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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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  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest January 2022

  • Russia’s Assault on Ukraine and the International Order to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S ASSAULT ON UKRAINE AND THE INTERNATIONAL ORDER Assessing and Bolstering the Western Response Wednesday, February 2, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russia’s Ukraine gambit is the most flagrant manifestation of the Kremlin’s assault on the international order. Moscow’s actions degrade the security environment in Europe and are a direct assault on settled international norms. These include the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples affirmed in the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent agreements of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Witnesses will examine the latest developments in the Kremlin-driven crisis in and around Ukraine and the urgency for the United States to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and deter further Russian aggression. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Dr. Fiona Hill, Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair, Center for European Policy Analysis Ambassador (Retired) William B. Taylor, Vice President, U.S. Institute of Peace

  • Half Measures Are Worse Than Nothing in Ukraine

    Europe begins the new year on the brink of major war. Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops and heavy equipment along Ukraine’s border and issued an ultimatum to the West demanding it trade Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for its peace. Such demands are a strategic nonstarter, but the seriousness of the Kremlin’s threats appear all too real. To stop this war before it begins, muddling through is not an option; this demands immediate and bold action. Russia claims its 100,000-plus troops at Ukraine’s doorstep is a response to NATO enlargement and its infrastructure in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. These arguments are unconvincing. The Kremlin has used NATO as a straw man for its grievances, yet Russian disquiet has little to do with NATO itself, which has no immediate plans to expand anywhere near Russia and would not threaten Russia if it did. 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As chronicled by classical historian Donald Kagan in his On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace, Corcyra called on Athens for protection, but Athens was anxious to intervene lest it precipitate a ruinous great-power war with Sparta, which was increasingly fearful that Athens, the rising force in Greece, would eclipse Spartan power. Yet Athens worried that abandoning Corcyra would undermine its alliances and invite Spartan aggression. As a compromise, Athens deployed a mere 10 ships out of its vast 400-ship fleet to join the Corcyraeans in the hopes that it would be enough to deter Corinth’s advancing 150-ship armada. However, as Kagan notes, Athens’s symbolic deployment was not strong enough to deter Corinth—much less defeat it—but too aggressive to completely assuage Spartan fears about Athenian ambitions. 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Russia’s neighbors are far weaker, Western states largely disarmed after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and remnant Allied forces remained in Western Europe in compliance with the NATO-Russia Founding Act, even as Russia has significantly militarized. And Russia’s economic fortunes are far better served by peace and integration with the West, not conflict. However, the stability and integrity of European security architecture as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act remain fundamental to U.S. national security. Any countenance of the Kremlin’s broader abrogation of that framework and the restoration of a new Yalta Conference would reverse decades of peace and prosperity—and likely drive continental militarization that would only compound Russian security anxieties and conflict. It appears the West and the Russian regime’s positions are indeed incompatible. In response, the United States and its allies must be wary of the 10-ship trap. 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The critical factors here are speed and plausibility: steps that not only can be taken quickly but that Russia will believe Washington will carry through. Although economic sanctions have been broadly regarded as useful tools in this regard, most measures being envisioned are likely already baked into Russian calculations or may not have an immediate effect. In addition, the United States—and Europe, if it is willing—should significantly curtail Russian energy imports and aim to wean Russian hydrocarbons from European markets entirely—perhaps even going so far as to employ Defense Production Act authorities to stockpile and potentially surge liquefied natural gas and other fuel alternatives to Central and Eastern Europe. Boosting other energy sources on a strategic scale could also accompany this approach. Moscow must be convinced that military aggression will only dramatically increase and complicate what it believes are its existing security vulnerabilities. Toward that end, the United States and Europe could begin studying withdrawal from the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and planning can begin in earnest for repositioning heavy forces in Europe in the event of a wider Russian war. NATO can signal that new European applications for NATO membership would be welcomed and expediently ratified (perhaps even pre-ratified in some form), particularly from Sweden and Finland, should Russia go through with its militaristic gambit. Washington could also consider scenarios to provide aspirants—Ukraine, Georgia, and potentially the Nordics—with bilateral treaty guarantees prior to NATO accession. In Corcyra, the compromise of 10 Athenian ships only served to anger Corinth and Sparta as well as fed beliefs that war was not only necessary but an urgent enterprise. Against the colossal coercive symbolism and military reality posed by the Russian buildup—and the even greater weight of the Kremlin’s demands—the United States and Europe should prepare responses to match the moment. Michael Hikari Cecire is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. 

