. Erika has been instrumental in ensuring that the Helsinki Commission works to hold the United States accountable for our own human rights record, examining U.S. policies and conduct concerning Guantanamo Bay detention camps and U.S. policy regarding torture. Erika’s counsel greatly assisted me in my role as the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, where I was focused on human rights and justice here at home and across the expanse of the 57 participating States of the OSCE. From the plight of African Americans and Muslims to migrants and refugees, Erika has been integral to the Helsinki Commission’s mandate of upholding the myriad of human rights commitments defined in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE agreements. In addition to her many professional milestones and achievements, Erika retires from the commission having left a deeply personal mark on those she worked with, from diplomats and civil servants to the staff of the Helsinki Commission. She is a natural teacher with a gift of taking a complex issue and distilling it in a way that makes it both relevant and accessible. Erika has taught our diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute and spoken at international meetings and at universities across the nation and around the world. She displayed her exceptional teaching ability at the Department of State’s annual training program on Roma rights, and she has ensured that Roma civil society groups could also participate. She has actively sought out dialogue and collaboration with new colleagues to help deepen their understanding of the Helsinki Commission’s role, of the challenges the commission could usefully seek to address abroad, and of the unique tools at its disposal to do just that. Erika is always quick to ask about a colleague’s well-being or inquire after a family member’s well-being. She has fostered collegiality among the Commission’s staff through her unfailing kindness and good nature. In so doing, she has repeatedly demonstrated how deeply she cares, not just for the work she has dedicated her career to, but also for the people whose great privilege it is to call her a colleague and a friend. I will say on a personal basis that I have benefited so much from her friendship, from her understanding, from her strategic thinking, from where we can make a difference. We know there are a lot of problems around the world. We know we can’t settle all the issues. But Erika helped us focus on areas where we can make a difference, and thanks to her input, we have made a difference. I know I speak on behalf of all Helsinki Commission members and staff and scores of other individuals—many who may not know her name—and groups concerned about advancing human rights around the globe and here at home when I say how we will miss Erika. Henry David Thoreau said: ‘‘Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.’’ Erika has embodied that maxim in her professional career and in her life. She has made an enormous difference, and she will continue to do so. I wish her all the best with respect to her future endeavors. I know we will continue to hear from her. Thank you, Erika, for the way you served the commission, our country, and the global community.

  • Sweden's Leadership of the OSCE

    In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde discussed Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and addressed current developments in the OSCE region. Related Information Witness Biography

  • COVID-19 Vaccination Rollouts Expose Underlying Inequalities, Underscore the Need for Equitable, Coordinated Response to Global Health Crises

