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Hearing Surveys Human Rights in Republic of Georgia
Wednesday, January 15, 2003

By H. Knox Thames
CSCE Counsel

The Helsinki Commission held a hearing September 24, 2002 on developments in the Republic of Georgia, with particular focus on the recent violent attacks against selected minority religious communities, as well as the threat of Russian aggression against that Caucasus nation.

Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) chaired the hearing that examined Georgia’s prospects for democratization, its security situation, and how Washington can best promote the complementary goals of advancing democracy, human rights and economic liberty while leading the battle against international terrorism. The hearing opened with a gripping video documenting mob violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses and the failure of Georgian police to quell such attacks.

Georgia, which became an OSCE participating State in 1992, was seemingly headed toward domestic stability and democratic governance in the mid-1990s, but recent trends have been disappointing. The official results of elections have not inspired confidence, undermining the public’s faith in democracy and the right of the people to choose their government.

While civil society has grown substantially, independent media and non-governmental organizations remain at risk. The savage attack on the human rights organization, Liberty Institute, like the campaign of violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses and other minority faiths, as well as efforts to silence Rustavi-2 Television, testify to the lingering influence of forces bent on preventing Georgia from consolidating democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Meanwhile, Georgia has been under intensifying pressure from Russia, with Moscow accusing Georgia of failing to cooperate in the war on terrorism. Russian planes have invaded Georgian airspace and bombed the territory, killing Georgian citizens. Russian officials increasingly threaten to launch unilateral military actions within Georgia against Chechen rebels.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently asked the United Nations to support his country’s threats to launch military strikes inside Georgia. Moscow’s threats place at risk Georgia’s sovereignty and stability, moving Washington to consider how best to help Georgia defend itself and maintain control of its territory, while moving decisively against criminal elements and terrorists. This is a very complicated situation because much of the assistance from the United States is contingent upon Georgia’s compliance to stop religious violence within its borders.

Co-Chairman Smith opened the hearing by acknowledging Georgia’s progress since the last hearing in 1995, but was quick to point out salient shortcomings. Mr. Smith voiced several concerns pertaining to Georgia’s internal problems. Special attention was paid to the inaction of the Georgian Government in regard to the mob attacks on minority faiths.

“I am especially concerned and appalled by the ongoing religious violence in Georgia. Since 1999, there has been a campaign of assaults against members of minority faiths – especially Jehovah’s Witnesses – which Georgian authorities has tolerated,” Smith commented, “there can be no excuse for state toleration of such barbarity. It must end, and it must end now.” Not only was Mr. Smith concerned about the violence, but he also was concerned with the future of Georgia - U.S. relations because of the “rampant corruption,” unsatisfactory rate of democratization, and lack of compliance with OSCE standards.

Mr. B. Lynn Pascoe, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, voiced concern about the violence in the Pankisi Gorge and the Russian pressure on Georgia to eradicate the Chechen terrorist threat. Turning to trends in the areas of democracy and human rights, Pascoe noted, “We have stressed to President Shevardnadze and his government again and again that poor records on human rights and freedom of religion not only undermine Georgia's efforts at economic and democratic reform, but will also negatively affect our assistance if such problems are not addressed.” He further explained efforts in the Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP) to help Georgia in the war on terrorism, but suggested that U.S. assistance would diminish if Georgia does not act on the concerns voiced in the hearing.

Georgian Ambassador Levan Mikeladze expressed his remorse for the mob attacks. He reassured the Commission that Georgia fully recognizes the problems in religious persecution and legal and practical actions are being taken to ensure there will be no more violent attacks: “We are hopeful that after all these assignments are executed, we will be in a position to say religion-based intolerance in Georgia has no future and manifestations of religiously motivated violence no longer occur.” Georgia’s security was a pressing issue for Ambassador Mikeladze given intrusions and aggression by the Russian Federation. He encouraged the United States to continue the GTEP and continue the strong rapport between the two nations.

Co-Chairman Smith and Commissioner Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) were not satisfied with Ambassador Mikeladze’s explanation and expressed concern regarding the lack of action on the part of the Georgian Government to bring the perpetrators of attacks against minority faiths to justice. Smith issued a strong call to action, explaining the injurious nature to Georgia-U.S. relations of Georgia’s failure to actively stop the mob attacks.