  • Defending Ukraine, Deterring Putin

    The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission, including Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Commissioner Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33),  convened a virtual briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty.  Panelists included Dr. Andrew Bowen of the Congressional Research Service, Robert Lee of Kings College London, Dr. Mary Vorotnyuk of the Royal United Services Institute, and Katsiaryna Shmatsina of the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague. The discussion was moderated by Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Hikari Cecire. Cecire began the discussion by describing the apparent urgency of the situation on Ukraine’s border, noting that more than 100,000 Russian troops and heavy offensive equipment had amassed in a potential war footing, in addition to thousands more troops already in states of high readiness and propositioned in and around Ukrainian territory. Dr. Andrew Bowen described the strategic environment in which the buildup is occurring, and noted that Russian political leadership has asserted that it regarded the presence of NATO and Western military and political influence on its border as a red line. Although Ukraine has no immediate likelihood of joining NATO, the Russian regime may regard Ukraine’s growing independent capabilities and partnerships with the West as indicative of a graduate deterioration of its own relative security position. As such, its military buildup may be intended to either compel a diplomatic accommodation with the West to forestall Ukraine’s continued Western path, or, if necessary, launch military operations to do so through the use of force. Dr. Bowen noted that Congress has played a significant role in supporting activities to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, including through the provision of lethal aid, and has also supported efforts to reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank in response to Russia’s aggressive actions. Robert Lee focused on Russian military capabilities currently arrayed at Ukraine’s border. He noted that tens of thousands of troops had been mobilized from Russia’s other geographic combatant commands and deployed to Ukraine’s border, including significant heavy offensive weaponry and specialized assets. According to some assessments, total Russian deployments may represent as much as two-thirds of its total combat power to in and around the Ukraine theater, suggesting a nationwide military mobilization and all the preparations for a major invasion. While the preponderance of Russian offensive assets suggests that it may have the capabilities in place for any number of offensive scenarios, including a move on Kyiv, it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the Kremlin has any intent to seize and hold territory. The Kremlin’s intent may be just to destroy or significantly degrade Ukraine’s military and undermine its broader strategic situation to achieve its aims. However, Russia also has activated some 100,000 additional reserve forces, which may be employed for a number of scenarios. Responding to a question from Co-Chairman Cohen, Lee observed that it was hard to determine the likelihood of a renewed Russian invasion, but that the risk is certainly greater than it has been at any point since the conflict began in 2014, and that the capabilities are all in theater for war. Co-Chairman Cohen also asked if the buildup today was proportionally similar to past buildups in 2014-2015, which was the last time Russian forces semi-overtly invaded Ukraine in large numbers. Lee replied that the current buildup is much more significant, though it is also true that the Ukrainian military is more capable today than it was in the past. Co-Chairman Cohen then inquired about past Russian casualties, which Lee described as being in the “hundreds” at least, though exact figures were not made publicly available. Co-Chairman Cohen then reiterated the gravity of the situation, and the seriousness with which he and the U.S. government was taking the issue. Cecire then introduced Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, who also made the point that the Russian regime’s full intentions were obscure, and not entirely knowable. However, she noted that the array of capabilities that the Kremlin has assembled on Ukraine’s border is suggestive, as are the demands the Kremlin has made in combination with the military buildup. On the latter point, she noted that there was an internal logic to Moscow linking its threatening posture over Ukraine with its demands with the West, because Russia’s war on Ukraine could be regarded as a kind of proxy war against the West as a whole. In a more comprehensive way, Russian demands seek a revised security architecture that would effectively undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine as well as other non-NATO states like Georgia, giving Russia free rein over its periphery. While this may be a nonstarter for the West, Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that Russia likely would settle for an accommodation from the West that would reduce Western involvement in the region and leave Ukraine and other countries weak and vulnerable to Russian pressure. While some may find such a route appealing, she noted, such a response would not likely lead to a more constructive Russia, and could even invite more aggression as Moscow’s intent was never solely about or limited to Ukraine. As such, it is important for the West to remain resolute in defending and advocating for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Katsiaryna Shmatsina spoke about Belarus’ role in the broader calculus. She recalled how, after Belarusian protests were being crushed by the regime, EU diplomatic leaders asked how Belarus might be used as an appendage of Russian strategic power. She noted that this appears to be the case in the ongoing episode with Ukraine, with the hybrid migrant crisis at the Belarusian border, the mooted possibility that Russian forces might use Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine, and the solidarity Russia has showed with the regime in Minsk through the flights of nuclear-capable bombers—suggesting that Belarus is not merely a side act, but a key element of Russian strategy in the region. For his part, Belarusian President Lukashenko has been severely weakened by the protests and his subsequent reliance on Russian support, leaving him nowhere else to turn and cementing Belarus’s place in the Kremlin’s alliance system and regional strategy. Shmastsina counseled that the situation in Belarus should merit greater international attention, particularly from the West, because it is inseparable from the ongoing military buildup in and around Ukraine and another aspect of Russia’s broader campaign against the West. Rep. Veasey noted that in a past visit to Ukraine, the assessment was that Russia was not necessarily interested in taking and holding territory and asked whether this view was still accurate. Dr. Vorotnyuk replied that this was very likely the case, but ultimately that the likely Russian aim was to permanently weaken Ukraine and be able to “veto” its alignments with the West. Particular territorial objectives could also be under consideration, such as a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea—both of which Russia already holds—or a particular city, such as Odesa, and its port access to the Black Sea. Rep. Veasey then asked why Ukraine, but not Georgia, was being targeted in this way. Lee responded that Georgia no longer threatens to retake the Russia-held separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force, and that Ukraine is a much larger country with a more capable military and economic capacity, which holds a unique place in Russia’s historical narrative. Rep. Veasey then raised the issue of corruption, which continues to be seen as a major issue in Ukraine as compared to, for example, Georgia, and asked whether this is a serious problem. Dr. Vorotnyuk noted that it was a major issue, but that it is not a justification for Russian aggression, and that Western assistance with Ukraine is very much helping to address issues like corruption and democratic governance. Related Information Panelist Biographies

