Title

Title

First Person: Wood Smoke and Expectation
Election Observation in Armenia
Friday, December 21, 2018

By Stacy Hope,
Communications Director

When I checked in to my hotel room in Yerevan, Armenia, on December 6, it smelled faintly—not unpleasantly—of wood smoke. I never did find the source, but to me, the smell of wood smoke in December has always been a harbinger of good things to come. It reminds me of cozy evenings with family by the fireplace, talking about the hopes and expectations we have for the new year, even if the weather is frigid and damp and other circumstances are less than ideal. It is the aroma of expectation.

It seemed fitting that wood smoke welcomed me to Armenia for December’s historic elections. In April, Armenia’s Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who had served as the country’s president since 2008, resigned less than one week after taking office for what was perceived by many to be a de facto third term. His resignation was sparked by popular protests against Sargsyan and his Republican Party, led by opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan, who was later elected interim Prime Minister. On October 16, Prime Minister Pashinyan resigned abruptly, forcing the country’s first-ever snap parliamentary elections on December 9.

I traveled to Armenia as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s election observation mission, organized in coordination with the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The OSCE PA observation mission included approximately 50 short-term observers from 17 of the OSCE’s 57 participating States.

Our pre-election briefings featured briefings by analysts, civil society, members of the media, and party representatives. Parties in Armenian politics have traditionally been associated with specific personalities, rather than domestic or foreign policy. However, according to interlocutors, this campaign was different. While the personalities of party leaders still play an important role, for the first time a nearly equal focus was placed on policies. This was highlighted by the country’s first-ever televised parliamentary debate, which aired on Armenian public television on December 5 and generated widespread excitement throughout the country.

Previous elections in Armenia had been marked by allegations of election fraud, including abuse of state resources, pressure on civil servants, outright vote-buying, and undue influence of the ruling party on the media. Among the media representatives in particular, there was a tangible sense of hope, accompanied by an equal amount of trepidation, that things were changing for the better. In the past, several speakers noted, they had been explicitly directed (“we received phone calls”) by the party in power as to which candidates should be covered, how, and for how long. Now, they noted, there were no phone calls. They were flying blind—coverage decisions were completely at their discretion, as long as they remained within the guidelines of the electoral code. That freedom was unprecedented, exhilarating, and a little bit intimidating.

* * *

On the morning of December 9, my election observation partner—a British parliamentarian—and I arrived before sunrise at our first polling station in Yerevan. In the city, streetlights turn off in the early hours of the morning, so we gingerly picked our way in near-blackness around potholes and through puddles to the front door of a local school.

Upon our arrival, we were welcomed by the head of the polling station, an enthusiastic and competent woman who proudly showed us where voting would take place: the large hallway/common area on the second floor of the building. Like most of the polling stations we would visit throughout the day, it was staffed predominantly by women, many in their mid-to-late twenties. Another thing it had in common with most of the precincts we visited: it was totally inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair or who could not easily navigate stairs. 

We remained at the first polling station to observe pre-election procedures as well as the first several voters. We then departed to observe 10 other polling stations, all of which were located in Armavir, the province directly to the west of the city.

Outside a polling station in Armavir, where a full list of voters registered at that location was displayed publicly, in line with the electoral code.

The polling stations in Armavir ranged from substantially urban to relatively rural and were generally located in schools or “cultural centers”—desolate-looking structures built during the Soviet era, which are still used for civic events, including elections.

Throughout the day, we observed very few irregularities and an obvious commitment by poll leaders and workers to faithfully follow election procedures. In addition to our own observation, most of the polling stations we visited were being observed by representatives of each of the political parties, known as “proxies.” We also encountered a few citizen observers.

My observation partner and our interpreter speak with a poll worker.

One particularly charming ritual we observed in two of the polling stations we visited was the recognition by the poll workers and others in the polling station of first-time voters. When new voters cast their ballots, they were ushered to the center of the room by poll workers and awarded, to a round of applause, a commemorative pin. Almost without fail, the new voters blushed and hurried out of the polling station, embarrassed but unable to hide their smiles.

At the end of the day, we returned to the school in Yerevan to observe the polling station’s closing and counting procedure. At some point during the very long day, the vibrant leader of the polling station had contracted a head cold and nearly lost her voice. (She offered us snacks—we offered her cough drops. Both offers were gratefully accepted.)

Despite her illness, she persevered, counting by hand the more than 900 ballots cast in her precinct among the 11 political parties and alliances competing in the election.

Observed closely by party proxies, the leader of a polling station in Yerevan sorts and counts ballots.

I returned to my hotel room—still faintly scented with wood smoke—after midnight, hoping that the high expectations of many of the Armenians we met had been fulfilled.

* * *

In a landslide victory, Pashinyan’s MyStep alliance surged from just nine seats (7.8 percent of the vote) in 2017 to 88 seats (70.4 percent of the vote).

