House Majority Leader, Helsinki Commissioners Decry Efforts to Shutter Community Center in HungaryMonday, August 19, 2019
WASHINGTON—Following renewed efforts by authorities in Hungary to shutter the Aurora Community Center in Budapest, House Majority Leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (MD-05), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) issued the following statements: “During my visit to Budapest earlier this summer, I saw firsthand the important resources Aurora provides to the community,” said Majority Leader Hoyer. “The latest attempt by Hungarian authorities to shut down Aurora speaks volumes about the country’s shrinking space for civil society. On the thinnest of pretexts, the rule of law in Hungary is being hijacked to serve one party's political interests.” “Aurora nurtures a vibrant community of civil society groups and has become a symbol of independent organizations in Hungary,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Unfortunately, such activism is viewed as a threat by those in power, who—through constant legal harassment—are attempting to permanently close Aurora’s doors. Aurora and organizations like it should be protected, not targeted.” “In a time when those who spew hate and divisiveness seem to be ascendant, initiatives like Aurora that build inclusive societies and strengthen democracy are needed more than ever,” said Rep. Moore. “I was honored to visit the center and meet with its president, Adam Schonberger, with my colleagues earlier this year.” Majority Leader Hoyer, Sen. Cardin, and Rep. Moore visited the Aurora Community Center in Budapest in July, en route to the 2019 OSCE PA Annual Session in Luxembourg. Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to other small civil society groups in Budapest, including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities repeatedly have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord. Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs. In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.” In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech. Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that makes handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison. Hungary will hold municipal elections on October 13.
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A Push to Let the U.S. Charge Foreign Officials With BriberyMonday, August 19, 2019
One of the hallmarks of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act has been that it cannot be used against a foreign official who demands or takes a bribe for helping a company win a contract or retain business. A bill introduced in Congress this month seeks to change that. Called the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act, the legislation would expand the prohibition on bribery to foreign officials who demanded or solicited bribes. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’s prohibition on paying bribes abroad is limited to companies in the United States and those acting in this country. It has always excluded the foreign official who takes the bribe, and courts over the years have reaffirmed that. In United States v. Castle, a 1991 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that two Canadian officials could not be prosecuted for a conspiracy to violate the F.C.P.A. because Congress exempted foreign officials. In United States v. Hoskins, a 2018 ruling, the federal appeals court in Manhattan held that a foreign national who was never in the United States could not be prosecuted under the foreign bribery law because “Congress did not intend for persons outside of the statute’s carefully delimited categories to be subject to conspiracy or complicity liability.” The bill, which has both Democrats and Republicans as sponsors, would put the prohibition on a foreign official’s accepting a bribe under the federal anti-bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201, rather than the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The proposal would also make it a crime for a foreign official “otherwise than as provided by law for the proper discharge of official duty” to demand or accept anything of value for being influenced in the performance of official responsibilities. But putting the prohibition under the federal anti-bribery statute would subject it to the limitations the Supreme Court placed on the law in its 2016 ruling in McDonnell v. United States. That case overturned the conviction of a former governor of Virginia by rejecting a broad reading of what is an “official act.” The justices explained that it must involve “a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit, administrative determination or hearing.” They found that “merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event or contacting an official — without more — does not count as an ‘official act.’” Favoring a business by arranging meetings or contacting other foreign officials to help it win a contract may not rise to the level of an “official act,” especially if the foreign official who received the bribe did not have the direct authority to decide who should be awarded a contract. So the potential limitations on the federal bribery statute could be read into prosecutions of foreign officials for accepting bribes that violated the F.C.P.A. The F.C.P.A. also contains two defenses that were added in 1988. One is the “local law” defense, which allows a defendant to show that under the written laws and regulations of the place where the bribe occurred that it was not illegal. Another defense permits small “facilitation payments” to obtain routine government action in the country. In both situations, a foreign official could argue that these defenses should preclude liability for accepting a payment. A greater potential issue for the Justice Department if the legislation becomes law is whether a foreign official will be brought to the United States to face a criminal charge. If the person is still in office, a foreign government may be reluctant to send the person to America. But a criminal indictment would most likely limit where the foreign official could travel. The person would need to avoid countries that have an extradition treaty with the United States. The Department of Justice has not been without tools to punish foreign officials who engage in bribery. The money-laundering statute allows a foreign official receiving money through bribery, misappropriation or theft of public funds to be charged with a crime. Federal prosecutors could also use the Travel Act, which prohibits traveling into the United States to engage in bribery. Both statutes, though, require either travel to the United States or a financial transaction using the United States financial system. The new legislation would make it much easier to pursue a foreign official. The Justice Department would not have to show a connection to the United States beyond a payment by an American company. Whether it would result in an increase in prosecutions is a different question. Still, simply charging the official could have the effect of identifying who was responsible in a country for accepting illegal bribes. That should make it easier for American companies and their employees to demand fairness from foreign officials rather than being extorted for payments.
