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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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In keeping with the Helsinki Final Act’s comprehensive definition of security—which includes respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as a principle guiding relations between states—we have reviewed the records of all participating countries, including our own and those of our friends and allies. From its Cold War origins, the Helsinki Commission adapted well to changing circumstances, new challenges, and new opportunities. It has done much to ensure U.S. support for democratic development in East-Central Europe and continues to push for greater respect for human rights in Russia and the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Commission has participated in the debates of the 1990s on how the United States should respond to conflicts in the Balkans, particularly Bosnia and Kosovo and elsewhere, and does the same today in regard to Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. It has pushed U.S. policy to take action to combat trafficking in persons, anti- Semitism and racism, and intolerance and corruption, as well as other problems which are not confined to one country’s borders. The Helsinki Commission has succeeded in large part due to its leadership. From the House, the commission has been chaired by Representatives Dante Fascell of Florida, my good friend STENY HOYER of Maryland, the current chairman, CHRISTOPHER SMITH of New Jersey, and ALCEE HASTINGS of Florida. From this Chamber, we have had Senators Alfonse D’Amato of New York, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, Sam Brownback of Kansas and today’s cochairman, ROGER WICKER of Mississippi. I had the honor, myself, to chair the Helsinki Commission from 2007 to 2015. That time, and all my service on the commission, from 1993 to the present, has been enormously rewarding. I think it is important to mention that the hard work we do on the Helsinki Commission is not a job requirement for a Member of Congress. Rather than being a responsibility, it is something many of us choose to do because it is rewarding to secure the release of a longtime political prisoner, to reunify a family, to observe elections in a country eager to learn the meaning of democracy for the first time, to enable individuals to worship in accordance with their faiths, to know that policies we advocated have meant increased freedom for millions of individuals in numerous countries, and to present the United States as a force for positive change in this world. Several of us have gone beyond our responsibilities on the commission to participate in the leadership of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Representative HASTINGS served for 2 years as assembly president, while Representative HOYER, Representative ROBERT ADERHOLT of Alabama, and I have served as vice presidents. Senator WICKER currently serves as chairman of the assembly’s security committee. Representative Hilda Solis of California had served as a committee chair and special representative on the critical issue of migration. Today, Representative SMITH serves as a special representative on the similarly critical issue of human trafficking, while I serve as special representative on anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance. Our engagement in this activity as elected Members of Congress reflects the deep, genuine commitment of our country to security and cooperation in Europe, and this rebounds to the enormous benefit of our country. Our friends and allies appreciate our engagement, and those with whom we have a more adversarial relationship are kept in check by our engagement. I hope my colleagues would consider this point today, especially during a time when foreign travel is not strongly encouraged and sometimes actively discouraged. Finally, let me say a few words about the Helsinki Commission staff, both past and present. The staff represents an enormous pool of talent. They have a combination of diplomatic skills, regional expertise, and foreign language capacity that has allowed the Members of Congress serving on the commission to be so successful. Many of them deserve mention here, but I must mention Spencer Oliver, the first chief of staff, who set the commission’s precedents from the very start. Spencer went on to create almost an equivalent of the commission at the international level with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. One of his early hires and an eventual successor was Sam Wise, whom I would consider to be one of the diplomatic heroes of the Cold War period for his contributions and leadership in the Helsinki Process. In closing, I again want to express my hope that my colleagues will consider the value of the Helsinki Commission’s work over the years, enhancing the congressional role in U.S. foreign policy and advocating for human rights as part of that policy. Indeed, the commission, like the Helsinki Process, has been considered a model that could be duplicated to handle challenges in other regions of the world. I also hope to see my colleagues increase their participation on Helsinki Commission delegations to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, as well as at Helsinki Commission hearings. For as much as the commission has accomplished in its four decades, there continues to be work to be done in its fifth, and the challenges ahead are no less than those of the past.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Welcome Savchenko Release; Urge Russia To Comply With Minsk Agreements

    WASHINGTON – Following today’s release of Ukrainian fighter pilot Nadiya Savchenko from prison in Russia, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04), Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Senator Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman of the Commission, issued the following statement: “We welcome Nadiya’s long-overdue release, but we must not forget about other Ukrainian citizens unjustly imprisoned in Russia. We must also remember that Russia still occupies Crimea and continues its aggression in eastern Ukraine, bringing misery and suffering to millions of Ukrainians.” “Russia should honor the Minsk agreements – which it violates with impunity – if there is to be peaceful resolution to the conflict. Above all, Russia needs to get out of Ukraine.” Last September, the House passed a resolution calling for Savchenko’s release, which was strengthened by Chairman Smith’s amendment calling for the imposition of personal sanctions against individuals responsible for the imprisonment of Savchenko and other Ukrainian citizens illegally incarcerated in Russia. A resolution sponsored by Co-Chairman Wicker and Helsinki Commission Ranking Senate Commissioner Ben Cardin (MD) calling for her release passed the Senate in February 2015.