The joint preliminary statement by international election observers from the OSCE, the OSCE PA, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament reflected my own impressions: that the December 9 election process respected citizens’ fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust. Almost without exception, other international observers shared my sense that the polling stations were efficiently and professionally run. The overall campaign featured open political debate, including in the media, and the lack of vote-buying or similar examples of election fraud meant that the elections were genuinely competitive.

Election turnout hovered just under 50 percent—low by Armenian standards, but according to many election analysts, not entirely negative. The relatively low voter turnout (12 percent lower than in the previous election) could likely reflect a lack of the vote-buying and bribery that would encourage otherwise apathetic voters to turn out in droves.

Peter Osusky, leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission, noted, “Now that voters have delivered their message, it is up to the political leadership of Armenia to ensure that this momentum is maintained.”

Relevant issues: 
Relevant countries: 
  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • How to Get Human Rights Abusers and Kleptocrats Sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act

    The workshop provided human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Sanctions experts described, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also discussed the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists shared investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

  • Helsinki Commission Workshop to Explain Global Magnitsky Sanctions Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced a workshop to provide human rights organizations, transparency advocates, and congressional staff with the tools they need to effectively petition the U.S. government to review and potentially designate individuals and organizations for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. HOW TO GET HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS AND KLEPTOCRATS SANCTIONED UNDER THE GLOBAL MAGNITSKY ACT Tuesday, March 13, 2018 3:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 212-10 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Sanctions experts will describe, from an operational perspective, how the U.S. government identifies, vets, and ultimately sanctions individuals. They also will discuss the evidentiary standards for sanctioning human rights violators vs. those engaged in serious acts of corruption. Finally, panelists will share investigative techniques, communications strategies, and responses to aggressive tactics used to intimidate human rights and transparency advocates. Panelists include: Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President, Human Rights First; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Brooks-Rubin, Managing Director, The Sentry; formerly with the Departments of State and Treasury Bill Browder, Founder and Director, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Mark Dubowitz, CEO, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Adam Smith, Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; formerly with the National Security Council and Department of Treasury Josh White, Director of Policy and Analysis, The Sentry; formerly with the Department of Treasury The Global Magnitsky Act is a powerful new tool for deterring human rights violations and fighting corruption. Presence on this list freezes any U.S. assets an individual may hold, blocks future transactions within the U.S. financial system, and bans any travel to the United States. By sanctioning individuals who engage in the worst abuses of power, the United States hardens its own system to external abuse while extending moral support and solidarity to those whose fundamental freedoms are curtailed or denied.

  • Boris Nemtsov: 1959-2015

    On February 27, 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister and Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was brutally murdered on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge directly in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Three years after Nemtsov’s assassination, the Helsinki Commission examined the investigation into Nemtsov’s murder to shed light on the circumstances of the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia. The Helsinki Commission probed reasons why the plaintiffs were denied the opportunity to a fair trial, the effects Russian propaganda has had on Russian citizens in the suppression of information about the case, and the impact of sanctions resulting from the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act. The Commissioners heard testimony from Zhanna Nemtsova, daughter of Boris Nemtsov; Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom; and Vadim Phrokhorov, Lawyer for the family of Boris Nemtsov. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the witnesses and commended Ms. Nemtsova for her courageous activism against gross human rights violations in Russia. Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), the Helsinki Commission’s ranking senator, highlighted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to suppress democracy in Russia, as well as the Kremlin’s use of military force in Ukraine, interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and involvement in the deaths of political opponents like Mr. Nemtsov. Sen. Cardin also praised Russian citizens who side with democracy and emphasized that “[members of the Helsinki Commission] are on the side of the Russian people.” Rep. Christopher Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, discussed how the Magnitsky Act is a breakthrough and a “very useful tool against repressive regimes.” He also asked the panelists for recommendations on actions the United States can and should take to further transparency on the investigation, and expressed interest in initiating a procedure to establish a special representative for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting in July of 2018. “And, so, for Boris himself, we need [...] all parties responsible to be held to account — total transparency,” Rep. Smith said.   Ms. Nemtsova, the first to testify, criticized Russian authorities for failing to classify the murder as politically motivated. She also explained how the Russians want to end public debate on sensitive political issues. “You probably are aware of what [the Russians] are afraid of most,” she said. “They’re afraid of the sunshine. My father’s case is one of the sensitive issues, and that’s why it’s important to bring it to the sunshine.” Ms. Nemtsova also criticized the investigative committee for not identifying the individual that orchestrated the murder. In closing, she noted that the Government of Russia has tried—but failed— to erase her father’s memory, and urged the Commissioners to appoint a special representative to oversee the investigation at the July 2018 Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session in Berlin, Germany. During his testimony, Mr. Kara-Murza reiterated the importance of the Boris Nemtsov plaza-naming ceremony that took place on February 27, 2018, exactly three years after his murder. The District of Columbia renamed a section of Wisconsin Avenue, in front of the Russian Embassy, to honor Boris Nemtsov’s legacy. “It is important for those who continue to hold remembrance marches [...] for people who continue Boris Nemtsov’s work by exposing government corruption. You can kill a human being, but you cannot kill what he stood for,” he said. Mr. Kara-Murza noted that experts frequently blur the line between a country and a regime and urged political leaders in Western democracies to “not equate Russia with the regime that is ruling it.” He concluded by urging the Commissioners to initiate a process, similar to the appointment of a special rapporteur, under the auspices of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session being held in July 2018.   Mr. Prokhorov reiterated how Russian authorities refused to recognize Boris Nemtsov’s murder as politically motivated and that the evidence led to the inner circle of Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya. “The problem is not that the investigation of the suspects is difficult or impossible. Our principal concern is that the investigative authorities are not willing to make any effort to do so,” Mr. Prokhorov said. Mr. Prokhorov stated that the Russian authorities breached the family of Boris Nemtsov’s right to a fair trial and how “none of the organizers or masterminds have been identified or persecuted to date.” He concluded by urging western political leaders, diplomats, and public figures to engage Russian counterparts in dialogue regarding Boris Nemtsov’s murder when given the opportunity to do so.

