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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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    Washington – On the second anniversary of the sham presidential election in Belarus, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Two years ago today, Belarus’s autocrat Aleksander Lukashenko put up a show of an election that he had hoped would legitimize his unconstitutional power grab. Despite the many and well-documented cases of election abuse, the people of Belarus did not fall for the tricks of the one-man ruler of Belarus. They voted Lukashenko out, but, predictably, he refused to leave. He ignored the will of the people and chose vicious violence to suppress the peaceful dissent. “In the year following the unprecedented in scale peaceful rallies against the 2020 election results, Lukashenko’s troops arrested, tortured and imprisoned a reported 35,000 Belarusians for the simple act of demanding the government respect their choice and rights. He personally presided over the largest ever domestic repression that saw thousands behind bars and tens of thousands flee the country, including the opposition leader and likely legitimate winner absent election fraud, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has been welcomed by neighboring countries. “Since that time, Lukashenko has continued a crackdown on civic participation in Belarus with arrests of civilians protesting the Russian war in Ukraine, changes to Belarus’s non-nuclear status, and the ongoing Lukashenko regime during last year’s March 25th anniversary of Belarus’s ‘Freedom Day,’ adding to the already sizeable number of politically motivated detainments in the country. “There are now close to 1200 individuals languishing in Belarusian prisons for speaking out against authoritarianism, corruption and war. Included among the political prisoners are: Syarhey Tsikhanouski, husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and potential candidate against Lukashenko detained in May 2020; Roman Protasevich, journalist and opposition figure accused of inciting mass protests and detained after a false bomb threat forced the landing of Ryanair flight FR4978 destined for Lithuania in Belarus in May 2021; Sofia Sapega, Russian citizen and girlfriend of Protasevich who also was aboard Ryanair flight FR4978; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Belarus Service journalists Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk and Aleh Kruzdzilovic; and Ales Bialiatski, founder of Viasna Human Rights Centre, a human rights organization based in Minsk that provides financial and legal support to political prisoners. These are but a few names representing political candidates, oppositionists, activists, journalists and other Belarusian and non-Belarusian citizens detained by Lukashenko’s regime. “Lukashenko must immediately order the release of all political prisoners and wrongfully detained individuals and stop the systematic violations of human rights.  I call on the U.S. Department of State and our allies abroad to work together during this time of heightened tension with Belarus and Belarus’s benefactor, Russia, to ensure the unjustly imprisoned Belarusians are released at the earliest date possible.”

  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN CALLS FOR THE RELEASE OF ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH

    WASHINGTON— Concerning Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s imprisonment, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) released a letter calling for Secretary Blinken to prioritize “the swift release of Mr. Abd el-Fattah”. The letter read in part: “In 2011, the people of Egypt achieved something remarkable – they ousted a corrupt regime and brought about a change in government through largely peaceful protests. Alaa Abd el-Fattah was one of the leaders of the movement that advocated this change. Through his writings and public appearances, he provided an intellectual backbone for the disparate groups that shared in the vision for a more democratic Egypt. “Tragically for him, this very purpose led to his arrest and conviction. Mr. Abd el-Fattah was arrested, then released to only be arrested again. He has been in prison for eight years now. His family reports they have irregular contact with him, and his physical condition has reportedly deteriorated.” “Mr. Abd el-Fattah is one of the many political prisoners in Egypt; yet his release would bring hope to them all. As the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Representative for Political Prisoners – an organization to which Egypt is a Mediterranean Partner for Co-operation – I request that your department include among its immediate priorities in Egypt the swift release of Mr. Abd el-Fattah, and in the interim, urgently impress upon the Egyptian government the expectation of more humane conditions during his incarceration, including exercise time, freedom of movement outside of his cell, and reinstatement of half hour – if not longer – visits by his son and others.” “Alaa is not a danger to the Egyptian government and his only fault is being a true patriot of his country.”