  • Russian Military Buildup to be Scrutinized at Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DEFENDING UKRAINE, DETERRING PUTIN Thursday, December 16, 2021 10:00 a.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3DHAGWu The Kremlin has dramatically increased its military activities and capabilities in and around Ukraine, leading to predictions that the regime may be preparing for an aggressive military operation in the coming months. Russian military movements have sufficiently concerned U.S. and allied observers that CIA Director William Burns was personally dispatched to Moscow to telegraph U.S. concerns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has added to a chorus of alarm, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has described Russia’s movements as preparations for an invasion. On December 7, President Biden held a two-hour phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the apparent buildup. The Helsinki Commission will convene a briefing to evaluate the Russian regime’s actions and capabilities near Ukraine and assess potential options for U.S. and Western countermeasures to deter aggression and preserve Ukrainian sovereignty. The briefing will include U.S. and international experts on Russian military capabilities and Eurasian security. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Dr. Andrew Bowen, Analyst in Russian and European Affairs, Congressional Research Service Dr. Maryna Vorotnyuk, Expert on Black Sea security; Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute Katsiaryna Shmatsina, Belarusian analyst on Eurasian politics and security; Visiting Fellow, European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague Robert Lee, Expert on Russian military capabilities; PhD candidate, Kings College London

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Senator Bob Dole

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of Senator Bob Dole, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Senator Dole, who served as the co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission from 1981 to 1985, will be remembered for his efforts to elevate the role of the Senate in the work of the Helsinki Commission and for his support for peace, security, democracy, and human rights for all. “As a participant in early meetings of the Helsinki diplomatic process, he helped develop a tradition of frank and direct exchanges of views between participating countries on human rights concerns, particularly the incarceration of Helsinki human right monitors in the Soviet Union and crackdowns on dissent in Eastern Europe. In the early 1990s, he worked closely with commission leadership advocating for a decisive international response, led by the United States, to the aggression and ethnic cleansing taking place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After leaving the Senate, Senator Dole traveled to Kosovo in 1998 to document atrocities occurring there and subsequently testified about his findings at a Helsinki Commission hearing.  “We will always be grateful for Senator Dole’s enormous contribution to the Helsinki Commission and to its mission.”

  • 30 Years After Ovcara

    By Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor On November 20, 1991, after the fall of the city of Vukovar in Croatia, militant Serb forces removed 265 ill and injured Croats from a hospital. They were taken to the nearby Ovčara farm southeast of Vukovar, where they were abused before being shot and killed, with their bodies dumped in a mass grave. In addition to wounded members of the Croatian armed forces were civilians, including some women and children.   The Helsinki Commission strongly supported the international effort to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, including those most responsible for the crime at Ovčara, which took place early in a series of conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s disintegration throughout the 1990s.  Many obstacles stood in the way, but after years of persistent effort justice prevailed. However, malicious acts supporting territorial aggression continue in the OSCE region and elsewhere. When remembering Ovčara, it is important to acknowledge the brave few in Serbia—civil society advocates, political activists, journalists, lawyers and judges, and everyday citizens—who consistently have refused to associate themselves with the terrible crimes committed in their name in the 1990s, and seek to this day not only justice but a needed acknowledgement of reality in the face of continued denial and revisionism. A wider acknowledgement led by those holding power today will mean a better future for Serbia and its neighbors tomorrow.

  • Helsinki Commission Supports Invocation of OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism in the Face of Sustained Human Rights Crisis in Belarus

    WASHINGTON—Following the invocation of the OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism to address the mounting human rights crisis in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “One year after the release of a comprehensive, unbiased, and damning report detailing human rights abuses by the Lukashenko regime, Lukashenko has not simply failed to act on the report’s recommendations—he has intensified his brutal crackdown on those in Belarus who continue to fight for their fundamental freedoms. “Among its other commitments as an OSCE participating State, Belarus is bound to respect human rights and hold free and fair elections. By invoking the Vienna Mechanism, the United States and 34 other countries demand that the authorities in Belarus finally address the violations raised in the 2020 report and inform the international community about the steps the Lukashenko regime is taking to investigate those serious allegations. Ensuring human rights violators are held to account is of importance to us all.” In September 2020, 17 OSCE participating States, including the United States, invoked the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism to investigate credible accounts of widespread human rights violations perpetrated in the aftermath of Belarus’ fraudulent August 2020 elections. The Moscow Mechanism allows a group of OSCE participating States to appoint independent experts to investigate a particularly serious threat to the fulfillment of human rights commitments in a participating State. On November 5, 2020, the Moscow Mechanism report substantiated numerous allegations of torture and repression and included recommendations and advice for the Government of Belarus, the OSCE, and the international community. Lukashenko’s government failed to cooperate with the investigation. On November 4, 2021, as a follow-up to the 2020 report, 35 OSCE participating States posed detailed questions to the Lukashenko regime via OSCE’s Vienna Mechanism, which obliges participating States to respond to formal requests for information from other States about serious human rights concerns. The commission convened a hearing on human rights in Belarus on September 21, 2021.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest October 2021