Representatives Jackson Lee, Curtis, Malinowski, and Hudson Introduce Foreign Extortion Prevention ActFriday, August 02, 2019
WASHINGTON—Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) today introduced the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act. The legislation, developed with the support of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, will criminalize extortion by foreign officials, enabling the Department of Justice to indict such officials for demanding bribes to fulfill, neglect, or violate their official duties. Currently, only paying or offering a bribe abroad is illegal under U.S. law. “Transnational kleptocrats pose a serious national security threat to the United States. They act as agents of U.S. adversaries, undermining the rule of law internationally and in their own countries, and accessing elite circles and levers of power in democracies through strategic graft and corruption. U.S. prosecutors have been able to indict such individuals under criminal statutes such as wire fraud, mail fraud, and the Travel Act; however, these laws were not designed to tackle the problem of transnational kleptocracy, and each contain deficiencies which make it less than ideal for prosecuting foreign extortion. We cannot leave our prosecutors without the legal tools they need to protect the rule of law,” said Rep. Jackson Lee. “U.S. businesses abroad are regularly targeted by foreign extortionists. Transnational kleptocrats hide under the veneer of officialdom and abuse their power to warp the regulatory environment, attempting to co-opt or eliminate legitimate job-creators and entrepreneurs who follow the rules. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act would protect U.S. businesses from these individuals by punishing the demand side of bribery. Currently, a business being extorted for a bribe can only say ‘I can’t pay you a bribe because it is illegal and I might get arrested.’ This long-overdue bill would enable them to add, ‘and so will you,’” said Rep. Curtis. “Americans who pay bribes overseas can be prosecuted—with this bill, our prosecutors will be able to go after the foreign officials who demand those bribes. We’re giving the Justice Department a powerful new tool to fight the kleptocracy that impoverishes people and empowers dictators around the world,” said Rep. Malinowski. “Pursuing the extortionists is crucial to ending the entire system of international bribery. Even if a kleptocrat cannot be immediately extradited, a U.S. indictment serves as a play-by-play of the crime committed that can be used to support additional measures—such as sanctions—and can force transnational criminals to think twice before traveling abroad to spend their ill-gotten gains. Moreover, a U.S. indictment can help the forces of the rule of law in other countries to root out corruption by pressuring the domestic government in question to charge the individual,” said Rep. Hudson. The Foreign Extortion Prevention Act will bring U.S. laws in line with international best practices. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which maintains the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention—a key international mechanism for fighting foreign bribery—has recognized the importance of criminalizing transnational extortion in a recent report. In addition, countries including the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have already criminalized foreign extortion. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, endeavors to counter corruption and malign influence in all its forms. Current and former Helsinki Commissioners have sponsored and cosponsored other anti-corruption legislation such as the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act (H.R. 3843), the Kleptocrat Exposure Act (H.R. 3441), and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835/S.259).
Hastings and Wicker Condemn Police Crackdown on Russian Pro-Democracy Protesters and Opposition Leader Alexei NavalnyTuesday, July 30, 2019
WASHINGTON—Following violent police crackdowns on protesters during a weekend of pro-democratic demonstrations in Moscow, as well as the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny days before the protest and his subsequent hospitalization, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “We condemn the extraordinary use of force by riot police against peaceful protesters in Moscow seeking a free and fair electoral process. Ahead of the upcoming September 8 municipal elections, we hope that the citizens of Russia will be able to exercise their rights to participate freely in the democratic process, including voicing their opinion about the transparency of the system of voting and nomination of candidates. “We also are concerned about the health of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on Wednesday, July 24, and subsequently hospitalized following an unknown ‘allergic reaction.’ We will be monitoring the situation closely.” Last weekend, thousands of Russian people took to the streets of Moscow to protest the exclusion of several opposition candidates from the ballot for upcoming City Duma municipal elections on September 8. On July 24, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested, reportedly for his plans to lead the protests. On Sunday, July 28, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh announced that Navalny suddenly had been hospitalized while in government custody.