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest July 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Condemns Execution of Democracy Activists in Myanmar

    WASHINGTON—Following the execution of four democracy activists by Myanmar’s military junta, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “I strongly condemn the execution of these courageous activists by Myanmar’s unelected and illegitimate regime. These men—Kyaw Min Yu, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw—were political prisoners who were deprived of their right to due process and a chance to defend themselves. The junta sentenced them to death in secret trials, once again demonstrating the complete lack of respect for human life and common decency as well as a total disregard for rules-based order by which countries should abide. “The regime has jailed thousands, including the Nobel Peace laureate and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, after seizing power in a coup in February 2021. Following a series of closed-door hearings and a string of trumped-up charges and convictions each carrying additional sentencing, she was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison as of April 2022.  In an obvious attempt to ensure she is jailed for life, she still faces added bogus charges that could see her imprisoned for more than 190 years by some reports. This is appalling and concerning as the recent executions confirm that the junta will not hesitate to murder political prisoners to further strengthen their rule of terror. “The world should unite to pressure Myanmar to release all political prisoners. At least 117 activists have been sentenced to death since the coup. We must do everything in our power to ensure that they do not face the grim fate of their four compatriots.”

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Deplores Arrest of Ilya Yashin in Russia

    WASHINGTON—In response to the arrest of Ilya Yashin, a Russian politician critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman and OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “Putin’s government has been engaged in a systematic assault on Russian citizens who dare speak the truth about Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. Ilya Yashin, a Russian patriot and a fierce critic of the war in Ukraine, is one of the victims of this regime. “Ilya spoke out against the war despite the cynical law Russia has adopted that punishes people speaking the truth on this conflict with up to 15 years in prison. He was arrested on trumped-up charges and is facing a lengthy jail term for no crime other than publicly speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Ilya is a political prisoner and should be given all protections afforded by this status. The Russian government has a complete disregard for international law and customs but if they have an ounce of respect for their own laws, they will immediately release Ilya and other political prisoners.” Ilya Yashin, a co-founder of the Solidarity movement, is a member of a Moscow city district council. Throughout his career, he advocated for fair elections, rule of law, and democracy in Russia. Prior to his arrest, Mr. Yashin was one of the few Russian opposition activists who had not been killed, forced to flee, or imprisoned.