  • Experts raise alarm bells in Congress over ‘Europe’s most contested domain’

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Last week, Russian fighter jets intercepted two U.S. bombers over the Black Sea while Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was visiting Romania, a member of the European Union and a NATO ally that hosts nearly 1,000 U.S. servicemembers. During his trip, Austin also visited two other Black Sea countries, Georgia and Ukraine, a move many saw as a sign that the U.S. was beginning to focus on the region ahead of a key NATO ministerial meeting. High on the agenda during Wednesday’s congressional hearing, however, was the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally that under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the West. Despite being part of the Western military alliance, Turkey has consistently opposed strengthening NATO’s presence in the Black Sea and courted Russia, opting to purchase a Russian missile-defense system that military experts say poses a risk to NATO equipment. “We have got to repair our relationship with Turkey. It’s not impossible. Erdoğan is a deal-maker,” said Jim Townsend, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy assistant Defense secretary European and NATO policy, who also testified Wednesday. Over the weekend, Erdoğan ordered the country’s Foreign Ministry to declare 10 ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, persona non grata after they called for the release of an imprisoned civil-society leader named Osman Kavala. Erdoğan later walked back the statement, but the incident highlighted the volatility of Turkey’s relationship with the West. “Because Turkey is pursuing its own Russia-friendly policy and is often antagonistic towards the U.S., that makes our Black Sea policy so much more difficult,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, who argues that NATO allies should be more active in the region. Sen. Ben Cardin, the chair of the Helsinki Commission, said the U.S. and Turkey share many interests in the Black Sea region but that shouldn’t stop Washington from speaking out on human rights. “Mr. Kavala, a Turkish philanthropist, has been in detention for four years despite being acquitted by a Turkish court," Cardin said in an email. "In their joint statement, the ambassadors simply asked that Turkey adhere to its international obligations and domestic law. “This kind of straight talk is important among NATO allies and did not warrant such a disproportionate response.” Despite the tensions with Turkey, Russia is the primary adversary in the region. Many lawmakers note that Moscow has trampled the rules-based international order by invading its neighbors and propping up separatists to prevent countries along the Black Sea from forming closer ties with the West. Russian forces currently occupy around 20 percent of Georgian territory and support separatists in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They also annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014—in large part to maintain access to the Black Sea—and support pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe, said she convened Wednesday’s hearing to learn how lawmakers can holistically approach the region to address patterns of Russian encroachment. “Over the last two decades, the Black Sea has become an increasingly important region for Russia, which has repeatedly disregarded international norms to expand control of the region, waging war and deploying illegal and belligerent tactics to secure these goals,” Shaheen told National Journal. “Russia has made it clear that it is willing to exert economic, military, and political power to thwart NATO expansion and expand its control in the Black Sea.” Experts are arriving in Congress with a laundry list of recommendations, including building up Bulgaria's and Romania’s navies, sending brigade combat teams to both countries, investing in initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, and providing Ukraine with more lethal weaponry. Some are advocating for the creation of a NATO readiness action plan for the Black Sea, and for moving forward with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Both countries are angling to join the Western military alliance. Still, the alliance’s commitment to collective defense prevents countries already in a state of conflict from entering, a fact that Russia exploits. Because Georgia is not yet a NATO member, the U.S. recently renewed a six-year security pact with Tbilisi designed to bolster the defense capabilities of the country’s military. The U.S. is moving away from training battalions in Georgia and will focus instead on building sustainable institutional capabilities at the executive levels of the military. Still, experts warn that nearly all the countries in the region are dealing with political instability, Russian interference, or both. Georgia, heading for a second round of local elections on Saturday, has been accused of Democratic backsliding. Romania and Bulgaria, both EU members, are also in contentious election cycles and debates over government formation that will determine their future political trajectories. Ruslan Trad, an author researching Russian influence in Bulgaria, told National Journal there are several popular pro-Russian political movements in Bulgaria. Russian spies are active in the country and allegedly monitored European Union leaders during their visits. There’s also an urgent need to counter Russian disinformation and anti-NATO propaganda in the country, Trad said. What’s most important, said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, is to have a robust strategy for the entire region. “Having a strategy for the region has to be the first priority because then you can develop the right policies for each of the countries in the region,” Hodges said. The Biden administration is now working on a global-force-posture review, which should shed light on U.S. policy towards the region, and the State Department is also developing a Black Sea strategy. Alina Polyakova, the president of CEPA and another witness in Wednesday’s hearing, said it would be important to pinpoint the specific areas in which each partner country in the region can contribute to broader security. “The Black Sea region is critical to broader transatlantic stability,” Polyakova told senators. “It is where Russia, Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus come together, and it’s also the locus of the Kremlin’s test of the alliance’s credibility and resolve.”