  • Nemtsov Murder Investigation Under Scrutiny at Upcoming Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: BORIS NEMTSOV, 1959-2015: SEEKING JUSTICE, SECURING HIS LEGACY Wednesday, February 28, 2018 3:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 138 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce022818 Three years after Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge in front of the Kremlin, and one day after the unveiling of Boris Nemtsov Plaza in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Helsinki Commission will examine the outcome of the official investigation and trial into his assassination. An officer of the Russian Interior Ministry with links to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was convicted of pulling the trigger; four others were sentenced as perpetrators. Gen. Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee has declared the case “solved.” Yet, three years on, the organizers and masterminds of the Nemtsov assassination remain unidentified and at large. The United States has sanctioned both Kadyrov and Bastrykin for gross human rights violations under the Magnitsky Act. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has appointed a Special Rapporteur to assess the status of the case and report on its shortcomings. At this hearing, the Commission will consider whether similar oversight is needed within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This hearing will also examine the particular importance of Boris Nemtsov’s legacy of public and competitive politics as Russia looks to Vladimir Putin’s fourth official term in office. Witnesses scheduled to testify include: Zhanna Nemtsova, Daughter of Boris Nemtsov Vadim Prokhorov, Lawyer for the Nemtsov family Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chairman, Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom

  • Presidential Elections in Kyrgyzstan

    Kyrgyzstan’s presidential elections on October 15, 2017, provided for an orderly transfer of power despite curbs on political opposition and media freedom in the run-up to the election, as well as allegations of administrative pressure on voters, vote-buying, and other irregularities during the electoral process. The OSCE Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions stated that the elections “contributed to the strengthening of democratic in-stitutions by providing for an orderly transfer of power from one elected president to another. The election was competitive, as voters had a wide choice and candidates could, in general, campaign freely, although cases of misuse of public resources, pressure on voters, and vote-buying remain a concern….While televised debates contributed to greater pluralism, self-censorship and limited editorial coverage of the campaign signaled deficiencies in media freedom.” Download the full report to learn more. Contributor: U.S. Helsinki Staff

  • Belarus: 25 Years after Signing the Helsinki Final Act

    In July 2017, Belarus hosted the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Annual Session.  However, two decades ago, the OSCE PA refused to even recognize the legitimacy of Belarus’ putative elected representatives.  What has changed? Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, and Michael Newton, Intern

  • Averting All-Out War in Nagorno-Karabakh

    Last year, the worst outbreak of violence over Nagorno-Karabakh in more than two decades erupted as the so-called Four Day War in April 2016 claimed approximately 200 lives and demonstrated that the conflict is anything but “frozen.” The Line of Contact separating the parties sees numerous ceasefire violations annually and each one risks igniting a larger-scale conflict that could draw in major regional players, such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Since 1997, the United States, France, and Russia have co-chaired the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the principal international mechanism aimed at reaching a negotiated solution to the conflict. The U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted two former United States Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group process as well as a renowned, independent expert on the conflict to assess the current state of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Minsk Group format, and the prospects for achieving a lasting peace. Magdalena Grono, an expert from the International Crisis Group, underlined the serious potential for further flare-ups in the fighting, which could have severe humanitarian impacts and draw in regional powers. She contextualized the recent clashes and assessed that the conflict was among the most deadly, intractable and risky in Europe. According to her assessment, the conflict is beset by two worrisome trends: deteriorating confidence between the parties and in the settlement process itself as well as increasingly dangerous clashes due in part to the deployment of heavier weaponry. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh discussed the role of the Minsk Group in the settlement process while voicing his concern that positions have hardened on all sides. Growing tensions have created risks not only of intentional but also accidental conflict, he said. The Ambassador outlined the limits of the Minsk Group’s mandate, underscoring that it is charged with helping the sides find a solution rather than imposing one from the outside. He lamented that the recent meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents apparently failed to achieve agreement on certain confidence and security building measures (CSBMs). In order to stem further escalation, he noted the importance of implementing CSBMs and establishing a direct communication channel between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. He concluded by calling on the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan to demonstrate the political will to work toward a resolution, for instance by preparing their populations for the compromises that will inevitably be required to achieve peace. Ambassador James Warlick asserted that while this was a time of significant danger, peace remains within reach. He urged the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to engage together on principles that they know can lead to peace, saying that meetings without progress undermine confidence in negotiation efforts. Citing past negotiations, Ambassador Warlick laid out six elements that will have to be part of any settlement if it is to endure.  The Ambassador concluded by underlining that it is up to the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to take the first step toward peace by considering measures, even unilateral ones, that will demonstrate their stated commitment to making progress, reducing tensions, and improving the atmosphere for negotiations. 