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili of the Baptist Union of Georgia set forth a long list of why and how such violence and hatred could be permitted in a democratic state. In attempting to give an explanation as to why such events have occurred in Georgia, the Bishop observed, “We gained independence but we still have not reached freedom. Old values have gone. New values have not come yet.”

Songulashvili remarked, “It is not an absence of religious legislation which causes religious violence and persecution but rather absence of culture, justice and general law.” Despite all the grievances noted, Bishop Songulasvili remained hopeful that there would be progress. He offered four “targets” as a solution for the current religious violence: “Family, Mass Media, School and Teaching Institutions, and Religious Congregations.” He concluded, “Our optimism for the better future should not be overshadowed by the turmoil of the present time.”

Mr. Gennadi Gudadze, a Jehovah’s Witness from Tbilisi, testified to the brutality experienced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia, including himself. He noted that “since then [October 1999], there have been 133 separate incidents involving either mob attacks, individual attacks or destruction of property.” Gudadze also pointed out that minimal action has been taken by the authorities against the criminals. He called for a three-pronged solution: apply the law, arrest the perpetrators, and remove the corrupt officials.

Dr. Gia Nodia, Director of the Institute for Peace, Development, and Democracy, discussed the interrelationship between security on human rights. Dr. Nodia was very concerned with the possibility that the religious violence might evolve into political violence, hence impinging on the democratic process, causing much more turmoil within Georgia.

Professor Stephen Jones of Mount Holyoke College gave a dismal summary of the current state of affairs in Georgia. He asserted that the government is failing its citizens and its current stability is based on the “thinnest of ice.” Professor Jones highlighted three main reasons for these failures: lack of economic security in Georgia; lack of proper institutions to carry out governmental and economic functions (i.e. Georgia’s current economy has shrunk 67% and industry is working at 20% of its capacity. Between 1997-2000, expenditure on defense decreased from $51.9 million to $13.6 million, education from $35.6 to $13.9 million, agriculture forestry and fishing from $13.4 to $7.2 million); and lack of political and public support for reform. Jones’ recommendation called for increased western aid, but the burden of progress lays heaviest on Georgia itself.

The hearing concluded with a strong statement from Co-Chairman Smith urging the Government of Georgia to work quickly and effectively to eradicate its corruption and religious violence. He concluded his statement with these words, “Our only hope here is to try to promote human rights, democracy, and to protect the sovereignty of Georgia . . . from any forays by Russia.”

An un-official transcript of the hearing and written statements submitted by Members and witnesses are located on the Helsinki Commission’s web site.