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Colin Powell

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We mourn the loss of a thoughtful leader, respected diplomat, and dedicated public servant. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell actively supported the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its comprehensive definition of security, which includes respect for human rights. In 1990, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his leadership of the U.S. delegation to a seminar in Vienna on military doctrine demonstrated that when Moscow was serious about overcoming differences through the Helsinki Process, the United States was ready to collaborate, as is true today. “Secretary Powell’s subsequent work in the OSCE on fighting anti-Semitism and championing election observation proved that he was not only a warrior and a diplomat, but also a steadfast advocate for human rights and a defender of the most vulnerable.” Secretary Powell was one of the most active U.S. Secretaries of State in OSCE history, personally attending Ministerial Council meetings in 2001, 2003, and 2004. In 2001, he said: “We see our membership in the OSCE as complementing and reinforcing our strong bilateral ties with European and Eurasian countries, our membership in NATO, and our relationship with the European Union. This organization embraces a wide-range of ethnicities, traditions and histories. More importantly, it reflects our common embrace of democratic and market principals and our common commitment to peace and stability. In short, the OSCE encompasses the hopes that all of us share for a Europe that is fully whole and free.”

  • A Tribute to Ambassador George S. Vest, III

    Mr. CARDIN.  Mr. President, I would like to bring to the attention of colleagues the recent passing of long-time U.S. diplomat George Southall Vest, III, a long-time resident of Bethesda, Maryland.  He was 102 years old.  His career with the State Department spanned the Cold War era, from 1947 to 1989.  As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I want to draw particular attention to Ambassador Vest’s representation of the United States at the initial multilateral discussions of 35 countries that led to an historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, from July 30 to August 1, 1975, where the Helsinki Final Act was signed. An all-European summit was not a priority for the United States in the early 1970s.   Indeed, it was a long-standing Soviet proposal, and Washington was wary of its use to confirm the division of Europe, give added legitimacy to communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and provide an opportunity for Moscow to divide the United States from its European allies.  Washington agreed to engage but saw little value in the effort.   As Ambassador Vest himself was quoted as saying, “This was the first time after World War II where all the Eastern European countries, all the Western European countries, together with Canada and the United States, sat down to talk about security and cooperation…   I had very, very few instructions.  I was left pretty much to feel my own way.” The early work of Ambassador Vest and his team, and that of his immediate successors, led to the Helsinki Final Act, which included 10 principles guiding relations between states that serve as a basis, to this day, of our response to events in Europe, including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and other neighbors.  The Final Act provided a comprehensive definition of security that includes respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, the basis for us to address today’s brutal crackdown on dissent in Belarus and authoritarianism elsewhere.  It also provided for a follow-up to the Final Act with regular reviews of implementation and development of new norms, a multilateral effort now represented by today’s 57-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with its important institutions and field missions. Ambassador Vest, left pretty much to feel his own way, may not have intended to make such an impact on European security.  Keep in mind that he represented the United States in these negotiations during the tumultuous time of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, an oil crisis on the horizon, the growing Watergate scandal at home, and a rising Soviet threat across the globe.  Nevertheless, his initial efforts contributed to an end of the Cold War division of Europe rather than a confirmation of it.  That is quite a turnaround.  I should add that the Congress later played a major role in shaping the U.S. contribution to this result when it created the Helsinki Commission in 1976.  While things have changed since then, the Commission does now what it did in the late 1970s: ensure that human rights considerations are central to U.S. foreign policy and U.S. relations with other countries. Given the challenges we face today, I hope it is useful to remind my colleagues of Ambassador Vest’s legacy as a diplomat.   Both before and after the negotiations, he served in positions in which he worked to strengthen ties with Europe, including through the NATO alliance and dialogue with a growing European Union.  He was also a mentor to new generations of American diplomats.   All of this followed his combat service as a forward artillery observer in Europe during World War II. George Vest joined the Foreign Service in 1947, after using the G.I. Bill to earn his master’s degree in history from the University of Virginia (U-Va), where he had received his B.A. in 1941.  He served as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs under President Carter and as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union from 1981 to 1985.  His last assignment at the State Department was as Director General of the Foreign Service.  He retired in 1989 as a “career ambassador,” a rank requiring a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. George Vest’s father was an Episcopal priest and Vest graduated from the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, before attending U-Va.  He was as dedicated to his church as he was to our Nation.  He served on the vestry at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and volunteered in its Opportunity (thrift) Shop, both located on the Close of Washington National Cathedral.  He also tutored students in D.C. public schools.  Two sons, George S. Vest, IV of Fairfax, Virginia, and Henry Vest of Broomfield, Colorado, and two granddaughters survive him.  I send my condolences to his family and thank them for his life of service.  Let us be inspired by Ambassador George Vest and plant our own seeds for a better world tomorrow.

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest September 2021

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes New Senior State Department Advisor, Senior Policy Advisors