  • Kyrgyzstan election: A historic vote, but is it fair?

    For the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan, an elected president is due to peacefully hand over power after elections take place on Sunday. But critics say the political environment in Central Asia's "island of democracy" is deteriorating. Here's a look at the issues there - and who's likely to come out on top. Elections in Central Asia are usually easily predictable - the incumbent or the ruling party's candidate wins the vote with an overwhelming majority. But the vote in Kyrgyzstan offers a real competition and choice. Nearly 60 people applied to run in the race, 13 of whom were registered to stand. Two later dropped out. The incumbent, President Almazbek Atambayev, must leave office after six years. Under the Kyrgyz constitution, he may only serve one term. In neighbouring states, laws have often been changed to allow the incumbent to run again but this did not happen in Kyrgyzstan. President Atambayev also promised not to go for the prime minister's job in order to stay in power. Although one of the main candidates - Sooronbay Jeenbekov - is from the president's party, he is not guaranteed to win the vote. He faces a strong opponent - Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and a former prime minister. Some candidates made the unusual move of endorsing their opponents after the campaign started. Experts say that they went through all the trouble of getting into the race in order to increase their political influence. They try to build a greater support base, which they use to negotiate a favourable deal with stronger candidates before pulling out of the race. Politicians can easily change sides, because it's not ideology or a political platform but their own personality that they use to appeal to the voters. Observers say that over the last couple of years the political climate in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating. The Helsinki Commission wrote that "the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government's treatment of political opposition, civil society and human rights defenders". President Atambayev has demonstrated increasing intolerance to criticism. The Sentyabr TV station which opposed him was closed last year for extremism, and activists say that there were blatant procedural violations during the trial. Several popular independent media outlets were sued and heavily fined for insulting the president. The government also tried to intimidate critics on social media. Security services identified Facebook users who criticised the president, and gave them warnings. Several political opponents of President Atambayev have also been sent to prison. Earlier this year, leaders of the opposition People's Parliament movement were jailed for allegedly plotting a coup. Omurbek Tekebayev, a former ally of President Atambayev who turned into a prominent critic, was sentenced to eight years in prison for corruption and fraud and subsequently barred from running for the presidency. Experts saw this case as politically motivated. The atmosphere got particularly tense following a major diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It started last month after a meeting between the president of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Mr Babanov. In an unusually harsh speech, President Atambayev accused his Kazakh counterpart of interfering in Kyrgyzstan's affairs, and warned them of worse to come. "I will speak differently if our neighbours don't come to their senses," he said. Since the beginning of the campaign, there have been numerous reports of violations by various candidates. There have been reports of people going house-to-house with a list of names and addresses and offering money to citizens if they vote for Mr Jeenbekov. Mr Babanov was also accused of vote-buying, and the Central Elections Committee issued him three warnings for violation of campaign rules. The Babanov team complained that security services were putting pressure on their candidate by recording their meetings and conversations and arresting his supporters. An influential MP, Kanatbek Isakov, was detained and charged with an attempt to organise a coup. Security services denied any political motive for the arrest, but Mr Babanov said that Mr Isakov had been arrested because he endorsed him. Despite all this, many voters feel encouraged by the fact that there are several strong candidates. In their view, this will ensure that the outcome is not rigged. "Our politicians know that the people will rise if there are serious violations, so they won't go into that," said one voter in the second city, Osh. Kyrgyzstan has experienced two major uprisings that ousted presidents in the past. And in both cases, rigged elections fuelled the protest mood.    