  • Wicker Stands in Solidarity With Russian Dissident

      WASHINGTON – Mr. President, I rise this afternoon to make sure that the plight of Russian leader Vladimir Kara-Murza is not forgotten. That the outrageous imprisonment of Vladimir Kara-Murza by the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is not forgotten. We remember three decades ago what hope we had for a new Russia. Russia entered a new age of possibility some three decades ago, after more than 70 years of communist repression, the Soviet order had collapsed, and with it the Iron Curtain that kept freedom away from millions was torn down. As the red flags came down in Moscow, the free world watched with anticipation, hoping that democracy and the rule of law might finally take root in a free Russia. Regrettably, that has not happened. Instead of democracy and freedom, the Russian people got Vladimir Putin, a man who has used his office to murder, imprison, and force into exile anyone who threatens his grip on power -- all the while, enriching himself beyond anyone's wildest imagination while ordinary Russians, especially out in the countryside of Russia, live in squalid conditions. One of his latest victims is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian patriot and a friend I had the privilege of hosting in my office just four months ago. As a matter of fact, I have hosted him several times. Today, Vladimir Kara-Murza spends his days in a prison cell, where the only thing you can see through the window is a barbed wire fence. What was his crime? He simply spoke the truth about Putin's war on Ukraine. His trial, if it can even be called a trial, was held in secret. No journalists, no diplomats or spectators of any kind were allowed to be there. And for his offense of talking about the Russian war against Ukraine, he now faces up to 15 years in prison. This is not the first time the Russian dictator has tried to silence him. Mr. Kara-Murza has been poisoned twice, in 2015 and 2017, and almost died in both cases. Since then, his wife and three children have had to live abroad, though he himself has chosen to spend most of his time in Russia. In a recent interview with National Review, his wife, Evgenia explained why he insists on working in Russia: “He believes that he would not have the moral right to call on people to fight if he were not sharing the same risks.” Or as Mr. Kara-Murza put it in a recent CNN interview the day of his arrest. He said, “The biggest gift we could give the Kremlin would be to just give up and run. That's all they want from us.” What a contrast in character to the man currently running the Kremlin. The National Review's story goes on to describe Mr. Kara-Murza's courageous work for democracy through the eyes of his wife of Evgenia, as well as the costs that he and his family have endured along with so many other Russian dissidents. And, Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent at this point to insert the National Review story that I referred to into the record. Mr. Kara-Murza’s imprisonment is part of Mr. Putin's larger assault on what remains of political freedom in Russia. In Mr. Kara-Murza’s words, Putin's regime has gone, “from highly authoritarian to near totalitarian almost overnight.” In March, Russian officials passed a new censorship law, forbidding all criticism of Mr. Putin's war in Ukraine. That law has been the basis for more than 16,000 arrests since the war began in February, including that of Mr. Kara-Murza. Another 2,400 Russians have been charged with administrative offenses for speaking out against the war. Meanwhile, Putin's propaganda machine is ramping up. Independent Russian media outlets have all but vanished, having been blocked, shut down, or forced out of the country by the Kremlin. The last embers of freedom in Russia are going cold. Putin's crackdown on domestic freedom began in 2003, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested on trumped up charges of tax fraud after he simply criticized the government. A former member of the elite, Mr. Khodorkovsky, had successfully led the Yukos Oil Company through privatization after the Iron Curtain fell. And contrary to the Kremlin's claims, the company consistently paid its taxes. But that didn't stop Vladimir Putin from plundering its assets, throwing Mr. Khodorkovsky in jail, where he stayed for ten years. I would note that just before his arrest, Mr. Khodorkovsky displayed the same courage and patriotism that we now see in Vladimir Kara-Murza. Like Mr. Kara-Murza, he knew very well he could go to jail for speaking out against the government. But Mr. Khodorkovsky did so anyway and refused to flee the country, saying, “I would prefer to be a political prisoner rather than a political immigrant.” Of course, by then, Mr. Putin had already shown himself willing to violate the international laws of war, having leveled the Chechen capital of Grozny in his own Republic of Russia in 1999. In 2008, he launched a new assault on international law with the invasion of Georgia. In 2014 he started a bloody war in eastern Ukraine, and in 2016, Soviet Russian dictator Putin and his forces attacked the Syrian city of Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians and prolonging the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Putin ramped up his attacks on domestic freedom as well. In 2015 Boris Nemtsov, leader of the democratic opposition, former deputy prime minister of Russia, was shot to death in broad daylight just yards away from the Kremlin. Three months later, Mr. Kara-Murza was poisoned for the first time. More recently, in 2020, Alexei Navalny, the current leader of the opposition, was himself poisoned and had to seek treatment in Berlin. This is Vladimir Putin's Russia today. When Navalny recovered, he chose to return to Moscow, knowing the risks, and immediately upon landing, he was arrested. This is the deplorable state of Russia and freedom under Vladimir Putin. Time and again, he has shown that he is bent on stamping out the aspirations of his people for freedom and the rule of law. As leader of the free world, America must continue to condemn Putin's lawless acts and stand in solidarity with our Russian friends, who are courageously fighting against all odds for a better future in Russia -- and are suffering as a result. These are modern day heroes: Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and we should not forget them. My friend, the distinguished senior senator from Maryland, Senator Cardin and I, along with Congressman Steve Cohen and Joe Wilson, are the four House and Senate leaders of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights and former Soviet countries. We recently sent a joint letter to President Biden calling on the administration to name and sanction all of those who have been involved in the arrest, detention and persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza. I issue that call again today, and I invite my colleagues from both parties to stand with Vladimir Kara-Murza and work for his release. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.  

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Administration to Work to Free Vladimir Kara-Murza

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today released a letter urging the Biden Administration to “use every instrument in our toolbox” to free Russian political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza. The letter read in part: “The United States has a proud history of standing up for political prisoners and working relentlessly to help them return to freedom. We stared down the Soviet Union, Communist China, military regimes in Latin America and South-East Asia, and succeeded in helping secure the release of those who deserved freedom the most – innocent and peaceful activists and freedom fighters representing a vision for better governments in those countries. Mr. Kara-Murza represents a hope for a democratic Russia at peace with its neighbors and own citizens, and now is someone who the U.S. should advocate for his release… “The Helsinki Commission continues to raise the issue of political prisoners in Russia, Belarus, and other countries across the OSCE region, and specifically Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case…Now, we call on your Administration to use every instrument in our toolbox to secure the release of Mr. Kara-Murza. This is in the interest of our national security, his well-being, and importantly, the well-being of his incredibly brave children and spouse. Mrs. Kara-Murza and their three children reside in the U.S and despite the distance, the Kremlin has been poisoning – literally and figuratively – their lives for decades now. We should do everything in our power to help free Vladimir Kara-Murza and reunite him with his family.” On April 12, Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested in Russia on charges of disobeying police orders when he allegedly “changed the trajectory of his movement” upon seeing Russian police officers at his home. This carried a 15-day sentence in jail. With five days remaining in his sentence, new charges were levied against him for spreading “deliberately false information” about Russia’s war on Ukraine.  He now faces up to 15 years in prison. On March 29, he testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing examining Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on truth, where witnesses discussed the Kremlin’s use of propaganda and censorship. “Those who speak out against this war are now liable for criminal prosecution,” he said. The Helsinki Commission has a long tradition of advocating on behalf of political prisoners worldwide. Earlier this month, Co-Chairman Cohen was appointed the first-ever OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Political Prisoners.