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

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I think about the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide, and recognize that it was the Helsinki Commission that pushed to hold those who were responsible for these atrocities accountable, particularly as it related to the Balkan conflict. Then I think about the landmark legislation that was passed in the Congress that deals with sanctions against human rights violators, first the Magnitsky sanctions and then the Global Magnitsky sanctions. It came out of hearings from the Helsinki Commission and legislation that we authored. It is not only the standard here in the United States. It has been adopted as the standard in Europe, in Canada, and in other countries, to make it clear that human rights violators will not be able to hide their illicit funds in our banking system or visit our country. Perhaps our strongest contribution is the oversight hearings that we hold. We also passed the Elie Wiesel Atrocities Prevention Act. But just last week we had a hearing in the Helsinki Commission on how we can prevent atrocities from occurring in the first place. So I am very proud of the accomplishments of the commission. Part of the responsibilities of every member state of the OSCE is that we have the right to challenge any State’s compliance with the Helsinki Final Act Accords. So it is our responsibility to challenge when Russia violates those provisions or when we see violations in Turkey—any member State, we can challenge. But we also have to do our own self-evaluation. As Chairman of the commission, I have been using that opportunity to question conduct in our own country when it does not match the responsibilities that we should have. We saw that in the past in regard to the torture issues in Guantanamo Bay. My participation in the Helsinki Commission goes back to my early days in the House of Representatives and some of my proudest moments of representing our country on the international stage. Let me just give you a few examples. In February 1991, I joined a fact-finding mission to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. That is when the Soviet tanks were in Vilnius. That is when the Soviet Union was demonstrating oppression against the people of the Baltic States. It was a very sad moment of oppression, and we went there to stand up for the people of the region, to let them know that the United States never recognized the Soviet’s occupation of the Baltic States, and that we stood with the people and their independence. It was very interesting. We went from there to Moscow, and Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t want to have anything to do with us. He wouldn’t have a meeting with us, and he wouldn’t acknowledge that we were there. But we had a meeting with Boris Yeltsin, who at that time was the chair of the parliament, and we got great visibility. And Yeltsin supported our efforts to condemn the Russian use of force. I have been to Germany several times. My first trip on behalf of the Helsinki Commission was when it was a divided country, and we went to East Berlin. We were the voices for those oppressed people whose voices could not otherwise be heard, and we gave them hope that one day they would see freedom. I then returned when we were literally taking down the Berlin Wall, and I joined in taking down part of the Berlin Wall. I have part of that as a prized possession in my home. I have returned to Germany as a united country and see what a democratic Germany means and the work of our commission to bring down the Iron Curtain. Germany is now a leading democratic state and a great ally of the United States. I have been to Kyiv, Ukraine, on several occasions. I was there during the Maidan protests, where the people demanded democracy. And then I had a chance to return and monitor the elections in Ukraine with Senator Portman—again, a country that has been able to rid itself of the oppression of the Soviet Union. I have been very active in the Helsinki Commission in regards to the Parliamentary Assembly. I chaired one of their three standing committees. I had a chance to become Vice-President at the Parliamentary Assembly. Today, I acknowledge Senator Wicker, who is Vice-President. It points out the bipartisan nature of the Helsinki Commission and our work on the international platform.

  • Tribute to Erika Schlager

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

  • Sweden's Leadership of the OSCE

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

  • Putting Kleptocracy in the Crosshairs

    The Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy will educate and mobilize Members of Congress on the cross-jurisdictional nature of foreign corruption and identify bipartisan opportunities to work together to curb kleptocracy. The new caucus will focus on fighting kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit rule of law jurisdictions to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy. Because the fight against foreign corruption spans several of committees of jurisdiction, the caucus will allow members and staff to share perspectives and coordinate efforts to confront the growing threat of foreign corruption. The caucus will hold periodic hearings, sponsor informal roundtables and staff briefings with leading experts, coordinate oversight letters and legislative initiatives, and facilitate information-sharing across committees. Other founding members of the Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy include Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Sara Jacobs (CA-53), Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), Rep. Dean Phillips (MN-03), Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45), Rep. Abigail Spanberger (VA-07), Rep. Jack Bergman (MI-01), Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (OH-16), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (IL-16), Rep. Peter Meijer (MI-03), Rep. Maria Salazar (FL-27), and Rep. Mike Waltz (FL-06). Related Information Witness Biographies Op-Ed: Corruption Is a National Security Threat. The CROOK Act Is a Smart Way to Fight It Press Release: Cardin, Wicker Introduce Bill to Counter Corruption and Promote Good Governance  

  • Commissioners Blumenthal and Rubio Introduce Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act in Senate