  • Helsinki Commission Advisor Observes German Elections in Berlin

    By Scott Rauland, State Department Senior Advisor On September 24, 2017, over 50 parliamentarians and staff from 25 countries fanned out across Germany as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) team that was invited to observe German parliamentary elections.  This marked the first time that an OSCE PA Election Observation Mission (EOM) has deployed to Germany.  Although the OSCE PA does not have the resources to observe every election, the organization tries to be present in major elections that are politically important. I was pleased to represent the U.S. in that effort as the State Department’s Senior Advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Members of the OSCE PA team were briefed by German government officials, representatives of the major political parties, political analysts, and other experts in the two days leading up to the election.  On election day, members of the OSCE PA observation mission visited over 300 polling stations in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Duesseldorf, just a fraction of the more than 90,000 polling stations located in Germany in 299 constituencies.  In a press conference held on September 25, George Tsereteli, the Special Coordinator for the EOM, noted, “Germany has once again demonstrated that its commitment to democracy is undiminished. Highly competitive and well-run, these elections were an opportunity for voters to express their choice in a process that benefits from and is based on broad trust among society.”  One sign of that trust was the almost complete absence of election observers from any of the participating political parties at the 14 polling stations my team visited in Berlin – all six major parties seemed to be relatively confident that the elections were being administered fairly. While the OSCE PA team was in Germany at the invitation of the German government, and although the public has the right to observe the voting process in Germany, my observation team was denied access to one of the polling stations we had hoped to observe.  That incident was thankfully the exception amongst the 300 polling stations visited by the OSCE PA EOM, but was a reminder that efforts to promote transparency in the conduct of elections must be ongoing, even in countries where the commitment to democratic elections is high. With more than 4,800 candidates running, and numerous strong political parties, Germany’s 61 million voters had a wide range of options to choose from. Women represented slightly less than 30 per cent of candidates, but played a prominent role in leadership positions in parties’ campaigns. “This was the first time we’ve deployed a full observer team to Germany, and the welcome of our mission by all German officials and political parties that we met is a positive signal that the country is ready to pay continued attention to democratic processes,” said EOM Head of Mission Isabel Santos. “Changing political cultures in many countries and new challenges such as cyber attacks mean that we must all dedicate time and effort to preserving democratic systems.”

  • Kyrgyzstan: Prospects for Democratic Change and the Upcoming Presidential Election

    Two weeks before the upcoming presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan—potentially the first peaceful transfer of power under regular circumstances in the region—campaigning is in full swing. On October 15, Kyrgyz citizens will participate in democratic elections, though serious concerns remain.   This briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Everett Price. In his remarks, he positively noted the current president’s decision to respect his constitutionally-determined term limit and hold regularly-scheduled elections for his successor. He cautioned, however, that the country’s weak political institutions and the ruling party’s abuse of administrative resources could undermine the fairness of the vote. He also observed that the disqualification of certain opposition candidates and restrictions on journalists have adversely affected the election climate. Dr. Erica Marat from the National Defense University discussed the political situation on the ground in Kyrgyzstan and reviewed the political background of the two main candidates, Atambayev loyalist Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Kyrgyz billionaire, Ömürbek Babanov. Anthony Bowyer, Senior Program Manager for Europe and Eurasia at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), reviewed ongoing electoral monitoring efforts in Kyrgyzstan, underscoring the importance of these elections for the region and U.S. interests therein. Finally, Freedom House representative Marc Behrendt offered his insight on Kyrgyzstan’s enduring interethnic tensions and poor human rights record, offering a sobering reminder of the work that remains to be done in order for the Kyrgyz Republic to become a full-fledged democracy. During the briefing, questions pertaining to Russian influence over the country and its politics, as well as other regional, geo-political considerations were also highlighted as part of a general discussion of Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development and the trajectory of Central Asian politics.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in Russia

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. The Russian Federation has adopted, by consensus, OSCE commitments relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms, free and fair elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary. However, in many areas the Russian government is failing to live up to its commitments. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, and Michael Newton, Intern

  • Democratic Change in Kyrgyzstan Topic of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: KYRGYZSTAN: PROSPECTS FOR DEMOCRATIC CHANGE AND THE UPCOMING PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION Tuesday, September 26, 2017 10:30 AM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 202 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kyrgyz people will go to the polls in October in a pivotal election that will determine the country’s next president and the next chapter in its fragile democracy. In contrast to some other leaders in the region who have manipulated term limits to remain in power, current President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev is abiding by his constitutional term limit. However, the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government’s treatment of political opposition, civil society, and human rights defenders. Additionally, the election marks only the second peaceful transition of power through elections following two revolutions – in 2005 and in 2010. This turbulent history serves as a reminder of the importance of building the popular legitimacy of Kyrgyzstan’s political institutions. The briefing will examine the political dynamics surrounding the vote, the conduct of the election campaign thus far, and broader human rights issues in Kyrgyzstan. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Marc Behrendt, Director for Europe and Eurasia Programs, Freedom House Anthony Bowyer, Caucasus and Central Asia Senior Program Manager, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) Dr. Erica Marat, Associate Professor, College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University