    WASHINGTON—The leadership of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is pleased to welcome Edward A. White, Michael Hikari Cecire, and Bakhti Nishanov to the Helsinki Commission staff. White has been appointed as the commission’s senior State Department advisor, and Cecire and Nishanov join the commission as senior policy advisors. “On behalf of the entire bipartisan, bicameral commission, I am delighted to welcome Ed, Michael, and Bakhti to the Helsinki Commission team,” said Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD). “They each bring extensive experience and expertise to their assignments at the commission. I am confident that their contributions will be invaluable to the commission as we work to promote human rights, justice, and security across the OSCE region.” Edward A. White, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister Counselor, serves as the Helsinki Commission’s senior State Department advisor. From 2019 to 2021, he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau. Immediately prior to his Pentagon assignment, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Beirut. Earlier assignments included the State Department’s Office of Levant Affairs; the United States Mission to NATO in Brussels; and U.S. Embassies in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, and Caracas. Since the Helsinki Commission was founded in 1976, career foreign service officers have been assigned to the agency to help foster contact between Congress and the State Department, and to provide political and diplomatic counsel in areas related to the monitoring and implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. Michael Hikari Cecire most recently served as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Previously he was a policy advisor, strategic researcher, and Eurasia regional analyst supporting the Department of Defense and other U.S. Government agencies. Cecire also has served as an international security fellow at New America, a non-resident fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and as a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. At the Helsinki Commission, Cecire is the senior policy advisor specializing in the Caucasus, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, and the conflict in Ukraine. Bakhti Nishanov joins the Helsinki Commission from the International Republican Institute where, as Deputy Director for Eurasia, he helped oversee a portfolio of democracy and governance programs. His previous experience includes roles with Freedom House, the World Bank, and USAID. At the Helsinki Commission, he is the senior policy advisor covering Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, and the OSCE’s Mediterranean Partners.

  • The Russian election was supposed to shore up Putin’s legitimacy. It achieved the opposite.

    Electoral precinct 40, located in a charming historic area a few minutes’ walking distance from the Kremlin, is among the few in Moscow that can be trusted to count votes honestly. Ever since I first voted here at the age of 18, the official tallies have always reflected the actual votes cast. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, the candidate who won the precinct was anticorruption campaigner and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Local Muscovite pride may be one factor in this honesty; the presence of independent electoral commission members in the precinct may be another. So when I came to vote here on Sunday, and then stayed overnight to observe the count, I was certain that I would get a glimpse of the real sentiments of Russian voters. To be clear: It wasn’t an honest election. Opponents of the Kremlin, including all Navalny supporters, had been preemptively disqualified from the ballot through various bans imposed by the regime. But I did expect to see an honest count of the votes that were cast. I was proven right. The official vote tally from Precinct #40 showed the three top spots on the party list ballot divided among the Communists, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and the liberal Yabloko party, the only genuine opposition group allowed to take part in this election. (Their shares were 27, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.) The Communist vote, usually low in Moscow, was boosted this time by support from the Navalny team, which urged voters to pick any candidates on the ballot who don’t represent United Russia — a tactic, known as “Smart Voting,” that aims to demonstrate how minimal support for the ruling party really is. On the single-member ballot (where voters choose among individual candidates rather than parties), Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin won handily with 35 percent; the pro-regime candidate eked out just 14 percent. The overall official results announced next morning — both for Moscow and for Russia as a whole — might as well have come from a different country. The authorities solemnly announced that United Russia had retained its two-thirds supermajority in parliament — even though most polls (including those from government pollsters) showed support for the party in the high 20s. The rest of the seats will be filled by officially approved “opposition” parties that always end up supporting Putin’s most important initiatives. Predictably, not a single genuine opposition candidate — among the few allowed on the ballot in the first place — was actually allowed to win. This time around — in addition to traditional rigging methods such as organized voting by state employees and military conscripts, “carousel” multiple voting, and plain ballot-stuffing — the regime deployed a rather specific brand of electronic voting. When used in genuine democracies, electronic voting usually produces an outcome almost immediately. But in this election, tabulating the results took hours longer than counting traditional paper ballots — and the final result flipped at least eight Moscow districts from the opposition to United Russia. “The story with electronic voting fraud … reminds me of the switched urine samples at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” noted political analyst Maria Snegovaya. “It was done clumsily and crudely — and by the same people, the FSB [Federal Security Service]. It seems this is the only way they can work.” In contrast to 2011, when a patently fraudulent parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, this time no major protests followed. Indeed, none were expected. Navalny’s arrest, and an unprecedented crackdown on opposition supporters earlier this year — with 11,000 detentions and more than 100 criminal cases against participants of pro-democracy rallies — has left Russian civil society subdued and demoralized. But this silence is deceptive. The respite for the regime will almost certainly prove to be only temporary. Recent protests and public opinion trends point to an unmistakable rise in general fatigue with one-man rule that is now stretching into its third decade. Major political change in Russia is notoriously difficult to predict — suffice it to mention the (unpredicted) political upheavals of 1905, 1917 or 1991 — but it seems likely that brewing anti-regime sentiment will burst out into the open in the spring of 2024 if Putin attempts to remain in power, in violation of the constitutional term limit he unlawfully overturned last year. It is an incontrovertible logic of history that in countries where governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are often changed on the streets. Russia has seen this herself, as have other countries in our post-Soviet neighborhood. It is no news to anyone that there are no real elections in Putin’s Russia. Yet international reaction to last weekend’s sham vote has been strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress and in the European Parliament have stated that it “severely weakens the legitimacy” of Putin’s rule. Whatever remains of that legitimacy will be finally shed in the event of Putin’s illegal prolongation of his mandate beyond 2024. European Union lawmakers have already hinted at a formal nonrecognition of any such action in the new strategy toward Russia adopted earlier this month. The year 2024 will be an important test — both for Russian society’s tolerance to autocratic rule, and for the West’s adherence to the rule of law not just in words but in practice. It’s now time to start preparing for that moment.