  • CO-CHAIRMAN COHEN APPOINTED AS OSCE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ON POLITICAL PRISONERS

    WASHINGTON—Margareta Cederfelt, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), has appointed Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) as the first-ever OSCE PA Special Representative on Political Prisoners. “I welcome the chance to serve as the voice of political prisoners across the OSCE region,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Every day, we witness more political arrests of opposition politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in Russia, Belarus, and other participating States that are cracking down on free speech, freedom of the press, and free thought. Through this position, I am committed to working tirelessly to elevate the issue of political imprisonment as the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” In his new role, Co-Chairman Cohen will collect and share intelligence on political prisoners throughout the OSCE region; raise awareness of participating States with high rates of political prisoners; advocate for the release of political prisoners; and promote dialogue at the OSCE PA and OSCE executive structures about political imprisonment.  Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin and Congressman Chris Smith were reappointed as Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism and Intolerance, and Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues, respectively.

  • Helsinki Commission Delegation Convenes Historic Black Sea Security Summit, Demonstrates Bipartisan Support for European Security

    WASHINGTON—From June 29 – July 9, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) led a bipartisan, bicameral congressional delegation to Romania, the United Kingdom, Finland, and Sweden to consult with senior officials across Europe about Russia’s war on Ukraine, security in the Black Sea region, and Finland and Sweden’s plans to join NATO. On the shores of the Black Sea in Constanta, Romania, Sen. Wicker and Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu co-chaired the first-ever congressionally-organized Black Sea Security Summit to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. “Given Russia’s monstrous war on Ukraine and its wider aggression in the region, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Black Sea is currently the epicenter of Euro-Atlantic security and global peace,” said Sen. Wicker. “Ukraine must be successful in this war…Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against a neighbor cannot stand.” “Over the last 25 years, a key objective of our bilateral strategic partnership has been to act as partners in enhancing our joint security and promoting the democratic and economic development of the Black Sea region.  The continuation of common decisive action in this regard at the bilateral and multilateral level is more relevant than ever,” said Minister Aurescu. “All along the Black Sea coast lies the first line of defense for the Euro-Atlantic community and the first line of support for our partners in Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia.” Prior to the summit, members of the Congressional delegation visited Romania’s Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, where they received briefings from U.S., Romanian, and other NATO personnel and met with American troops. Delegation members then traveled to Birmingham, UK, for the Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA). Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) was Head of the U.S. Delegation to the PA and spearheaded U.S. efforts to forge a strong, unified response from international legislators to Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine and its people. “All OSCE parliamentarians must stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian colleagues as they battle the Kremlin’s vicious, intolerable war on Ukraine,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “We must do all in our power—through this forum and all others—to ensure that Ukraine is victorious against Russian aggression.” During the Annual Session, parliamentarians overwhelmingly approved a resolution introduced jointly by Sen. Wicker and the heads of the Ukrainian and Lithuanian delegations, responding to Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people and the greater Russian threat to European security. The document “condemns resolutely and unequivocally the ongoing, intensified, clear, gross and still uncorrected violations of Helsinki Principles as well as of fundamental principles of international law by the Government of the Russian Federation in its war of aggression against Ukraine, as well as the complicity of Belarus in this war of aggression, and calls on the governments of OSCE participating States to do the same.” Several members of the U.S. Delegation successfully introduced more than two dozen amendments, designed to keep the focus on Russia’s current aggression, to an array of other resolutions. In Birmingham, the delegation also co-hosted an event highlighting the growing problem of political repression in Russia and Belarus, especially in the context of protesting the war on Ukraine; met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky to discuss his organization’s work to support political prisoners and democracy in Russia; and held bilateral meetings with the UK’s parliamentary leadership, OSCE officials, parliamentarians from other OSCE countries. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) was re-elected to his post as chair of the OSCE PA’s Committee on Political Affairs and Security. Following the Annual Session, the congressional delegation stopped in Finland and Sweden to welcome the historic decision of both countries to join the NATO Alliance. In Finland, members met with President Sauli Niinistö, and Finnish parliamentarians including First Deputy Speaker Antti Rinne and OSCE PA Vice President Pia Kauma. In Sweden, they met with Foreign Minister Ann Linde, Deputy Defense Minister Jan Olof-Lin, and a group of members of the Swedish parliament, led by Speaker Andreas Norlén and OSCE PA President Margareta Cederfelt. In addition to Co-Chairman Cohen, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Hudson, the Congressional delegation included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Sen. John Cornyn (TX), Rep. Lloyd Doggett (TX-35), Rep. John Garamendi (CA-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. August Pfluger (TX-11) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04).