  • The Scourge of Russian Disinformation

    Russian disinformation is a grave transnational threat, facilitating unacceptable aggression by Russia both at home and across the 57-nation OSCE region. Russian disinformation helps support rampant violations of OSCE norms by the Putin regime, ranging from internal human rights abuses to military intervention in neighboring states to interference in elections in several countries. On Thursday, September 14, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Russian disinformation in the OSCE region. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) presided over the hearing on behalf of Commission Chairman Sen. Robert Wicker (MS). Witnesses included Mr. John F. Lansing, CEO and Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors; Ms. Molly McKew, CEO of Fianna Strategies; and Ms. Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society Programs at Human Rights First. In his opening statement, Sen. Gardner described the serious threat that Russian disinformation poses to the liberal international order, and underscored “how it undermines the security and human rights of people in the OSCE region.” Russia’s goal, he said, is “to sow fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU.” Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) highlighted the impact of Russian disinformation campaigns in Ukraine in conjunction with the recent invasions of Crimea and the Donbas. He also noted the extent of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and observed that such disinformation campaigns take advantage of our democratic institutions to advance Russia’s strategic agenda. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) characterized Russia’s disinformation efforts as a part of a strategy of “hybrid war,” and emphasized the need for the United States and its allies to develop counter-disinformation strategies as part of a “hybrid defense.” Mr. Lansing, the first witness to testify, outlined the structure and scope of the BBG’s broadcasting operations, and the role it plays in countering disinformation abroad. “The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts,” he said. “The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences an alternative to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent, and professional news and information.” He also described the BBG’s recent expansion of programming in the Post-Soviet space, and its flagship Russian-language program "Current Time," launched in February 2017. In her testimony, Ms. McKew described Russia’s disinformation campaign as “the core component of a war being waged by the Russian state against the West, and against the United States in particular.” She noted, “These manipulations don’t create tendencies or traits in our societies.  They elevate, exploit, and distort divides and grievances that already are present.” She also emphasized the need for a coordinated response from the United States Government and its allies, and proposed an increased role for the U.S. military in countering disinformation. Ms. Hooper reminded the Commission that, while Russian disinformation has taken center stage in recent U.S. policy debates, it is only one of many methods employed by the Russian government to advance its agenda. “It’s part of a coordinated effort to disrupt and attack liberal norms wherever the opportunity arises using economic influence, electoral disruption, [and] the weakening of multilateral institutions,” she said. She also discussed the upcoming German parliamentary elections, and the potential for disinformation to influence its outcome. She commended the German government’s efforts to warn the public about disinformation, but criticized recent legislation that would increase censorship on social media. In response to a question from Sen. Gardner, Ms. Hooper noted that countering disinformation requires more than fact-checking false claims, and emphasized the need for a strategy of proactive narrative communication. Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) concurred with Ms. McKew’s statement that, in order to combat the threat of Russian disinformation, it is necessary for the Administration and Congress to come to a consensus on the existence of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) inquired about the potential for Russian influence in upcoming elections by means of anonymous campaign spending, and about the role that the international banking system plays in sustaining corruption in Russia and neighboring states. Rep. Smith and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) sought the witnesses’ opinions on the recent news that Russian state-owned networks RT and Sputnik are being investigated for possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Ms. McKew spoke in favor of stricter enforcement of FARA, while Mr. Lansing responded that he has concerns about retaliatory restrictions on U.S.-funded media in Russia. “I believe that this disinformation is one of the biggest threats that our democracy faces today,” said Sen. Shaheen. “This is a threat to the foundations of American democracy. It has nothing to do with Republicans and Democrats.”

  • Democratic Elections in the OSCE Region

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. In the 1990 Copenhagen Document, the OSCE participating States adopted, by consensus, watershed commitments on free and fair elections. They stated that the participating States: “. . . solemnly declare that among those elements of justice which are essential to the full expression of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all human beings are the following: [ . . . ] — free elections that will be held at reasonable intervals by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedure, under conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of the opinion of the electors in the choice of their representatives; [ . . . ] — a clear separation between the State and political parties; in particular, political parties will not be merged with the State;”  Accordingly, the participating States rejected the concept of a one-party state or “modified” democracy (e.g., communist- or socialist-democracy).  In a summit held later that year, the OSCE Heads of State or Government declared, “We undertake to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.” In spite of the OSCE commitment to hold free and fair elections, some OSCE participating States have demonstrated even more resistance—if not complete unwillingness—to hold free and fair elections. In a few, a transfer of power is more likely to be the result of death than an election.  In some cases, a generation has come of age under a single ruler or ruling family. Download the full report to learn more. Download highlights of conclusions and recommendations drawn from OSCE election reports (October 2016 to September 2017). Contributors: Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor, Janice Helwig, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, and John Engelken, Intern

  • The 2017 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting: An Overview