    By Michelle Ngirbabul, Max Kampelman Fellow, and Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, over 169 million cases and nearly four million deaths have been reported worldwide. The development and rollout of mass vaccination campaigns have proved to be the most effective, and most important, tools in combating the deadly virus. However, supply chain issues and geopolitical struggles have plagued vaccine rollout efforts, and subsequent delays have exposed and exacerbated existing social, health, and economic inequalities within and among OSCE participating States. To control the ongoing pandemic and prepare for the threats of future global health crises, governments must rely on extensive cooperation and coordination to ensure that vaccination programs and relevant policies are equitable among States. COVID-19 Vaccinations are the Key to Ending the Pandemic Vaccines always have been an important part of managing public health crises. During the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies based in the United States, Germany, China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Sweden rapidly developed the nine leading approved or authorized coronavirus vaccines using various approaches. Vaccines produced by Pfizer, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson have been approved or authorized for wide use either in Europe or the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in December 2020 and to Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine in February 2021. Likewise, the European Medicines Agency authorized Pfizer for use in December 2020 and Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen in early 2021. The highly effective vaccines inspire hope that an end to the pandemic may soon be within sight both at home and abroad. Systemic Challenges Hampered Effective Vaccination Rollout Despite the number of approved vaccines available, systemic challenges have impeded vaccine procurement and rollout. For example, in the weeks following the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines’  EUA, vaccine supply shortages, bottlenecks in distribution by manufacturers and production errors, and bureaucratic challenges complicated distribution amid a surge in demand globally. While Moderna and Pfizer expanded production, in the absence of a clear national strategy, confusion, delays, and shortages plagued early U.S. vaccination efforts. Across the Atlantic, the European Union’s stuttering vaccination rollout was beset by vaccine shortages, partially due to its insistence on a joint EU vaccine procurement strategy and related bureaucratic delays. Unlike the United States and other countries that rushed to secure agreements with vaccine producers as early as August 2020, the EU’s 27 Member States were caught in lengthy price negotiations, forcing the region to wait at the back of the line to receive shipments. Shortly thereafter, the region’s vaccination efforts were dealt a massive blow when AstraZeneca, the company with which EU leaders signed a contract for at least 300 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, informed leaders in January that it was unable to meet agreed supply targets for the first quarter. Despite missteps, at least 12 of the EU’s 27 countries remain confident they will reach targets to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the adult population by the end of summer 2021. Pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities within countries have further complicated early vaccination rollouts. In the United States, the lack of a coordinated, federal response led to the significant disparity of access to vaccinations, varying widely depending upon one’s location, age, occupation, and underlying health conditions. Similarly, the United Kingdom reported lower vaccination rates among Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups.  Additionally, inequalities among countries also severely impacted efforts to control and end the pandemic. Vaccine Nationalism and Inter-State Competition Vaccine shortages also disproportionately affected certain countries in the EU, leading to inter-state competition for vaccines and varied vaccination rates among states. Frustrated with slow vaccine deliveries, authorities have coordinated restrictions on exporting vaccines—Italy, for example, had blocked a shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine bound for Australia and warned of possible vaccine export restrictions to non-reciprocating countries outside the bloc. In March 2021, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that the EU would not consider donating vaccine supplies to developing countries until they have “a better production situation in the EU,” as the bloc struggles to maintain its own supply of vaccines EU unity was further challenged as leaders from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Slovenia complained to Brussels that vaccines were not being proportionately delivered as originally agreed in the EU’s joint vaccine strategy. Under the modified agreement, less wealthy EU states that could not afford the more expensive Pfizer or Moderna vaccines were forced to wait for AstraZeneca vaccines amid ongoing shortages. The protesting states were also those that had received the lowest number of vaccines at that time, which raised concerns about individual states’ progress to vaccinate their populations and reach herd immunity. Despite early concerns of sustained and widening disparities, technical specifications agreed in April have charted a course for the bloc’s Digital Green Certificates—a digital COVID-19 vaccination record program to be launched in June 2021. Emerging Vaccine Diplomacy Political, economic, and logistical challenges created an opening for Russian and Chinese influence in the region through so-called “vaccine diplomacy.” Amid shortages and uncertainty, Russia and China have filled the vaccine gap by offering exclusive deals or free vaccines in dozens of countries globally. In August 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russian regulators had licensed Sputnik V, the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, and claimed that clinical trials demonstrated an  efficacy rate of over 90 percent. In December 2020, approximately one month after Pfizer and Moderna received approval in the United States and the European Union, China-owned Sinopharm also brought its vaccine to market, claiming a 79 percent efficacy rate. Global experts in vaccine immunology and epidemiology have since criticized Moscow’s and Beijing’s lack of transparency, questioned the reliability of clinical trial data, and raised safety concerns. Despite such skepticism, Russia and China are determined to implement an elaborate international rollout of their vaccines to strengthen their  influence abroad, even at the expense of their domestic vaccinations.  Between the two countries, China and Russia have secured deals to supply more than 800 million vaccine doses in 41 countries. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia were among the first European countries to forego waiting for Sputnik V’s and Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine’s full approval or authorized emergency use from the European Medicines Agency. In mid-February, 500,000 doses of the initial batch of five million Sinopharm vaccines arrived in Hungary, making it the first member of the EU to receive the Chinese vaccine and authorize emergency use within the country. As of May 2021, nearly 60 countries have registered to administer the Sputnik V vaccine, including OSCE participating States Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Moldova, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Austria seemingly used negotiations with Russia for one million doses to bolster its bid for a greater portion of the EU’s pool of bloc-approved vaccines.  Although Sputnik V is not approved for use in the EU and received negative ratings by Russia’s own domestic drug regulating body, Slovakia authorized the vaccine for use in late May and followed Hungary as the EU’s second country to administer the Sputnik V vaccine.  In Hungary, which leads the EU in COVID-19 deaths per capita, demand remains high for EU-approved doses despite a pervasive government-supported campaign to increase interest in Russia’s jab. As countries attempted to procure vaccines, the Russian Direct Investment Fund was reaching deals with various companies in Italy, Spain, France, and Germany to produce Sputnik V, pending approval by the European Medicines Agency, promising to deliver vaccines for 50 million Europeans from June 2021. China has also signaled further investments in vaccine donations, particularly in countries in or near the Western Balkans—as they turn towards Russia and China for COVID-19 vaccine doses amid the EU’s struggles, intensifying the EU’s geopolitical problem. Adapting Approaches to Meet Emergent Challenges The emergence of varied and highly transmissible mutations of the virus risk in late 2020 and early 2021 outstripped the ability of vaccines to contain the virus, led to the extension or reintroduction of lockdowns, hampered economic recovery, and overburdened health care systems. Emergent variants have further highlighted the need to prioritize vaccination rollouts amid spiking case numbers. Also underscored is the role that effective vaccination programs can play to limit threats against democracy and misuse of global crises by corrupt leaders. Across the globe, challenges posed by the pandemic have provided governments with pretexts to consolidate power and restrict civil and human rights through measures such as imposed lockdowns, allegedly to curb high case counts or deaths. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán assumed extraordinary emergency powers with no sunset clause to seize unchecked power.  While Orbán eventually opted to remove the most widely-condemned feature of his emergency powers in January 2021, the other elements of the measure remain in place. Systemic challenges also exist in inequities among countries as wealthier countries stockpiled batches of vaccines despite the efforts of COVAX—a global program led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), GAVI, the WHO, and UNICEF that aims to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19—to help prevent vaccine stockpiling and subsequent inequities. However, there is hope. An EU summit in March 2021 led to an agreement to improve vaccine production and distribution to its Member States and abroad.  As of mid-May 2021, COVAX has shipped more than 59 million vaccines to 122 countries. In the United States, the Biden administration launched a campaign to improve cooperation among industry rivals, increase vaccine production and distribution, promote access to reliable information, enhance cooperation with the EU, and waive vaccine patents. Increased U.S.-EU cooperation could alleviate vaccination shortages, secure supply chains, successfully and safely develop vaccine passports, and achieve widespread resistance to the virus and its powerful variants to save lives and reopen the global economy.  Lessons Learned for a More Equitable and Secure Future Vaccines have the potential to mitigate the spread of the virus and help orient the world within a “new normal” post-COVID-19, but only if they are sufficiently deployed. The pandemic illustrated that political leaders, scientists, and citizens cannot operate in silos during health crises. Rather, health emergencies must be viewed as global security crises that require coordination and cooperation among all stakeholders. To reap the full health, societal, and economic benefits of vaccines, programs must be coordinated, inclusive, and equitable. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the enduring importance of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security: none are safe until we all are safe.

  • Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde to Appear at Helsinki Commission Online Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: SWEDEN’S LEADERSHIP OF THE OSCE Priorities for 2021 Friday, June 11, 2021 9:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Watch Live: https://www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission In 2021, Sweden chairs the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—which comprises 57 participating States stretching from North America, across Europe, and to Central Asia and Mongolia. Even as the OSCE begins to emerge from the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is tackling other critical challenges, including Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine, protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the pursuit of a lasting and sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the framework of the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, several countries are deliberately spurning their OSCE commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Participating States including Russia, Belarus, and Turkey not only stifle dissent in their own countries but also seek to undermine the OSCE’s work defending fundamental freedoms and curtail civil society’s participation in OSCE activities. Other shared challenges include combating human trafficking, countering terrorism and corruption, and protecting vulnerable communities, including migrants, from discrimination and violence. At this virtual hearing, Swedish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde will discuss Sweden’s priorities for 2021 and address current developments in the OSCE region.

  • The U.S. Midwest Is Foreign Oligarchs’ New Playground

    Forget Manhattan or Monaco; it’s cities like Cleveland that are now attracting ill-gotten money from abroad. For many in the West, the notion of kleptocracy—of transnational money laundering tied to oligarchs and authoritarians bent on washing billions of dollars in dirty money—remains a foreign concept. It conjures images of oligarchs purchasing penthouses in Manhattan or regime insiders floating aboard yachts along the French Riviera or maybe even the children of despots racing luxury cars down the streets of Paris. With pockets bulging with billions of dollars in illicit wealth, it makes a certain sense why these kleptocrats would gravitate toward other deep-pocketed areas. But these kleptocrats are no longer just laundering and parking their dirty money in places like Miami, Malibu, and Monaco. Instead, they’ve begun targeting new areas for their laundering sprees, places few would suspect: from declining, second-tier cities like Cleveland, Ohio, to small factory and steel towns across the American Midwest. In so doing, these kleptocratic figures are no longer simply keeping luxury condos on standby or collecting fleets of private jets and high-end automobiles. Instead, they’re increasingly leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, demolishing the economies of working-class towns and leaving behind empty, sagging downtowns as relics of better times. Take, for instance, the ongoing story of Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky. Recently sanctioned by the United States for his rank corruption, Kolomoisky stands accused by Ukrainian and U.S. authorities of overseeing one of the greatest Ponzi schemes the world has ever seen. Running PrivatBank, one of Ukraine’s leading retail banks, for years, Kolomoisky crafted an image of a successful entrepreneur devoted to Ukraine’s growing middle class. However, not long after Ukraine’s successful anti-authoritarian revolution in 2014, Ukrainian authorities began poking around the ledgers of Kolomoisky’s bank. Their findings were staggering. Ukrainian investigators—led by Valeria Gontareva, then-reformist head of Ukraine’s banking governing body—discovered a $5.5-billion hole in the middle of PrivatBank’s books. The hole forced Kyiv to nationalize the bank, plugging an institution that was too big to fail and sending Kolomoisky on the run. When it came to Ukrainian banks transforming into money laundering machines, “PrivatBank wasn’t an exception,” Gontareva told Foreign Policy. “The problem was that it was the biggest one.” The immediate question was an obvious one: Where had the money gone? As journalists discovered, and as the U.S. Justice Department has alleged in a series of filings in recent months, Kolomoisky didn’t direct the missing billions of dollars into London flats or mansions on the Italian coastline. Instead, as U.S. and Ukrainian investigators discovered, Kolomoisky and a network of enablers plowed much of the money into commercial real estate in places like Cleveland and Louisville, Kentucky—and into small towns reliant on manufacturing plants and steel factories in Illinois, West Virginia, and Michigan. Rather than use the illicit money to play alongside the world’s elite, Kolomoisky and his network allegedly buried their money in the heart of Middle America, using a series of shell companies and cash purchases to obscure their trail. Why would a foreign oligarch decide to hide hundreds of millions of dollars (and potentially more) across overlooked pockets of the United States? Kolomoisky’s example offers three possible motivations. The first reason lies in the obscurity of smalls town like Warren, Ohio, and Harvard, Illinois. Few investigators, journalists, and authorities would have paid any attention to these purchases, let alone asked questions about the source of funds. Unlike places like Seattle, Dallas, or New York City, where the United States now effectively bars anonymous real estate purchases, much of the rest of the country remains perfectly open for the kinds of anonymous real estate purchases at the heart of kleptocratic networks. The second reason appears directly linked to the economic decline of many of these overlooked regions, especially following the Great Recession. For many of these assets, the only buyers are often kleptocrats with deep pockets. In Cleveland, for instance, Kolomoisky’s network of enablers swooped into town when no one else appeared interested, snapping up numerous massive downtown buildings in the post-2008 world. According to a local Cleveland journalist who requested to speak on background, Kolomoisky’s network simply “showed up in Cleveland and started buying when no one else was buying.” Eventually, the oligarch and his team became the biggest commercial real estate holders in the entire city. And that dynamic—with kleptocratic money the only game in town—meant those on the receiving end had no incentive to look this foreign gift horse in the mouth, even when the signs of money laundering were clear. And the ease of entering these markets meant Kolomoisky and his network could do whatever they wanted with these assets—even running them into the ground as they did time and again. Indeed, Kolomoisky never appeared interested in turning a profit for any of these U.S. assets but instead using them simply as something of a kleptocratic nest egg, far away from Ukrainian authorities. According