  • Switzerland, Playground of Russian Oligarchs, Emerges as Sanctions Weak Link

    ZUG, Switzerland—After Switzerland said in February it was joining European Union sanctions against Russian oligarchs, this quiet Alpine getaway seemed like an obvious place to hunt for targets. The streets are clustered with the offices of companies founded by Russia’s wealthiest men, along with the headquarters for landmark natural-gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 and the energy-trading department of Gazprom PJSC. So many Russian billionaires have homes or businesses here that the local opposition party had begun taking sightseers on an Oligarch’s Tour. Swiss newspapers nicknamed Zug “Little Moscow” and joked that local leaders wanted to build a Kremlin wall around the town. It didn’t seem so easy to the six local officials charged with helping implement sanctions. Working from a fifth-floor conference room, the team had a hard time identifying homes or local businesses officially owned by any of the hundreds of Russian oligarchs on the Swiss government’s list of sanctioned people. They struggled with Cyrillic names and often couldn’t make sense of the 300-page list, said Heinz Tännler, the financial director for the Canton, or state, of Zug. They also struggled with the implications for the local economy, added Mr. Tännler, who worries that sanctions have jeopardized his canton’s reputation as a safe place for foreign investment. “This is a very difficult time, especially for the Canton of Zug,” he said. In the end, the officials found exactly one company out of the roughly 30,000 registered in Zug that they believed was owned or controlled by a sanctioned individual. Zug’s slow start is emblematic of the country as a whole. Switzerland has pledged to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. So far, that promise hasn’t triggered much action against Russian companies doing business there, bolstering concerns in world capitals that the Alpine financial hub isn’t doing enough to forestall the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies. Eighty percent of Russia’s commodities are traded through Switzerland, mostly through Zug and the lakeside city of Geneva. Swiss banks manage an estimated $150 billion for Russian clients, according to the country’s banking association. Thirty-two of the oligarchs closest to Mr. Putin have property, bank accounts or businesses in Switzerland, according to Zurich-based transparency group Public Eye. In the four months since Swiss authorities began sanctions, $6.8 billion in Russian financial assets have been frozen, alongside 15 homes and properties, according to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, or SECO. By contrast, EU countries have collectively frozen $14 billion in alleged oligarch assets spanning funds, boats, helicopters and real estate, in addition to over $20 billion in Russian central-bank reserves. EU countries have also blocked around $200 billion in financial transactions. Authorities on the U.K. island of Jersey alone froze over $7 billion in assets they said are linked to oligarch Roman Abramovich, who didn’t respond to requests for comment. U.S. senators have privately petitioned Swiss officials to do more to locate Russian money and property. “Instead of enabling Russia’s abuse of the global financial system, they should stand against it,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chair of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation, which promotes human rights, military security and economic cooperation. Switzerland’s government has rejected that kind of criticism, stressing that its adoption of EU sanctions marks a historic shift and that it is doing everything possible to hunt down blacklisted assets. “It is clear that the sheer volume of the sanctions against Russia and Belarus, as well as the speed with which they were adopted, creates certain challenges for implementing authorities, in Switzerland and elsewhere,” said a SECO spokeswoman. Western sanctions have increasingly been used to squeeze Russia since 2014, when it annexed Crimea. Since then, Mr. Putin and a tight circle of allies have been exploiting gaps in the global financial system to evade blacklists and hide wealth overseas. Despite Switzerland’s status as a global financial hub, the country’s regulators are hamstrung by limited resources—SECO had just 10 officials fully dedicated to sanctions until recently, when the government hired five more. Their work is also frustrated by an old structural problem: The business of registering companies remains a hive of secrecy, making it difficult to identify ultimate ownership of assets, according to Western diplomats. Swiss bankers and transparency campaigners say billions of dollars of Russian clients’ assets have been transferred to the names of spouses and children in recent years—a phenomenon that accelerated in the run-up to the war, they say. The Gateway The Putin regime’s presence in Zug can be traced to the early days of his presidency, and a ceremony in the canton’s sprawling art nouveau palace, Theatre Casino. While Russia’s military was bombing the restive republic of Chechnya, Mr. Putin was awarded the 2002 “Zug Peace Prize” by the Nuclear Disarmament Forum, an organization of influential local businessmen that has since disbanded. The meeting, attended by business and political leaders close to the Kremlin and serenaded by the Russian National Orchestra, heralded the flourishing of Russian commodity trading in the town, according to local politicians. Many oligarchs have businesses in Zug that remain untouched by sanctions. They include