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), along with Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) and Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), yesterday introduced the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act of 2021. The legislation directs the Department of Justice to clearly list on a website the amount of money that has been stolen from citizens of kleptocratic regimes and recovered by U.S. law enforcement. This straightforward, low-cost measure would demonstrate America’s clear, bipartisan commitment to the rule of law around the world and send a powerful message to those suffering under kleptocracies that the United States stands on their side. The bill is the first in a series of legislation being introduced as part of Counter-Kleptocracy Month, an initiative of the new Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, and follows a memorandum by the Biden administration declaring corruption a core national security interest. The launch of the Counter-Kleptocracy Caucus will take place today at 4:00 p.m. "This bill is a step towards accountability and justice against corrupt authoritarian regimes,” said Sen. Blumenthal. “Around the world, oppressed citizens have been silenced as they live under the reign of brutal leaders, threatening their livelihood and survival. In giving a voice to the voiceless and exposing thievery from foreign corruption, the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act will reaffirm the United States as a champion for democracy and the rule of law." “I’m proud to join Senator Blumenthal in introducing this bipartisan and bicameral bill which will shine a light on the money stolen by corrupt regimes worldwide,” Sen. Rubio said. “From Maduro and Castro to Xi Jinping and Putin, this bill will facilitate accountability by exposing the illegal assets of foreign corrupt officials recovered by U.S. law enforcement.” “We must remember that the number one victims of the Putin regime are the Russian people. Corrupt officials raid pension funds and state coffers and then live the high life on their tax dollars. We see this pattern in every dictatorship,” said Rep. Malinowski. “In support of President Biden’s new anti-corruption plan, this bill will hold corrupt leaders like Putin accountable by making public exactly how much of their stolen money has been recovered by the United States and from whom it was stolen.” “The illegitimate ruler Nicolás Maduro violates the human rights and dignity of Venezuela’s citizens while enriching himself at the expense of his people, all while driving his nation into economic ruin with his disastrous policies. Similarly, Vladimir Putin suppresses those fighting for democracy while those in his inner circle are financially prospering by stealing from the Russian people,” said Rep. Curtis. “The Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act would shine a light on the extent of corruption against the people of Venezuela, Russia, and all those oppressed by corrupt authoritarians.” “Autocrats in Russia, North Korea, and across the globe cling to power through brute force and blatant theft,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (MN-03), an original cosponsor of the legislation. “It’s time that we shine a light on their shameless corruption and signal to dictators—and the world—that America is watching, and kleptocracy will not be tolerated. As a founding member of the Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, I am proud to support this important legislation, and I am confident it is only the first of many bipartisan initiatives to confront global corruption and combat authoritarianism in all of its forms.” “Whether it’s Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, or the Castro family in Cuba, brutal dictators across our hemisphere are lining their pockets while ruthlessly oppressing their people,” said Rep. Maria Salazar (FL-27), also a founding member of the Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy and original cosponsor of the legislation. “I’m proud to join my colleagues in co-sponsoring the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act which will expose these regimes for the thieves that they really are.” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) is an original cosponsor of the Senate legislation. Other original cosponsors in the House include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), along with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Dan Crenshaw (TX-02), Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), Rep. Peter Meijer (MI-09), Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45), and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (VA-07).

  • Cardin, Wicker Slam Moscow Ruling That Designates Navalny Organizations as “Extremist”

    WASHINGTON—In response to the recent ruling by a Moscow court designating organizations founded by Alexei Navalny as “extremist,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “We are disturbed by this blow against one of the last vestiges of Russian civil society. Alexei Navalny and his supporters—and seemingly any Russian who puts themselves at risk to expose the corruption of the Putin regime and oppose its cruel repressions—are not ‘extremists.’ They are true Russians who love their country and desire freedom and opportunity for their fellow citizens. No law can extinguish the bright hope of these people for a better future. “Even so, anyone who has had a close—or even tangential—relationship to Alexei Navalny, his now-disbanded organizations, or his initiatives is now in greater danger than ever. By taking these additional steps to eliminate his last remaining opposition, Vladimir Putin continues to distance his country from the rule of law and anything that might resemble a free and fair election process.” On June 9, the Moscow City Court ruled that Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional networks would henceforth be considered “extremist” organizations. Activists involved with the organizations could face significant prison terms, but penalties could apply to anyone who donated to them or even shared the groups’ materials on social media. Russian-language news outlets reporting on the subject are now required to mention this designation. On June 4, Vladimir Putin signed a law preventing members of organizations declared “extremist” or “terrorist” by Russian courts from running for office for up to five years. Russia’s parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in September 2021; presidential elections will follow in 2024. Alexei Navalny has been in prison since January 2021, when he returned from medical care in Germany where he was recuperating from being poisoned by a military-grade toxin administered to him in Russia. In December, 44 signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention, including the United States, Britain and every country of the European Union issued a joint statement calling on Russia to investigate the poisoning and cooperate with technical experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  

  • Helsinki Commission Leadership Joins Inter-Parliamentary Discussion on Human Rights