to court documents, Kolomoisky used his U.S. investments simply as nodes in his laundering network, allowing them to slowly fall apart—but not before, in some cases, these assets’ slow-motion collapse sent Americans to the hospital with debilitating injuries. This happened time and again across the American Rust Belt and Midwest. The steel plant in Warren, now shuttered, looks like something out of a dystopian landscape, with cavernous holes gouged in the siding and walls covered in rust—and with all of its former employees now without jobs. A hulking manufacturing plant in the town of Harvard, Illinois—a plant that should have been the economic lifeblood for the town—has been left to rot, with the cash-strapped city left to pick up the tab. (“The building is f—ing cursed,” Michael Kelly, the town’s mayor, told us.) And rather than investments and the dreamed-of revitalization, Cleveland has been left with, as one local paper said, a “gaping hole” in its downtown, courtesy of the investments Kolomoisky and his network let effectively implode. As the local  journalist familiar with the Kolomoisky-linked purchases added, “They pretty much ruined everything they touched.” Over and over again, Kolomoisky and his network allegedly turned to Middle America—overlooked towns, forgotten areas, regions that needed an economic lifeline, whatever the source—for their massive laundering needs. And in so doing, they revealed kleptocrats no longer simply turn to the coasts or the cultural capitals and beach-front areas traditionally associated with modern kleptocracy. Main Street America is now a target for this corrosive, kleptocratic capital, draining these areas of whatever hope or promise remained. “I like to use the analogy of—if you’ve ever lived out in the far West—a dry streambed,” said former FBI agent Karen Greenaway, who’d been involved in tracking transnational money laundering for years, in 2019 congressional testimony at the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. federal agency focusing on human rights and pro-democracy policies. “Dirty money is like a rainstorm coming into a dry streambed. It comes very quickly, and a lot of it comes very fast, and the stream fills up, and then it gets dry again.” Yet the sources of illicit wealth—those behind the dirty money flood—aren’t interested in turning their investments into productive, job-creating engines. “What we have is people who don’t live in the United States, who don’t have any intention of really investing in the United States, but they needed a place to put their money,” Greenaway continued. “I think it’s hurting small-town America. I just don’t think that we’ve come to that realization yet.” Thankfully, U.S. legislators are finally starting to propose solutions and beginning to center the kind of kleptocracy embodied by Kolomoisky at the heart of proposed reforms. Although the polarization of Congress is taken for granted these days, counter-kleptocracy efforts remain an important space where Democrats and Republicans continue to agree. As such, a bipartisan slate of legislators will be launching a “Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy” on June 10, seeking to advance solutions and educate other members on the corrosive effects of kleptocracy, especially as it pertains to its effects on mainstream Americans. The proposed solutions address three primary prongs of counter-kleptocracy efforts. The first of these proposals entails enhancing resiliency at home by building legal and financial systems more resistant to the taint of corruption. Congress took a significant step forward last year by banning anonymous shell company formations, long a favorite tool of kleptocrats moving their money around the West. But it hasn’t stopped there. Congress will soon be debating the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act, a critical piece of legislation to counter authoritarian regimes increasingly reaching into democratic countries to target dissidents and journalists (such as what we recently saw out of Belarus). Kleptocratic regimes do this via things like Interpol, which is itself regularly abused by these governments and figures to harass and silence dissidents and critics, ensuring their stolen money remains hidden elsewhere. Among other things, this bill would effectively protect the U.S. judicial system from abuse by kleptocrats and would aid U.S. efforts to reform rule-of-law governance mechanisms within Interpol. The second prong of proposed reforms targets kleptocrats directly, including the use of sanctions, visa bans, intelligence networks, and law enforcement authorities to disable individual kleptocrats and ensure they cannot corrode democratic institutions. Congress took another step forward last year with the passage of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, a rare extraterritorial criminal statute that enables U.S. law enforcement to indict and pursue “doping fraud,” the use of doping regimes to defraud athletes, businesses, and states—a common tactic of authoritarian kleptocracies at international games. Congress is also now set to debate the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (FEPA). If passed, this bill would serve as a long-awaited complement to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Where the FCPA makes it illegal for a company to pay a bribe abroad, FEPA will make it a crime for a foreign official to demand a bribe. This creates liability for the kleptocrats who extort law-abiding companies. These kleptocrats can then be arrested and tried when they travel to the West to spend and launder their ill-gotten gains. Finally, the third prong centers on building the rule of law abroad, including emphasizing more targeted uses of foreign aid to fight corruption as well as working closely with allies to dismantle the broader offshore economy. For instance, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, recently introduced in the Senate by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, would create an “anti-corruption action fund” that accumulates money via a surcharge on fines from the FCPA. These resources can then be surged into countries undergoing significant democratization movements and reforms (such as Ukraine following its successful 2014 revolution), providing increasing resources for investigators in recipient countries to track how these kleptocrats loot, launder, and stash their ill-gotten gains abroad—including in places like small-town America. A whole host of other ideas are under discussion in Congress, many of which will be spearheaded by the forthcoming “Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy.” And the ideas can’t come a moment too soon. As the case of Kolomoisky clearly illustrates, kleptocracy and the regimes that benefit are no longer things that simply happen abroad or in elite, coastal enclaves. Until these bills are passed and currently floated ideas are implemented, these kleptocrats will continue to assume they can target any U.S. state, city, or town they’d like—and that they can upend the lives of Americans regardless of profession or political leaning.