Mr. Abramovich, the largest shareholder of Evraz PLC, a Russian steelmaker and mining company that has a trading arm in the canton. Evraz was sanctioned in the U.K., where it traded on the London Stock Exchange, but hasn’t been sanctioned in Switzerland or the EU, even though Mr. Abramovich has. Not far from Zug, in Winterthur, is the headquarters of Sulzer AG , an engineering company that is 48.8%-owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, who is sanctioned by the U.S. and the U.K. When Poland sanctioned Sulzer’s operations, the Swiss embassy in Warsaw unsuccessfully lobbied the Polish government to reverse the move, according to a Polish government official and the Swiss department of foreign affairs. Sulzer said Poland’s decision was wrong given that Mr. Vekselberg is just a minority shareholder and neither owns nor controls the company. Sulzer isn’t sanctioned anywhere else, a spokesman said. Representatives for Mr. Abramovich and Evraz didn’t reply to requests for comment. The SECO spokeswoman said the agency is in close contact with the U.K. authorities about sanctions, but “is not bound by their assessment.” A spokesman for the department of foreign affairs said that under Swiss law the government can assist Swiss companies abroad, and that sanctioning Sulzer’s Polish subsidiaries threatened jobs and hurt Sulzer clients. U.S. and European officials say they are counting on the Swiss government to find which companies and homes in Switzerland belong to sanctioned Russian oligarchs and freeze them. Switzerland’s history of financial secrecy, enshrined in its law, can make it exceedingly difficult to identify who owns what. Under Swiss legal precedent, lawyers can still open a company on behalf of a client and claim attorney-client privilege to block authorities from uncovering that person’s identity. That, officials say, hinders them from finding more companies whose accounts should be frozen under sanctions. It is also an obstacle for banks with small compliance teams. Swiss business registries don’t require firms to list true owners, which are often hidden by opaque companies in Switzerland held by trusts in financial havens, a loophole exploited by businessmen from Russia and elsewhere eager to mask the true ownership of their assets, according to Swiss opposition politicians and advocates for financial reform. “A Swiss lawyer hides the name of the beneficial owner in his vault, and there’s no way the Swiss authorities can get to the name,” said Mark Pieth, a former head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s bribery division now at the Basel Institute on Governance. “The government has deliberately tied its own hands behind its back.” EuroChem Trusts came into play earlier this year when Switzerland, following the EU’s lead, sanctioned Andrey Melnichenko, one of Russia’s richest oligarchs and a longtime Swiss resident. On March 9, the EU added Mr. Melnichenko’s name—No. 721—to its blacklist, describing him as part of the “closest circle of Vladimir Putin ” and involved in businesses vital to the government. It mentioned a meeting he attended in Moscow with Mr. Putin in the first hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with 35 other oligarchs. In Italy, police seized his sailing yacht, the world’s largest. Left untouched was EuroChem AG, a company founded by Mr. Melnichenko in 2001 that grew into one of the world’s top producers of fertilizer, with revenue last year of $10.2 billion. Based in a small glass tower in Zug nicknamed the Dallas Building, the company is deeply entwined in the supply chains of Europe’s largest chemical giants. The day before the sanctions were announced, the tycoon disclaimed his interest in a Cyprus trust that held the company, according to a document signed by EuroChem’s chief financial officer. That left Mr. Melnichenko’s wife, Aleksandra, a former Serbian pop star, as the trust’s sole beneficiary. “Given that Mr. Melnichenko no longer owns, holds or controls any funds and economic resources of EuroChem Group…neither EuroChem Group nor any member of EuroChem Group are subject to EU asset freeze measures,” stated a document viewed by The Wall Street Journal. EuroChem lawyers also wrote to SECO that the company wouldn’t provide economic resources to Mr. Melnichenko or pay dividends to his wife. On March 28, SECO rendered its judgment: EuroChem didn’t need to have its assets or bank accounts frozen. Officials in Zug followed suit. Mr. Tännler, the canton’s financial director, bridled at criticism that local officials aren’t looking hard enough. “I think people know that we did a good job, that we did what we can do,” he said. He washed his hands of the EuroChem decision. “SECO made a determination that EuroChem is clean,” Mr. Tännler said. The European Commission in June countered that decision, ruling that Ms. Melnichenko was unduly benefitting from her husband and should be sanctioned. Switzerland then followed suit, blacklisting her but leaving EuroChem untouched. Credit Suisse, which needs to answer to tougher U.S. regulators because of its U.S. dollar business, has frozen the accounts EuroChem held at the bank. A spokesman for the couple said Mr. Melnichenko considers the sanctions against him unjust. “The formal justifications are nonsense,” said the spokesman, who denied that Mr. Melnichenko is a member of Mr. Putin’s inner circle or provides substantial revenue to the Russian government. Ms. Melnichenko has appealed to the Council of the European Union, saying the sanctions against her have complicated EuroChem’s ability to sell fertilizer, “leading to the famine and death of millions of people.”