    Each year,1 the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organizes the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw, Poland. As Europe’s largest annual human rights conference, the HDIM brings together hundreds of government and nongovernmental representatives, international experts, and human rights activists for two weeks to review OSCE human rights commitments and progress.  The 2017 HDIM will be held from September 11 to September 22. Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017 The HDIM allows participating States to assess one another’s implementation of OSCE human dimension commitments, identify challenges, and make recommendations for improvement. The HDIM agenda covers all human dimension commitments, including freedoms of expression and the media, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief; democratic elections; the rule of law; tolerance and non-discrimination; combating trafficking in persons; women’s rights; and national minorities, including Roma.  Each year, three special topics are selected for a full-day review.  2017 special topics will be 1) ensuring “equal enjoyment of rates and participation in political and public life,” 2) “tolerance and nondiscrimination,” and 3) “economic, social and cultural rights as an answer to rising inequalities.”  This year’s meeting will take place at the Warsaw National Stadium (PGE Narodowy), the site of the NATO summit earlier this year. The meeting will be webcast live. Background on the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting When the Helsinki Final Act was signed in 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 Final Act included a section on cooperation regarding humanitarian concerns, including transnational human contacts, information, culture and education. The phrase “human dimension” was coined to describe the OSCE norms and activities related to fundamental freedoms, democracy (such as free elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary), humanitarian concerns (such as trafficking in human beings and refugees), and concerns relating to tolerance and nondiscrimination (e.g., countering anti-Semitism and racism). One of the innovations of the Helsinki Final Act was agreement to review the implementation of agreed commitments while considering the negotiation of new ones. Between 1975 and 1992, implementation review took place in the context of periodic “Follow-up Meetings” as well as smaller specialized meetings focused on specific subjects. The OSCE participating States established permanent institutions in the early 1990s. In 1992, they agreed to hold periodic Human Dimension Implementation Meetings” to foster compliance with agreed-upon principles on democracy and human rights. Additional changes to the modalities for the HDIM were agreed in 1998, 2001, and 2002, which included shortening the meeting from three weeks to two weeks, and adding three “Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings” annually on subjects selected by the Chairmanship-in-Office on particularly timely or time-sensitive issues. One of the most notable features of the HDIM is the strong participation of non-governmental organizations. The United States has been a strong advocate for the involvement of NGOs in the HDIM, recognizing the vital role that civil society plays in human rights and democracy-building initiatives. OSCE modalities allow NGO representatives to raise issues of concern directly with government representatives, both by speaking during the formal working sessions of the HDIM and by organizing side events that examine specific issues in greater detail. 1 In exceptional years when the OSCE participating States hold a summit of heads of state or government, the annual review of human dimension commitments is included as part of the Review Conference which precedes the summit, and also includes a review of the political-military and economic/environmental dimensions.

  • Engaging Belarus on Human Rights & Democracy

    The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing titled, “Engaging Belarus on Human Rights and Democracy” on July 21, 2017, which built on renewed interest in Belarus after members of the Commission traveled to Minsk earlier in the month for the annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting. The panelists for the briefing included Stephen Nix, Regional Program Director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC; Katie Fox, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Department at the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC; and Sanaka Samarasinha, the United Nations Chief in Belarus. Brief remarks were also delivered by Belarusian Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky. Stephen Nix began the briefing by highlighting the importance of Belarus in U.S. foreign relations, including the relationship between Belarus and Russia, especially in light of the increased Western presence in the Baltics and the surrounding area. Mr. Nix “applaud[ed] Belarus’s expressed intent at engagement” and offered some examples demonstrating optimism for the democratic process in Belarus, such as the appointment of opposition party members to parliament with limited power. Katie Fox echoed this optimism when addressing “democratic openings,” such as the concessions the Belarusian government made in response to protests, increasingly democratic electoral processes, and “the growth and development of the democratic parties.” Sanaka Samarasinha discussed engagement in relations to the human rights issues Belarus presents today and the areas of particular concern to the UN. The UN in Belarus has focused primarily on “development activities,” but also issues such as human trafficking and the rising number of HIV/AIDs cases. Samarasinha also highlighted the need for a “safe space” for discussions of human rights issues and transparency to allow Belarusians and Belarusian civil society to be able to have a conversation. Charge d’Affaires Pavel Shidlovsky highlighted ways that Belarus is working with its NATO neighbors through defense cooperation, including relinquishing nuclear weapons and inviting representatives of NATO to observe the Belarusian-Russian strategic joint exercise scheduled for September 2017. Shidlovsky also stated, “Belarus has always regarded normalization of relations with the United States as a priority of its foreign policy. Yes, we have had our ups and downs, but never has the leadership of Belarus underestimated the importance of full-fledged engagement with the U.S.” In the final Q&A session the panelists were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the improvement of human rights practices in Belarus and improvements in the electoral code that could someday lead to elections that could be certified as free and fair by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).  However, they also stressed that it is critical to continue to fight for changes that are sustainable, beginning with the removal of restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of speech.