    On May 25, 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission joined the House Foreign Affairs Committee and European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights at the launch event for the EU - US Strategic Inter-Parliamentary Consultation on Human Rights. The inter-parliamentary discussion focused on global human rights sanctions regimes, values-based foreign policy, and opportunities for transatlantic cooperation. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) emphasized the impact of the Global Magnitsky Act in facilitating accountability by sanctioning the world’s worst human rights abusers, preventing them from entering the United States, and freezing their U.S. assets. Sen. Cardin congratulated the European Union for passing a global human rights sanctions regime and suggested two modifications: first, that sanctions target corruption, which tends to fuel human rights abuses; and second, that the European Union pursues individuals that materially assist human rights abusers, including lawyers, accountants, money launderers, and reputation launderers. Sen. Cardin also identified the need to consider diplomatic measures outside of sanctions, such as a mechanism to evaluate countries’ progress in combatting corruption, similar to the U.S. Trafficking in Persons regime. U.S. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09)—who also serves as chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties—advised that U.S.-EU cooperation will further strengthen the Magnitsky Act and the effectiveness of human rights sanction regimes. Cohen also emphasized the bipartisan support for human rights in the United States. Members of the European Parliament expressed optimism that increasing U.S.-EU coordination on human rights protections will strengthen overall impact. Rep. Bill Keating (MA-09) recognized that the democratic values shared between the United States and European Union can help fight rising authoritarianism and democratic backsliding. Greens Member of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs and of the EP Subcommittee on Human Rights Jordi Solé (Spain) emphasized the importance of consistency in the U.S. and EU approach to promoting human rights in order to ensure the sanctions mechanism is credible and useful. He also raised the importance of examining the role of the private sector in supporting human rights. U.S. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) affirmed the importance of supporting emerging democracies and addressing corruption in private industry. Moore acknowledged the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and noted that the United States should not raise human rights concerns abroad in foreign policy without examining its own adherence to those principles. Rep. Gerry Connolly (VA-11), President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, suggested that NATO should actively prioritize democracy promotion, democratic values, and human rights. To close the discussion, Chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights Maria Arena (Belgium) and Rep. Moore highlighted possible initiatives for future U.S.-EU cooperation: coordinated response to human rights abuses in Belarus; cooperation with private industry to protect human rights; cooperation with Afghan NGOs and women’s associations as the U.S. military withdraws from the country; determination of parliamentary diplomacy’s role in addressing human rights abuses; and implementation of measures within the participating States to mitigate democratic backsliding in the West, which would include addressing systemic racism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Congress to Launch Counter-Kleptocracy Caucus at June 10 Event