  • Remembering Diplomat George S. Vest

    Mr. COHEN. Madam Speaker, I rise today to remember and praise the contributions George S. Vest made to U.S. foreign policy. Vest had a long career as a U.S. diplomat during the Cold War. He died on August 24 at the age of 102. Among Ambassador Vest's accomplishments was representing the United States while initiating the 35-country multilateral diplomatic process that led to the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975. This process continues to this day as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based largely in Vienna with 57 participating countries. History records the U.S. approach to those negotiations, a Soviet initiative, in late 1972 and 1973, as one of damage control, but Vest, his team and his successors did better than that. Working with our friends and allies in Europe, and engaging our Soviet and Warsaw Pact adversaries directly, they laid the groundwork for overcoming the East-West divide with a direct and frank dialogue based on a comprehensive definition of security that included respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. At the time, addressing human rights issues in other countries was something diplomats hoped to avoid; over time it became recognized as essential to their security and developing relations. The negotiations also produced confidence- building measures designed to lessen the risk of accidental war during a time of heightened tensions. Although neither Vest nor most of his fellow diplomats may have foreseen its potential value, their work eventually helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end 30 years ago, and the OSCE continues to serve as a forum for addressing tension and instability in Europe to this day. Even in the darker days of the Cold War, this diplomatic process showed many courageous human rights advocates--private citizens--that they were not alone. It gave them the hope to keep fighting for a better world. As long as it remains true to its original Helsinki principles, it still does, and always will. As the Co-Chairman of the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), better known as the Helsinki Commission, I believe it is important that we recognize George Vest's early efforts. The U.S. Helsinki Commission was founded in 1976 and has since helped to ensure that the multilateral diplomatic process Vest started reflects not only U.S. interests but those of any country--indeed any person--who values freedom and democracy. As the elections just held in Russia demonstrate, work still remains. George Vest was a combat veteran of World War II and later served in various diplomatic positions beyond those related to Helsinki, including as advisor to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the State Department's liaison to the Defense Department, spokesman for the State Department Under Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Vest ended his career at the State Department as director general of the Foreign Service, recruiting and selecting future American diplomats. Our debt to this fine public servant, and his legacy of promoting peace over decades, is boundless. I thank his living sons, George S. Vest IV and Henry Vest, for their father's historic service to our country.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Blast So-Called Election Results in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following the sham State Duma elections in Russia, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statements: “From barring opposition candidates to stuffing ballot boxes and manipulating vote totals, there is ample evidence that these parliamentary elections may be the most blatantly fraudulent of them all. The Kremlin once again has demonstrated its utter disregard for the norms and values it purports to respect,” said Chairman Cardin. “Contrary to their international obligations, Russian authorities inexcusably restricted the number of international observers to the point that the OSCE was unable to monitor this election according to its long-established methods. Compounded with the fact that no election is free or fair if the principal opposition figures are kept off the ballot, as in this case, these elections will provide not a shred of legitimacy to those who take their seats in the Duma.” “Citizens cannot freely choose who represents them when opposition candidates are banned from running, poll workers stuff ballot boxes, and last-minute electronic ‘vote counting’ pushes Kremlin-preferred candidates over the top,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “With each election, fewer and fewer opportunities remain for dissent in Russia, demonstrating Putin’s growing insecurity about his ability to stay in power unassisted.” “Moscow’s intimidation of local workers and businesses has left U.S. companies tainted for doing business in Russia,” said Sen. Wicker. “The moral cost of doing business in Russia increases with every day that Putin and his cronies bully their opponents into submission to maintain political power.” “Despite the lack of international observers, independent observers in-country bravely documented violations exposing the Kremlin’s machinations and the illegitimacy of this weekend’s election,” said Rep. Wilson. “The people of Russia deserve a vote that counts and a government that doesn’t stack the deck in its own favor.” The State Duma elections took place from September 17 – 19, 2021. Ahead of the election, many critics of the Kremlin were barred from running; in June 2021, a Moscow court ruling banned Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and associated organizations as “extremist” groups. As voting took place, photos and videos from live-stream camera feeds captured violations including officials stuffing ballot boxes and people being given multiple ballots. At the end of the vote count in Moscow, non-United Russia candidates who had been consistently leading lost at the last minute after thousands of “delayed” electronic ballots changed the results. On September 17, under threat of criminal prosecution of its staff in Russia, Google removed the Smart Vote app, a tool created by Navalny’s team to help voters identify candidates with the best chance to defeat a United Russia party candidate. Google also blocked access to two documents on Google Docs that included lists of Smart Vote endorsements on the grounds that the documents were “illegal” in Russia. Apple removed the Smart Vote app in Russia as well, claiming it had to follow Russian laws about “illegal” content. On September 18, at the Russian government’s request, YouTube blocked a video that included names of recommended candidates for Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly chose not to observe the Russian elections due to severe restrictions Moscow placed on the number of international observers that would have left the OSCE unable to conduct a complete observation consistent with its usual methodology and standards.