  • Helsinki Commission Commemorates 45 Years of Advancing Comprehensive Security in the OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—To commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, on June 3, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “The Helsinki Commission has played a vital role in elevating the moral dimension of U.S. foreign policy and prioritizing the protection of fundamental freedoms in our dealings with other nations,” said Chairman Cardin. “From fighting for fair treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, to developing landmark legislation to address human trafficking, to demanding sanctions on human rights violators and kleptocrats, and so much more, the commission consistently has broken new ground.” “For 45 years, the commission has flourished as a bipartisan and bicameral platform for collaboration within the federal government. Its purpose is not to support a specific party or administration, but instead to advance transatlantic cooperation, promote regional security and stability, and hold OSCE participating States accountable to their promises,” said Sen. Wicker. “Our commissioners’ united front against threats to democracy and human rights worldwide has become a pillar of U.S. international engagement.” “I am grateful to have experienced the crucial role played by U.S. engagement in the Helsinki Process, both as an election observer in Bulgaria in 1990, and later as a lawmaker and commissioner,” said Rep. Wilson. “The Helsinki Commission is unique in its ability to adapt to evolving global challenges. The defense of human rights and democracy looks different now than it did during the Cold War, but we continue to unite over the same resilient principles and commitment to fundamental freedoms.” On June 3, 1976, U.S. President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Commission into existence through Public Law 94-304 to encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975—the founding document that lays out the ten principles guiding the inter-state relations among today’s OSCE participating States. The agreement created new opportunities to engage with European partners on human rights, cooperative security, economic opportunities, and territorial disputes, and the commission played an integral role in ensuring that human rights became a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Forty-five years after its founding, the Helsinki Commission continues to engage with participating States to confront severe and persistent violations of human rights and democratic norms. Since its establishment, the Helsinki Commission has convened more than 500 public hearings and briefings. It regularly works with U.S. officials in the executive branch and Congress to draw attention to human rights and security challenges in participating States, including racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance; corruption; human trafficking; and Russia’s persistent violations of the Helsinki Final Act in its relations with Ukraine and other OSCE countries.