  • Internet Freedom in the Age of Dictators and Terrorists

    This briefing- focused on internet freedom- was set in the context of increasing online censorship and surveillance in authoritarian nations and privacy infringement and terrorism threats in free societies. Lisl Brunner of the Global Network Initiative, Rebecca MacKinnon from Ranking Digital Rights, and Tim Maurer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discussed how internet companies are evolving to handle increased government requests from law enforcement and the role of export controls in ensuring that U.S. and European technologies do not contribute to human rights abuses. Policy advisor Shelly Han opened the briefing by explaining that when the internet began spreading across the globe, it was seen as a “game changer for spreading democratic ideals to places that traditional media could not reach” – a new method of positive influence, accountability and transparency. However, she noted, precisely because it was so powerful, autocrats (including those in China and Russia) have been able to use it to increase their own power, and democracies have come to fear its use by terrorists. Citizens in free societies also wonder where the line between security and privacy should be drawn. The panelists discussed the immense increase in awareness of this issue in the past decade, the commitments that can be set for the future and where leadership must come from in order to create policy solutions.

  • German Foreign Minister to Testify at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Germany’s Chairmanship of the OSCE: Priorities and Challenges” March 1, 2016 2: 00 PM Cannon House Office Building Room 334 Live Webcast:www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Germany’s 2016 Chairmanship-in-Office of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – the world’s largest regional security body – comes at a turbulent time.  Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues to have serious ramifications on pan-European security; the refugee crisis has exposed cracks in the European approach to migration; and some question the OSCE’s relevance and role in twenty-first century Europe.  Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will discuss Germany’s plans to “renew dialogue, rebuild trust, and restore security” as it assumes the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office, including resolving the conflict in Ukraine; supporting negotiations in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniestra, and Georgia; renewing discussions on key European security agreements; counterterrorism and cybersecurity; and strengthening OSCE capacities.

  • Religious Freedom, Anti-Semitism, and Rule of Law in Europe and Eurasia

    In this hearing ODIHR Director Michael Link discussed the importance of the OSCE's work on human rights through ODIHR.  He focused on the fight against anti-Semitism and the human rights situation in Ukraine.  He spoke about ODIHR's newest project to combat anti-Semitism, called "Turning Words into Action," which will give leaders the knowledge and tools to address anti-Semitism in their communities.   Director Link also noted that in Ukraine he was particularly concerned about the human rights violations in Crimea and expressed his support for a cease-fire as a pre-condition of the implementation of the Minsk package.

  • OSCE Foreign Ministers Meet in Belgrade

    Serbia’s year-long chairmanship of the OSCE culminated in Belgrade in the annual meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council on December 3 and 4, 2015.  Key issues addressed in the context of Ministerial discussions included: Ongoing efforts to de-escalate the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the need for Russia to fully implement the Minsk Agreements. Reaffirmation of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent commitments and the comprehensive nature of security (i.e., respect for fundamental freedoms within a state has an impact on the security between states). The assault on human dignity and human rights, including through terrorist attacks, the continued rollback on rights and freedoms in the OSCE area, and the refugee and migration crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry led the U.S. delegation, which also included Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert Berschinski; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel N. Rosenblum; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion. The atmosphere was strained, as tensions between Ukraine and Russia, Russia and Turkey, and Armenia and Azerbaijan spilled over into the negotiations. As Russia blocked virtually all decisions on human rights, as well as on the migration crisis and on gender issues, only a handful of documents were adopted. Successful declarations addressed recent terrorist attacks in the OSCE region, combating violent extremism that leads to terrorism, and addressing the illicit drug trade.

  • OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2015

    “The Human Dimension” is OSCE-speak for human rights, democracy, and humanitarian concerns.  When the Helsinki Final Act (HFA) was signed in Helsinki, Finland in 1975, it enshrined among its ten Principles Guiding Relations between participating States (the Decalogue) a commitment to "respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion" (Principle VII). In addition, the HFA included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian issues that provided an umbrella for addressing (among other things) family reunification and working conditions for journalists. "The Human Dimension" was a term coined during the drafting of the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document to serve as shorthand to describe the human rights and humanitarian provisions of the agreements concluded within the framework of the Helsinki process. Today, it has come to include the OSCE’s watershed commitments on democracy, the rule of law, and free and fair elections. In any given year, the OSCE participating States address human dimension issues in multiple fora.  The Human Dimension Implementation Meeting – HDIM – attracts the largest number of participants, covers the greatest range of issues, and is open to participation by civil society. That work includes formal sessions on the full range of human rights  issues as well as rule of law, free elections, and democracy-building issues. National minorities, Roma, and tolerance and nondiscrimination are also on the agenda.  U.S. Delegation Led by David Kramer The 2015 HDIM was held September 21 to October 2 and drew 1,386 participants.  The U.S. delegation was led by David J. Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Human Freedoms at the McCain Institute and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  It also included U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert Berschinksi; Department of State Special Advisor for International Rights Judith Heumann; and Helsinki Commission Senior Senate Staff Representative Ambassador David T. Killion.  Helsinki Commission staff participated in all aspects of the delegation’s work. In addition to active engagement in the formal sessions, the United States participated in side events focused on specific countries or issues organized by civil society, OSCE participating States, or international organizations, and held numerous bilateral meetings with other delegations to raise and discuss human rights.  Special Advisor Heumann led a panel highlighting the importance of disability rights for OSCE countries as part of a U.S. side event cosponsored with Finland. Russia: External Aggression and Internal Repression During the HDIM, Russia’s aggression in and against Ukraine was raised in connection with almost every agenda item for the meeting.  The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also issued a joint report prepared with the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities detailing widespread human rights violations in Russian-occupied Crimea.  Increasing levels of repression within Russia also were raised throughout the HDIM and served to highlight the relationship between external aggression and internal repression. In early 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an advocate for the rule of law and accountability in Russia and an outspoken Russian critic of the Russian government’s war against Ukraine, was gunned down just outside the Kremlin.  Russia’s increasingly repressive government has eroded the democratic institutions that ensure a government’s accountability to its people. A free and independent media is virtually nonexistent and the remaining state-controlled media is used to propagandize disinformation, fear, bigotry, and aggression. Azerbaijan’s Record Draws Sharp Criticism In 2015 Azerbaijan unilaterally shuttered the OSCE Mission in Baku, effectively blocked the OSCE’s independent election observation in October, and sentenced journalist-heroine Khadija Ismayilova to 7 ½ years in prison for reporting on government corruption.  The government of Azerbaijan has also escalated pressure against the family members of its critics, in a further effort to stifle dissent.  As a consequence, throughout the HDIM, Azerbaijan was the subject of singular attention and criticism. In one particularly sharp exchange with the moderator during the discussion of fundamental freedoms in the digital age, Azerbaijan challenged its critics to name at least 25 of an estimated 100 political prisoners.  A partial list – 25 names – is below. Abilov, Abdul Aliyev, Intigam Aliyev, Nijat Akhundov, Rashadat Guliyev, Araz Hasanov, Nasimi Hashimli, Parviz Hazi, Seymur Ismayilova, Khadija Jabrayilova, Valida Jafarov, Rasul Karimov, Fara Mammadli, Anar Mammadov, Hilal Mammadov, Igar Mammadov, Omar Mirkadirov, Rauf Ramazanov, Rashad Rustamov, Aliabbas Rustamzada, Ilkin Seyidov, Elnur Yagublu, Tofig Yunusov, Arif** Yunus, Leyla** Zakharchenko, Irina **Leyla and Arif Yunus have been released from prison since the HDIM but remain under house arrest.

  • Serbia Concludes Year-Long OSCE Chairmanship

    Four decades after the signature of the Helsinki Final Act, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic presided over a Serbian chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that kicked off with high expectations.  As a successor to the only participating State ever suspended from OSCE decision-making for egregious violation of Helsinki standards (1992 to 2000), the ability of Serbia to chair the organization was a credit not only to the country, but also to the OSCE which provided significant guidance and engagement through the transition.  Throughout Serbia’s chairmanship, the situation in Ukraine dominated the work of the OSCE participating States, including at the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting.  This overshadowed efforts to commemorate the Helsinki Final Act’s 40th anniversary, as the OSCE’s future was considered to hinge on the Minsk agreements and its response to the crisis in and around Ukraine. Ukraine Russia’s egregious violations of the Minsk agreement led to its collapse in January 2015.  Minsk II, adopted in February 2015, represents a further attempt to de-escalate the war in the Donbas. After six months of non-implementation, a September 1 cease-fire has largely held, with considerably fewer casualties than earlier, although there has been an uptick in recent weeks.  Heavy weapons are slowly being withdrawn from the line of contact.  Nevertheless, the agreement remains extremely tentative as Russia and its separatist proxies continue to disregard the majority of its provisions:  Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) access remains blocked in large portions of the Russian-led separatist-controlled territory; Russian forces and equipment remain on Ukrainian territory; Ukrainian control over its borders with Russia has not been restored.  Furthermore, restrictions continue on humanitarian aid and Ukrainian hostages remain in Russian custody.  Terrorism 2015 was also scarred by numerous terrorist attacks in the OSCE region, including incidents targeting Jewish institutions and free speech in Paris and Copenhagen in January and February; the bombing of a Russian civilian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in October; an attack in Turkey just three weeks before November 1 snap elections; and multiple, simultaneous attacks again in Paris in November.  On November 17, the Permanent Council adopted a declaration on the need to combat by all means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and international law–including applicable international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law–threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts. Refugee Crisis Issues relating to the refugee crisis became more acute over the course of the year.  In early June, the Serbian Chairmanship held a special human dimension event on refugees and internally displaced persons.  On October 6, following significant increases of migrant flows into Europe, the Serbian Chairmanship convened an unprecedented joint meeting of the Permanent Council’s three committees (on military-security, economic and environmental cooperation, and the human dimension) to focus on the refugee-migrant crisis. Finally, many hoped that Serbia’s positive experience hosting a field mission would serve as an example to other participating States cooperating with OSCE field activity.  Unfortunately, turned out not to be the case, as illustrated by the abrupt closure of the mission in Baku. In addition, Serbia – missed an opportunity in 2015 to more strongly exemplify OSCE norms by providing justice for the 1999 execution-style murders of the three Kosovar-American Bytyqi brothers, a key issue in U.S.-Serbian relations.

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