  • Seeking Justice and Freedom in Belarus

    In 2020, mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. Since then, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime have clung to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. On September 21, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the events in Belarus leading up to and following the 2020 presidential elections. The hearing included expert witness testimony by four witnesses on the state of the media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by remarking that the election in 2020 was not free or fair, contrary to official reports from Belarus, and commended the extreme courage of peaceful protestors to show up en masse despite a history of mass arrests and torture and the “brazen hijacking of a civilian aircraft and kidnapping of a critic of Mr. Lukashenko.” In opening remarks, Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) announced that, alongside Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), he soon would sponsor a resolution denouncing the acts of the Belarusian regime and supporting freedom and human rights in Belarus. Serge Kharytonau delivered a testimony on behalf of the International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) based on monitoring and documentation of activity in Belarus. He noted that since 2020, the informational sovereignty of Belarus has been given up to Russia in exchange for Putin’s support of Lukashenko. The state propaganda machines in Belarus and Russia are now synchronized to promote the Kremlin’s goals. Kharytonau noted that the state media also is being used to conduct psychological operations, depicting videos of political hostages and victims of torture. Technology platforms such as YouTube are being used to promote misinformation, hate speech, and the threat of violence towards civilians. Tatsiana Khomich, the Coordination Council’s Representative for political prisoners, testified about the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. Only 673 political prisoners are officially recognized by the government in Belarus, but more than 4,600 cases have been opened relating to 2020 election. Several activists have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, where they lack medical care, suffer from chronic diseases, are subject to torture, and often attempt suicide. She noted that most of these prisoners are just regular people, such as taxi drivers, and some are as young as 15 years old. “The situation in Belarus will most likely result in the complete annihilation of the civil rights of Belarusians and the chance of political transformation in Belarus will disappear,” she said. Khomich argued that time plays into Lukashenko’s hands as his government adapts to sanctions and the negotiating position of the West declines. Furthermore, as time passes the focus on Belarus is likely to decrease; action is needed now. David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University and former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified on the violation of human rights and “weaponization” of migrants by Belarus, noting that the spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries poses a threat to the United States. Kramer also classified Belarus as a test case for the West and its struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He offered several recommendations to deal with the situation in Belarus: targeting the individuals surrounding Lukashenko who are keeping him afloat financially with sanctions; requiring U.S. allies in the Middle East to make a choice between supporting the United States or supporting Lukashenko; cutting off  IMF funding to Belarus; and continuing not to recognize Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. Kramer emphasized that an effort should be made to press for the release of all political prisoners and have accountability for the gross violation of human rights by the Lukashenko regime. The West needs to prepare for when Lukashenko is gone, he argued, but in the meantime Belarusian civil society must be supported. Siarhej Zikratski, a representative on legal affairs in the office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, personally attested to the political persecution of prisoners. Prisoners are cramped in tiny cells, tortured, beaten, and subjected to sexual violence. Despite appeals, no criminal cases exist regarding these acts. He also highlighted the disbarment of 13 lawyers who defended journalists and politicians who stood up to the regime. Zikratski recommended that the international community refuse to recognize Lukashenko as Belarus’ leader; use international human rights laws and international human rights protection mechanisms such as Article 30 of the Convention Against Torture and Article 41 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address human rights violations; and record evidence of human rights violations, document crimes, and investigate criminal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdictions. During the question-and-answer session with witnesses, members asked questions ranging from the use and abuse of U.S. technology platforms by repressive regimes, to the proposed union between Belarus and Russia and the recent joint Zapad military exercise, to specific cases of human rights abuses in Belarus. Witnesses also discussed the effectiveness of the OSCE’s 2020 Moscow Mechanism investigation and the continuing importance of U.S-funded news outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. Related Information Witness Biographies Special Statement from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya Press Release: Chairman Cardin Joins Bipartisan Resolution Highlighting First Anniversary of Fraudulent Election In Belarus Press Release: Cardin and Cohen Condemn Persecution of Independent Journalists in Belarus Press Release: Helsinki Commission Condemns Lukashenko Regime for Forced Landing of Commercial Jetliner Leading to Arrest of Raman Pratasevich

  • Repression in Belarus Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: SEEKING JUSTICE AND FREEDOM IN BELARUS Tuesday, September 21, 2021 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 419 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission More than a year has passed since mass protests against the fraudulent election of Alexander Lukashenko shook Belarus. In the meantime, Lukashenko and his illegitimate regime cling to power by committing ever more serious acts of repression against advocates of democracy and free expression. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in pre-trial detention or have been sentenced to years in prison during closed trials. The regime has effectively criminalized independent journalism and peaceful assembly; no independent justice system exists to hold those in power accountable. As Lukashenko lashes out at the West—even engineering the forced landing of an EU flight to abduct a journalist and sending overwhelming numbers of migrants into the EU via Belarus—the exiled leader of democratic Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has been engaging the world on her country’s behalf, calling for new elections, the release of political prisoners, and accountability for the repressive regime. Expert witnesses will provide updates on the current situation in Belarus, including the state of media, the plight of political prisoners, the international legal ramifications of Lukashenko’s violence, and U.S. policy responses and options. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Serge Kharytonau, Media Expert, International Strategic Action Network for Security (iSANS) Tatsiana Khomich, Coordination Council Representative for political prisoners, Viktar Babaryka Team Coordinator, and sister of political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava David J. Kramer, Senior Fellow, Florida International University Siarhej Zikratski, Representative on Legal Affairs, Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

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