  • The Fight Against Corruption Needs Economists

    Combating corruption and kleptocracy has traditionally been an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy: a goal that most policymakers considered laudable but hardly a priority. That attitude is no longer acceptable. In recent years, countries such as China and Russia have “weaponized” corruption, as Philip Zelikow, Eric Edelman, Kristofer Harrison, and Celeste Ward Gventer argued in these pages last year. For the ruling regimes in those countries, they wrote, bribery and graft have “become core instruments of national strategy” through which authoritarian rulers seek to exploit “the relative openness and freedom of democratic countries [that] make them particularly vulnerable to this kind of malign influence.” Strikingly, one particular form of financial aggression—covert foreign money funneled directly into the political processes of democracies—has increased by a factor of ten since 2014. Over roughly the same period of time, American voters have become highly receptive to narratives about corruption, and politicians across the ideological spectrum now routinely allege that the economy is rigged and deride their opponents as crooked and corrupt. Thus, the needs of U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics have neatly aligned to offer a historic opportunity for a sweeping anticorruption campaign that would institutionalize transparency, resilience, and accountability throughout the United States and in the international financial, diplomatic, and legal systems. President Joe Biden, his closest foreign policy advisers, and an increasingly active cohort of lawmakers are intent on carrying out precisely that kind of effort. But there is one big problem: leaders in the Treasury Department and some of the officials running international economic policy in the Biden administration are not fully on board. Their reluctance to focus on corruption could severely hinder the mission, because they control the most powerful tools that Washington can bring to the fight. Follow the Money No American political figure has done more to frame corruption as a national security issue than Biden. As vice president, he led the U.S. fight against graft abroad and publicly warned in 2015 that, for authoritarian states, “corruption is the new tool of foreign policy.” Writing as a presidential candidate in these pages, Biden promised to issue a policy directive enshrining anticorruption as a core national security interest and pledged to “lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system” and to “go after illicit tax havens.” Fighting corruption will be a major focus of the Summit for Democracy that Biden pledged to host in his first year in office. The foreign policy specialists who have spent years working with Biden are all in sync on this issue. In his first major speech as secretary of state, Antony Blinken prioritized fighting corruption in the contexts of both economic inclusivity and democratic renewal. Blinken has already bestowed honorary awards on anticorruption activists and banned the most powerful oligarch in Ukraine from entering the United States due to corruption; he is now considering naming an anticorruption special envoy. Samantha Power, who heads the United States Agency for International Development, recently wrote that fighting corruption is crucial to restoring U.S. leadership and pledged that doing so would be “a huge priority” at the agency under her leadership. In his first interview after being named the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan said that combating corruption and kleptocracy is one of his highest goals, and the administration’s interim national security strategic guidance mentions corruption half a dozen times. The leadership at the Treasury Department, however, does not seem nearly as focused on the issue, taking few specific steps to start fighting corruption in the first 100 days of the administration. Until recently, the word “corruption” never appeared in any Treasury speeches, tweets, readouts of calls with foreign officials, or press releases (except for mostly stock language in a few sanctions announcements). In late April, Treasury did release an expression of support for a British anticorruption initiative. But according to one administration official, the White House instructed Treasury to make that statement. When Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen separately addressed international standards against dirty money, rather than calling for a focus on corruption, she emphasized two other priorities: the role of virtual assets such as cryptocurrencies and the financing that enables the proliferation of weapons. At first, Yellen’s inattention to corruption seemed entirely understandable, because she was focused on the public health and economic crises caused by the pandemic. But when she laid out her international agenda in a February letter to the G-20 and in a major speech in April, she did not describe combating corruption and kleptocracy as a priority. Correcting these omissions in a clear and public way should be a top priority for Treasury’s second 100 days. Dirty Money, Dismal Science Mobilizing financial regulations and international diplomacy to wage war on corruption and kleptocracy might not come naturally to economists, even accomplished ones such as Yellen and her staffers, because economics has come to be seen as an academic discipline independent of the realities of state power. That is partly because, during the Cold War, Washington’s strategic goals and its economic interests generally converged: in an ideological competition against communism, the spread of free trade and free markets also naturally advanced the geopolitical campaign to win support for liberal democratic capitalism. Hence there was little need for American economists to pay close attention to strategic considerations, because there was not much tension between purely economic interests and U.S. grand strategy. Since then, however, the nature of authoritarian regimes has evolved, with strategic implications for U.S. policy. Instead of trying to win over the hearts and minds of the masses with communist ideology, the countries that threaten U.S. power today are organized as kleptocracies, stealing from their own people to buy the loyalty of cronies. They hide their ill-gotten gains in Western markets, which presents an Achilles’ heel if financial authorities can manage to find their dirty money. Unfortunately, this new reality has not yet been taken on board by most economists. In many cases, their views have been shaped by a neoliberal consensus that fails to account for the ways in which deregulation and globalization opened pathways to subvert American democracy and reinforce the power of kleptocracies. Meanwhile, policymakers hoping to shift away from neoliberal dogma have generally not included anticorruption as an element of economic policy. The Biden administration’s vision of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” for example, leaves out fighting corruption. Elsewhere, the administration has cast anticorruption efforts as part of its campaign to revitalize democracy rather than as part of its agenda to set international economic policies that can serve all Americans. And when Yellen has described the costs of corruption, she has focused on its negative effects on growth and poverty in other countries rather than the threat it poses to U.S. national security. All Aboard If Biden wants to make progress against corruption, he needs to push his Treasury Department to get with the program. A good first step would be to start preparing a National Corruption Risk Assessment that would expose the financial networks used by oligarchs and kleptocrats. Next month, the department will publish guidance for banks regarding anti–money laundering priorities, and it should use that occasion to emphasize the risks of corruption. And for a broader public audience, a top Treasury official should give a major speech launching a war on corruption, perhaps at the first-ever United Nations session dedicated to corruption, which is scheduled for early June. Treasury should also develop strong regulations for implementing a law that Congress enacted in January that outlaws anonymous shell companies. According to a number of anticorruption experts who maintain contacts in the administration and who have been imploring senior Treasury officials to prioritize this issue, the department was initially reluctant to designate a senior official to serve as a point person for these regulations. Eventually, public pressure from outside critics and private urging from security and economic officials in the White House led to an appointment. Citing funding constraints, however, Treasury has still not hired outside experts to advise it on enforcing the new law, such as civil society advocates who know which regulations to prioritize, what lobbying pushback to expect, and how to close loopholes through seemingly mundane steps such as updating standard forms. Fortunately, lawmakers are ramping up pressure on Treasury to get serious about prioritizing anticorruption. On May 3, Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat from New Jersey, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat from Rhode Island, wrote a letter to Yellen to “underscore the crucial role of Treasury in combatting international corruption and kleptocracy and to urge you to take early steps to confront this key national security threat.” Malinowski and Whitehouse argued that “the top policy priority in the fight against dirty money should now become the expansion of [anti–money laundering] obligations to cover financial facilitators and professional service providers that can enable corruption.” They recommended first regulating private equity firms and hedge funds before moving on to real estate companies, lawyers, accountants, and others who sometimes enable bribery and graft. They also suggested that Treasury should “lead a landmark international agreement to end offshore financial secrecy and illicit tax havens once and for all . . . backed up by concrete commitments around an array of reporting mechanisms.” Malinowski and Whitehouse also called on Yellen to develop a medium-term anti-kleptocracy plan and appoint anticorruption specialists at Treasury. Meanwhile, the Helsinki Commission—an interagency body created by Congress in 1975 to coordinate security policy with Europe—plans to launch a new “counter-kleptocracy caucus” in June to share perspectives and coordinate efforts across political parties and congressional committees. Congressional attention to this issue is good news. But to live up to Biden’s ambitious vision for fighting corruption, his entire administration needs to match Capitol Hill’s energy. And that means making sure that every department—including Treasury—devotes itself to the effort.

  • Cardin, Hudson Pledge Support to Ukraine in Bilateral Call Between OSCE PA Delegations

    WASHINGTON—In response to increased Russian aggression against Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) initiated an exceptional bilateral meeting with members of the Ukrainian Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) on April 30.  Chairman Cardin, who serves as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the Assembly, and Rep. Hudson, who is a member of the delegation and chairs the OSCE PA’s General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, sought the meeting to express the support of the United States for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and to solicit the Ukrainian lawmakers’ perspectives on the ongoing crisis. Ukrainian participants included parliamentarians Mykyta Poturaiev (Head of Delegation) and Artur Gerasymov (Deputy Head of Delegation).  The exchange, which focused on the recent massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border and in occupied Crimea, and the closure by Russia of parts of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, also covered topics including: The militarization of occupied Crimea and widespread violations of fundamental freedoms there, with particular persecution directed toward Crimean Tatars The Crimean Platform, a Ukrainian diplomatic initiative to mobilize world leaders to raise the cost of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula, with the ultimate goal of de-occupation The effects of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on Russian influence in Europe  The importance of continued reform processes in Ukraine, including in ensuring the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary and of Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies Chairman Cardin and Rep. Hudson reiterated Congress’ strong and bipartisan support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Chairman Cardin underscored that the United States stood with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, which “violated every principle of the Helsinki Final Act,” he stated. He added that the Ukraine Security Partnership Act unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 21 codified the U.S. security commitment to Ukraine and support for the Crimean Platform initiative, among other measures designed to strengthen the bilateral relationship. The United States remained “strongly and firmly united in our support for Ukraine,” Rep. Hudson said, pledging continued resolve in ensuring this message was clear to Russian authorities. Hudson, recalling a statement issued in his capacity as OSCE PA committee chair on April 7, also expressed readiness to engage fully in the parliamentary dimension of the Crimean Platform. In addition, the U.S. and Ukrainian delegates discussed plans for the 2021 Annual Session to be held remotely in late June and early July. 