  • Black Sea Security Summit

    On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, convened its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners came together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation.   Co-chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, the summit featured a timely and collaborative exchange exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: confronting Russian aggression and the relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security. The co-chairs were joined by senior-level regional government officials and a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, including Sen. John Cornyn, Rep. Joe Wilson, Rep. Richard Hudson, Rep. Ruben Gallego, Rep. John Garamendi, Rep. Robert Aderholt, and Rep. August Pfluger. Other participants included: Romania Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania MP Pavel Popsescu, Member of the Romanian Parliament; Chair, Defense Committee MP Ana Cătăuță, Member of the Romanian Parliament Ukraine Deputy Minister Oleksandr Polishchuk, Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament Bulgaria Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Georgia First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Ambassador Nikoloz Nikolozishvili, Ambassador of Georgia to Romania Turkey Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO U.S. European Command Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security During the summit, participants underscored the importance of security in the Black Sea littoral in the face of Russian aggression. Deputy Secretary General of NATO, General Mircea Geoanӑ, emphasized the importance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic security, stating that the region reflects “broader competition between revisionist and brutal and aggressive Russia and our democratic world.” According to General Geoanӑ, NATO is committed to supporting Ukraine through military, financial, and humanitarian means and providing security in the Black Sea littoral that reestablishes freedom of movement, shipping, and navigation. Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Defense, Yordan Bozhilov noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “has far-reaching destabilization implications at the regional level and beyond,” including the resulting energy and food crises. Georgian First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lasha Darsalia, emphasized the political, economic, and security importance of the Black Sea region to Georgia and highlighted increased security in the region as an opportunity to increase “international cooperation and connectivity.”  He recalled Georgia’s support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, characterizing the invasion of Ukraine as another step in Russia’s malign attempt to control the Black Sea region. U.S. Representative August Pfluger stressed the importance of the Black Sea region to energy security in the pursuit of decreasing dependence on Russian energy. Confronting Russian Aggression Throughout the summit, participants called for increased unity to confront Russian aggression. Ukrainian Member of Parliament, Alexander Goncharenko, requested a stronger NATO and US presence in Ukraine, after powerfully highlighting Ukrainian bravery in the face of Russian hostility. In reference to Russia’s weaponization of Ukrainian grain supply and the expansion of NATO, Gonchareko stated, “It is very good that the free world is finally uniting, but we must show strength. The first place we must show strength is in the Black Sea, as a humanitarian mission, to save millions of people. Thousands are killed in Ukraine, but millions will die from starvation.” Turkish Ambassador to Romania Füsun Aramaz underscored her country’s support of Ukrainian sovereignty. She acknowledged the common security goals of all participants at the summit and desires close alignment with NATO, but warned against over-militarization of the region, citing a potential to violate the Montreux Convention. “More vessels at sea or more fighter aircraft in the air alone do not mean more deterrence or stronger defense,” she stated. U.S. Major General Jessica Meyeraan of the United States European Command explained that the United States is supporting Ukraine by increasing understanding of Ukrainian security assistance requirements and “collaborating across over 40 nations to understand how we can quickly and effectively satisfy those security cooperation requirements.” Minister Aurescu explained that the projects that maintain regional security structures are the result of bilateral relationships between the United States and various littoral states and are essential in the face of Russian aggression and illiberalism that has resulted in regional and global crises. He also called to “increase the scale and visibility of the U.S. presence in the region,” beyond just a military presence through the creation of a multifaceted strategy based on strategic resilience. Rep. Hudson noted that “NATO stands ready” in the face of increasing threats in the region. In addition, Rep. Gallego emphasized the importance of deterrence by denial, clarifying that this sort of offensive is only possible through a completely integrated defensive approach.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSION DIGITAL DIGEST JUNE 2022