  • Helsinki Commission Staff Meet with OSCE Election Experts

    By Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law On July 11, Helsinki Commission staff met with Dame Audrey Glover, head of the OSCE election observation mission during the 2016 U.S. elections. Other members of the OSCE team included Mr. Jan Haukass (Vienna Representative of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR), Dr. Richard Lappin (ODIHR-Warsaw), and Mr. Radivoje Grujic (ODIHR-Warsaw).  The meeting was part of OSCE’s standard consultations following the deployment of an election observation mission.  The election team also held meetings in Washington with Members of Congress and the Department of State. OSCE election observation is based on the 1990 Copenhagen Document in which the participating States agreed that “the will of the people, freely and fairly expressed through periodic and genuine elections, is the basis of the authority and legitimacy of all government.” The commitment fosters universal suffrage, equality, fairness, freedom, transparency, accountability, and secrecy of the ballot. The original proposal for a commitment to hold free and fair elections came from the Helsinki Commission in 1989 but, at that time, was unacceptable to communist countries. In 1990, as communist regimes began to fall, agreement on the new commitment was adopted and signaled the rejection of the one-party systems that had previously dominated Eastern Europe. However, implementation of this commitment continues to be restricted in some countries where civil society is limited or faces repression. OSCE election observation in the region represents the “gold standard” in international election observation. In some instances, when even the fundamental conditions for free and fair elections are lacking, the OSCE may decline to observe elections rather than give them a degree of legitimacy that is unwarranted. In 2015, restrictions imposed by the government of Azerbaijan compelled the OSCE to cancel a planned election observation mission. Some countries, such as Russia, have sought to undermine OSCE election observation by promoting observation through the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a post-Soviet grouping that includes Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.  CIS election observers consistently praise elections that are considered to be significantly flawed by independent observers, particularly the OSCE.  Helsinki Commissioners and staff have participated in well over 100 election observation missions since 1990 – the vast majority of them as members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly contingent that is part of the larger OSCE-led international observation missions. The Commission continues to support OSCE observation efforts, focusing on countries where resistance to democratic change remains the strongest.  The Commission has also actively supported the right of domestic election observers to monitor the elections in their own countries. Learn more about OSCE election observation.

  • 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report – the OSCE Region

    By Allison Hollabaugh, Counsel Human trafficking remains a pressing human rights violation around the world with the International Labor Organization estimating that nearly 21 million people are enslaved at any given time, most of them women and children. As part of U.S. efforts to combat human trafficking, the U.S. Department of State today released the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), reflecting the efforts of 187 countries and territories to prosecute traffickers, prevent trafficking, and to identify and assist victims, as described by the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Trafficking Victim Identification and Care: Regional Perspectives According to the new TIP Report, in the 2016 reporting year, countries in the OSCE region identified 304 more trafficking victims than in the previous year, for a total of 11,416 victims.  This increase is particularly notable when compared to the East Asia and Pacific, Near East, South and Central Asia, and Western Hemisphere regions, where victim identification declined, but still maintained a generally upward trend over 2014.  Trafficking victim identification and care is critical for proper management of refugee and migrant flows.  In order to help law enforcement and border guards identify trafficking victims among the nearly 400,000 migrants and refugees entering the region last year, the OSCE Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Human Beings launched a new project to conduct multiple trainings, including simulation exercises, through 2018.  The first training in November 2016 included participants from 30 OSCE participating States. Victim identification and care are also critical for successful prosecutions.  Nearly every region of the world saw a drop in prosecutions of human traffickers, but an increase in convictions in the 2016 reporting year.  This trend may reflect a growing knowledge among prosecutors of how to successfully investigate and prosecute a trafficking case.  It also may reflect an overall increase in trafficking victims who have been identified, permitted to remain in-country, and cared for such that the victims—now survivors—are ready, willing, and able to testify against their traffickers.  Despite the dramatic decline in prosecutions (46 percent) in the OSCE region, convictions held steady at nearly the same numbers as the previous year. Individual Country Narratives Along with regional statistics, the TIP Report also provides individual country narratives, recommendations for the most urgent changes needed to eliminate human trafficking, and an assessment of whether the country is making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 1 countries meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Tier 2 countries do not yet meet the standards, but are making significant efforts to do so.  Tier 2 Watch List countries do not meet the minimum standards and are making significant efforts to do so, but have a very large or increasing number of trafficking victims, have failed to demonstrate increasing efforts over the previous year, or lack a solid plan to take additional steps in the coming year. Tier 3 countries do not meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. Twenty-five OSCE participating States qualified for Tier 1 in the TIP Report.  Nineteen participating States qualified for Tier 2, including Ukraine, which was upgraded this year after four years on the Tier 2 Watch List.  Five participating States were designated for the Tier 2 Watch List, including Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria.* Four participating States were on Tier 3, including Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  States on Tier 3 may be subject to sanctions. Legislation authored by Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith—who also serves as the Special Representative for Human Trafficking Issues to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly – requires the TIP Report to be produced every year.  In recent years the report has also included an assessment of the United States.   Since the inception of the report, more than 100 countries have written or amended their trafficking laws, with some nations openly crediting the report for inspiring progress in their countries’ fight against human trafficking. * OSCE participating States Andorra, Monaco, Lichtenstein, and San Marino are not included in the TIP Report.

  • The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

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

Pages