    WASHINGTON—At a virtual kickoff event on June 10, Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Bill Keating (MA-09), and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) will launch the Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) will welcome the formation of the caucus at the event. PUTTING KLEPTOCRACY IN THE CROSSHAIRS Launch of the Congressional Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy Thursday, June 10, 2021 4:00 p.m. Register: https://bit.ly/3uLlvXA The Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy will educate and mobilize Members of Congress on the cross-jurisdictional nature of foreign corruption and identify bipartisan opportunities to work together to curb kleptocracy. Opening remarks by members of Congress will be followed by a civil society panel. Participants include: Gary Kalman, Director of the U.S. Office, Transparency International USA Nate Sibley, Research Fellow, Kleptocracy Initiative, Hudson Institute Frederik Obermaier, Investigative Journalist, Süddeutsche Zeitung; Co-Founder, Anti-Corruption Data Collective Elaine Dezenski, Senior Advisor, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies “The fight against corruption needs to be seen as a national security priority of the highest order. The Caucus Against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy will be the first institutionalized congressional body dedicated to information-sharing and to finding solutions to the problem of global corruption,” said Chairman Cardin, who, along with Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), recently introduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act to upgrade America’s anti-corruption efforts. “This new caucus will elevate the problem of corruption so it can receive the high-level attention required to deter such corrosive activity.” “From Russia to China to Egypt and Venezuela, corruption is the essence of modern dictatorship, but also its biggest vulnerability,” said Rep. Malinowski. “The best way for the democratic world to win our struggle with authoritarianism is to deny these thieves who are looting their countries access to our financial systems and to stand with the victims of kleptocracy everywhere.” “Capitalism backed by the rule of law has been a key to the liberty and success of the United States and many of our allies. Global corruption—particularly that driven by the Chinese Communist Party—eats away at that rule of law and severely threatens liberty across the world,” said Rep. Curtis. “I look forward to working with colleagues on this caucus to explore and promote bipartisan efforts to combat authoritarian corruption across the globe.” “Russia and China seek to export strategic corruption and their brand of digital authoritarianism in an attempt to undermine the foundation of our democracy and that of our allies. Together my colleagues and I have recognized their malign tactics and are compelled to respond. For this reason,  I am standing with my colleagues to launch this Caucus as an extension of the vital work I lead as Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber to counter foreign corruption and kleptocracy,” said Rep. Keating. “The fight against corruption offers the first opportunity in a generation to harmonize our domestic and foreign policy in service of American values,” said Rep. Fitzpatrick. “I spent my career as an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation fighting corruption at home and overseas and now am honored to work on a bipartisan basis with my colleagues to do the same.” The new caucus will focus on fighting kleptocracy, an authoritarian governance model in which political leaders routinely engage in illicit self-enrichment, maintain power through corrupt patronage networks, exploit rule of law jurisdictions to conceal and protect stolen assets, and use strategic corruption as a tool of foreign policy. Because the fight against foreign corruption spans several of committees of jurisdiction, the caucus will allow members and staff to share perspectives and coordinate efforts to confront the growing threat of foreign corruption. The caucus will hold periodic hearings, sponsor informal roundtables and staff briefings with leading experts, coordinate oversight letters and legislative initiatives, and facilitate information-sharing across committees. Other founding members of the Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy include Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Sara Jacobs (CA-53), Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), Rep. Dean Phillips (MN-03), Rep. Katie Porter (CA-45), Rep. Abigail Spanberger (VA-07), Rep. Jack Bergman (MI-01), Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (OH-16), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (IL-16), Rep. Peter Meijer (MI-03), Rep. Maria Salazar (FL-27), and Rep. Mike Waltz (FL-06).

  • Helsinki Commissioners Welcome Report on Governance of World Anti-Doping Agency

    WASHINGTON—Following the May 17 report of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) on World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) governance reforms, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Commissioner Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) issued the following statements: “We must fight the influence of Russian corruption wherever we find it. The Russian doping scandal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics severely tainted international sport; seven years later, the Kremlin has paid no price,” said Chairman Cardin. “I welcome the Biden administration’s constructive approach to reforming international sport institutions and hope that the World Anti-Doping Agency will engage positively to eliminate conflicts of interest and protect itself from corruption. International sport should showcase the best of humanity’s accomplishments, not the worst of its faults.” “I commend the Biden administration for maintaining a bipartisan commitment to reform the World Anti-Doping Agency,” said Sen. Wicker. “Thanks to the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, the criminal networks behind doping finally will be held accountable, and whistleblowers who expose doping fraud will be protected. WADA should now follow suit. Athletes should have a real voice in the organization and help to bring an end to the deep-set conflicts of interest among those who run WADA.” “From state-sponsored doping programs like Putin’s to driven individual cheaters, there’s always someone trying to game the system. We need a powerful cop to enforce doping rules and safeguard the integrity of international sport, and this report shows how far WADA is from being that cop,” said Sen. Whitehouse. “The Department of Justice must be prepared to enforce the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, including levying stiff penalties on those engaging in doping fraud conspiracies. This is another battle in the war between scammers and kleptocrats and the rule of law; we cannot let those dark forces win.” The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act became law on December 4, 2020. It establishes criminal penalties for participating in a scheme in commerce to influence a major international sport competition through prohibited substances or methods; provides restitution to victims of such conspiracies; protects whistleblowers from retaliation; and establishes requirements to coordinate and share information with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The bill advanced through the legislative process entirely on consensus-based procedures, demonstrating the wide bipartisan support for the measure. The legislation also received overwhelming support from amateur and professional sport organizations, including the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council, the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, and PGA TOUR. In April 2021, the U.S. Helsinki Commission released a podcast episode interviewing Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who exposed the 2014 Russian state-sponsored doping scandal, on the passage of the legislation that bears his name and his expectations for enforcement of the new extraterritorial criminal law.

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