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest: April 2021

  • Wicker, Shaheen Reintroduce Bill to Hold Russia Accountable for Its Religious Freedom Violations in Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) today reintroduced the bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act (S.1310). It is a companion bill to H.R. 496, introduced by Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (MO-05), which unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. “The Kremlin’s current repression in Ukraine mirrors an ugly chapter from Soviet times when believers were persecuted for their religious faith,” said Sen. Wicker. “Vladimir Putin and his proxies should face real consequences for their brutal attempts to curtail the religious freedom of Ukrainians who suffer under this ruthless Russian occupation.” “There is a bipartisan urgency in Congress to demonstrate support for Ukraine in opposition to Putin’s cruelty, including his barbaric assault against peaceful religious communities. I’m proud to work with this group of lawmakers to reaffirm that sentiment and to stand up for democratic values around the world,” said Sen. Shaheen. “This legislation is an important step forward to hold Putin to account for his unlawful aggression against the Ukrainian people and the fundamental freedoms they hold dear.” The Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act would authorize and require the president of the United States to consider particularly severe violations of religious freedom in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and the Donbas—not just violations inside Russia’s internationally-recognized borders—when determining whether to designate Russia as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). The bill reaffirms that “it is the policy of the United States to never recognize the illegal, attempted annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russia or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.” Russian forces invaded Crimea in February 2014 and continue to illegally occupy and attempt to annex it. The Kremlin has controlled parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine since April 2014 with non-state armed groups and illegal entities it created and commands. Under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, Russia is responsible for religious freedom violations in Crimea and parts of the occupied Donbas. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president to designate CPCs when their governments engage in or tolerate “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” including killings, torture, abduction, and detention. It also requires the president to then take 15 specific actions, or commensurate action, unless exercising waiver authority, and to ban the foreign officials responsible from entering the United States. The Secretary of State has placed Russia on the Special Watch List for countries with severe violations every year since 2018. All participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Russia, have repeatedly committed to respect and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Helsinki Commission has compiled 16 documents detailing religious freedom commitments that OSCE participating States have made.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Troubled by Kyrgyzstan’s New Constitution

    WASHINGTON—Following the adoption of a new constitution in Kyrgyzstan on April 11, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are concerned that this new constitution will move Kyrgyzstan—long considered among the most democratic countries in Central Asia—toward authoritarian rule by concentrating power in the hands of the president, reducing the role of parliament, and minimizing checks and balances. “Vague provisions prioritizing the ‘moral and ethical values and public conscience of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’ could be used to restrict human rights, including freedom of expression. We urge the Government of Kyrgyzstan to ensure that the country’s independent media and civil society can exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms without interference.” The new constitution was approved via referendum, although voter turnout was low at just over 30 percent. President Sadyr Japarov, who took office after being freed from prison during unrest that followed a popular revolt sparked by fraudulent parliamentary elections last October, promoted the constitution’s stronger presidential role. Prior to the referendum, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission jointly evaluated the draft constitution and concluded that the process adopting it did not follow the rule of law and took place with minimal public consultation or parliamentary debate, and that it raised “grave concerns over the lack of respect for the principles of the rule of law, separation of powers, and inherent lack of checks and balances.”

  • Cardin and Wicker on April 15 Sanctions Against Russia

    WASHINGTON—In response to President Biden’s Executive Order on harmful foreign activities of the Russian government and subsequent Treasury sanctions designations, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: “The Biden administration is holding Russia to account for its malign activities in a direct and transparent manner,” said Chairman Cardin. “I applaud the president for taking bold action in response to Russia’s cyberattacks, election interference, its occupation of Crimea, the war it started in eastern Ukraine, and overall human rights abuses and weaponization of corruption. The president should continue to be frank with Russia about the consequences for their actions. We will need to stay the course and continue to use the Magnitsky Act and executive authority to further contain this dangerous regime.” “I welcome all efforts to hold Vladimir Putin accountable for his violence at home and abroad, but this package leaves much to be desired,” said Sen. Wicker. “Instead of the bold action needed to change the Kremlin’s behavior, yesterday’s sanctions represent the latest in a series of incremental steps that exact minimal costs and will have minimal effect. The longer we wait to impose real consequences for Moscow’s bad acts, the longer the Russian people will continue to suffer under Putin’s brutal authoritarian regime.” On April 15, Treasury sanctioned 16 individuals and entities that attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential elections on behalf of the Government of Russia. Along with the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, Treasury also designated five people and three entities in connection with Russia’s occupation of Crimea and human rights abuses there. Under the authority of a new Executive Order issued by President Biden, Treasury implemented new restrictions on the purchase of Russian sovereign debt as well as targeted sanctions on technology companies engaged in malicious cyber activities against the United States.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Call on Belarusian Authorities to Release Journalists, Political Prisoners