  • Helsinki Commission to Convene Black Sea Security Summit in Constanta, Romania

    WASHINGTON—On the heels of the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, on July 1 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, will convene its first-ever multilateral dialogue among key regional allies and partners on Black Sea security. At this historic event on the shores of the Black Sea, members of the U.S. Congress, senior-level government officials from the region, and key international partners will come together in a roundtable format to underscore the critical importance of the Black Sea region to European peace and security, and to establish a sustainable, collective approach to ending Russian aggression and enhancing mutual cooperation. BLACK SEA SECURITY SUMMIT A Roundtable Dialogue Hosted by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Friday, July 1, 2022 1:00 p.m. (UTC+3) Constanța Art Museum Constanța, Romania Watch Live: https://youtu.be/DZskl6-k6No The Black Sea Security Summit plenary will feature a timely and collaborative exchange across two sessions exploring major themes pertaining to regional security challenges: Session 1: Confronting Russian Aggression Session 2: Relevance of the Black Sea to Euro-Atlantic Security The Black Sea Security Summit will be chaired by Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), who will be joined by a bipartisan delegation of members of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Regional participants include: Minister Bogdan Aurescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania State Secretary Simona Cojocaru, State Secretary and Chief of the Department for Defense Policy, Planning and International Relations, Ministry of Defense of Romania Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Minister of Defense of Ukraine First Deputy Minister Lasha Darsalia, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Deputy Minister Yordan Bozhilov, Deputy Minister of Defense of Bulgaria Ambassador Füsun Aramaz, Ambassador of Turkey to Romania Ambassador Radko Vlaykov, Ambassador of Bulgaria to Romania MP Alexander Goncharenko, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament MP Kaloyan Ikonomov, Member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Chair, Bulgaria – USA Friendship Group Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO Major General Jessica Meyeraan (USAF), Director of Exercises and Assessments, U.S. European Command Members of the media must email stuparsa@state.gov in advance to attend this event. Preregistration closes Thursday, June 30, at 12:00 p.m. (UTC+3).

  • The Helsinki Process: An Overview

    In August 1975, the heads of state or government of 35 countries – the Soviet Union and all of Europe except Albania, plus the United States and Canada – held a historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, where they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This document is known as the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords. The Conference, known as the CSCE, continued with follow-up meetings and is today institutionalized as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, based in Vienna, Austria. Learn more about the signature of the Helsinki Final Act; the role that the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe played during the Cold War; how the Helsinki Process successfully adapted to the post-Cold War environment of the 1990s; and how today's OSCE can and does contribute to regional security, now and in the future.

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