    WASHINGTON—In response to the ongoing crackdown on journalists and civil society in Belarus, including the detention of RFE/RL consultant Ihar Losik for almost 300 days on spurious charges, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Despite Aleksandr Lukashenko’s attempt to intimidate Belarusians, the resounding call for freedom and democracy in Belarus has been heard around the world. Ihar Losik, Katsiaryna Barysevich, Dzianis Ivashyn, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, and Darya Chultsova are just a few of the brave Belarusian journalists who have been imprisoned for simply doing their jobs. “We stand in solidarity with the people of Belarus, and in admiration of the courageous journalists who provide critical information to their fellow citizens despite the serious risks they face. “We call on Mr. Lukashenko to release all political prisoners without exception, and to end the attacks against journalists, civil society, and all Belarusians peacefully exercising their rights.” Since the run-up to the fraudulent August 2020 election, and during the subsequent protests, Belarusian authorities have conducted a sweeping crackdown on journalists, civil society, and opposition politicians. Sen. Wicker immediately condemned the election results and violence against protestors in Belarus, and Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, then chairman of the Helsinki Commission, asked the U.S. administration to revoke access to the U.S. financial system for the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus following the government’s violent suppression of peaceful protests. According to Belarusian human rights groups, there are now more than 350 political prisoners in the country. On March 31, the State Department announced that unless Belarus releases all political prisoners, the general license issued by the Treasury Department authorizing transactions with nine state-owned enterprises in Belarus will lapse in late April.  

  • Russian Whistleblower Dr. Rodchenkov Discusses Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act’s Impact as Tool against Corruption at Upcoming Tokyo Olympics

    WASHINGTON—Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory who blew the whistle on Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme, spoke out for the first time about the impact of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (RADA) during the latest episode of Helsinki on the Hill, the Helsinki Commission’s monthly podcast. Dr. Rochenkov called into the interview on a secure line from an undisclosed location to protect his safety and well-being. He discussed the blatant corruption that exists within the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the larger world of international sport. “Immediately and now, [the Rodchenkov Act] is a game changer… those people who were part of [the] conspiracy, they will tighten their security because of fear,” said Dr. Rodchenkov.  “I know people who are core of the doping system...they are very clever.  They are very good.  Now they have some sort of Damocles sword above their heads.  It’s absolutely different feelings and style of life.  You were untouchable and not vulnerable before.  Now you are [the] victim.” The upcoming Tokyo Olympics, slated to take place in late July after a one-year postponement, will be the first international athletic event since the passage of the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835) last December, which established criminal penalties on individuals involved in doping fraud conspiracies affecting major international competition. The law empowers the U.S. Department of Justice for the first time to investigate and prosecute these rogue agents who engage in doping fraud, provide restitution to victims, and protect whistleblowers from retaliation. Passage of the bipartisan legislation was spearheaded by then-Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) in the Senate and former Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Michael Burgess (TX-26) in the House of Representatives. Dr. Rodchenkov emphasized the role of whistleblowers in exposing those complicit to the system, since by criminalizing sports doping as corruption, whistleblowers are now protected under U.S. witness protection laws. “Whistleblowers are of the paramount activity for the future fight against doping,” he said. Sen. Whitehouse has lauded Dr. Rodchenkov’s own courage as a whistleblower. “Thanks to Dr. Rodchenkov, we have a clear understanding of how Russia weaponized doping fraud as a tool of foreign policy.  After his visit to the Helsinki Commission three years ago, we decided to take action against the brazen corruption of Russia and other authoritarian states,” Sen. Whitehouse said.  “The new law bearing Dr. Rodchenkov’s name is an important tool for cracking down on global corruption in international sports and addressing the economic, security, and human rights issues caused by these crimes.” In 2018, Dr. Rodchenkov met with Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), and Rep. Jackson Lee to discuss the threat posed by Russia to the United States, corruption in international sports bodies, and how the United States could contribute to the international effort to counter doping fraud.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Mourn Death of Former Chairman Alcee L. Hastings

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of former Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) earlier today, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Helsinki Commission leaders Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “Alcee Hastings was a fighter and an incredible survivor. He never gave up—not when facing racism as a young man in the Jim Crow south, not when defending civil rights as a lawyer and jurist, not when championing human rights worldwide as chairman of the Helsinki Commission, and not in his long battle with pancreatic cancer,” said Chairman Cardin. “Alcee was committed to ensuring that America’s foreign policy reflects our enduring commitment to democracy, that fundamental freedoms are protected at home and abroad, and that all people can live in a society that is safe, inclusive, and equitable. Even as we mourn his passing, we celebrate a life well lived and a world made better by his service. Alcee was not just a colleague; he was a dear friend. Myrna and I extend our sympathies to his family at this difficult time.” “As chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Alcee Hastings was a powerful partner in advocating for the United States, human rights, democracy, and international cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. “He broke barriers on the international stage as the first American elected to lead the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly while championing the interests of his constituents in Washington. Even as he battled cancer, he was never distracted or deterred from his public service. Gayle and I extend our deepest condolences to his family, friends, and staff during this difficult time.” “Roxanne and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Congressman Hastings,” said Rep. Wilson. “I will always treasure our time working together on the Helsinki Commission and I am grateful for his friendship and service to his country.” Rep. Hastings, who most recently chaired the Helsinki Commission in the 116th Congress, joined the commission in 2001. In 2007, he became the first African American to lead the Helsinki Commission.  Rep. Hastings remains the only American to have ever served as President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), where he also was the former Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs. Rep. Hastings' Obituary at Legacy.com  

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