FIRST PERSON: UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONSMonday, July 29, 2019
By Alex Tiersky, Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs “Why aren’t you doing your job?!” An unexpectedly tense early morning on July 21, 2019—Election Day in Ukraine: the polling station was more than 30 minutes late in opening. The shouted reprimand came from a voter, an older man who was one of several Kyiv residents who had been present and seeking to vote at this school in the center of the Ukrainian capital since well before 8:00 a.m., when the polls for the national parliamentary elections were supposed to open. His indignation was directed at the beleaguered leadership of the local polling station, who struggled to organize their work and follow the extensive procedures required to meet Ukrainian law and international best practices. *** As an official election observer representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I was at the polling station to observe the extent to which those best practices were followed. With my capable interpreter Natalya beside me, and in partnership with my experienced observation team partner Latvian MP Aleksandrs Kiršteins, I had arrived days earlier on the invitation of the Ukrainian government for a series of preparatory briefings. On Election Day, we would follow a prescribed plan of observation as part of a larger team of more than 800 international observers spread across Ukraine (with the exception of illegally occupied Crimea, and the Donbas region under the occupation of Russian-controlled forces, where holding a free and fair election would be impossible). *** The disorganized polling station was the first stop of the day for our team. While this was my first time serving as an election observer, I didn’t need the extensive and detailed procedural checklist and questionnaire provided by the OSCE to know that something was seriously amiss. My Latvian colleague confirmed, based on his extensive observation experience, that the situation was extremely unusual. The key problem seemed to be that the leadership of the team responsible for proper running of the polling station (the chair and the secretary, among others), recently had been replaced and the newcomers had little experience with their assigned duties. It was clear that they had done precious little preparation to be able to effectively direct the work of their team on Election Day. We had been warned during the extensive pre-election briefings provided by the OSCE that many local election officials across Ukraine had been replaced. The experts were concerned that this loss of institutional memory had the potential to hamper the operations of local electoral bodies—a warning that, in our case, proved prescient. At 8:45 a.m., a full 45 minutes after its scheduled opening time and to the relief of several increasingly agitated voters and local observers, the polling station finally began to process votes. Judging that tensions at the school building had de-escalated and the situation had achieved some normalcy, we dutifully finalized our observation—promptly reporting our findings to the OSCE election experts compiling statistics from other teams deployed across the country—and moved on to observe voting procedures at several other polling stations. Before leaving, given the challenges at the polling station, we resolved to return in the evening to observe closing procedures and the counting of the vote. *** We spent much of the rest of the day visiting several polling stations in the west of Kyiv. Contrary to our first observation, all the other polling stations we visited were extremely well-organized, with experienced and well-functioning teams of officials ensuring an orderly and transparent voting process. The civic pride demonstrated by the election officials and voters in properly exercising their democratic choice was evident in each location we visited. We witnessed voters of all ages casting their ballots in serene conditions, which we learned from other observation teams was largely the norm across Ukraine that day. *** As the afternoon turned to evening, it was time to return to our initial polling station to assess closing procedures and the start of the counting of ballots. With the station closing as planned at 8 p.m. on the dot, we were quietly hopeful that the morning’s problems had been resolved. Our optimism quickly proved misguided. The election officials were even more poorly directed by their leadership than they had been in the early hours of the day. After two hours of inconclusive progress toward beginning a count of actual ballots, the procedures ground to a halt in a cloud of remonstrations among several hard-working poll workers and local observers on one hand, and the polling station’s leadership on the other. In what I understood to be an extremely unusual development, the majority of the poll workers essentially sidelined their grievously underperforming leadership on the spot in order to better organize themselves. At this point, we needed to return to our home base to report on our observation, leaving behind several other international and local observers to witness what surely would be a long and challenging night of tabulation of ballots. *** As we returned to the hotel, I reflected on the day’s remarkable events. It struck me how counterintuitive some might find it that we had been allowed to witness the poor performance by the leadership of this particular polling station. After all, who wants to air their dirty laundry in front of international observers taking careful note of every discrepancy? It was then, for the first time, that I truly understood the key purpose of our election observation mission. OSCE participating States like Ukraine make the choice to invite international observation missions to their elections precisely because only in providing full transparency can a fair judgment on the electoral process be made. In other words, our observation and reporting of the procedural imperfections we witnessed only underlined the relatively excellent performance witnessed by observation teams in the vast majority of other polling stations across Ukraine. Only through the full transparency provided by impartial external observers using a standardized methodology can the people of Ukraine be sure that their electoral process, to the maximum extent possible, allows for the full and fair expression of their democratic choice. I feel honored to have been able to play even a very small part in this extremely consequential democratic process, and to help an OSCE participating State hold itself accountable to its commitment to the rule of law. I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to serve as an election observer.
Representatives Keating and Fitzpatrick Introduce Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) ActThursday, July 18, 2019
WASHINGTON—Rep. Bill Keating (MA-10) and Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) today introduced the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act. The CROOK Act will establish an anti-corruption action fund to provide extra funding during historic windows of opportunity for reform in foreign countries as well as streamline the U.S. Government’s work building the rule of law abroad. “Russia and other authoritarian states have weaponized corruption, and exposing and countering that malign influence needs to be a priority. For too long, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian politicians and oligarchs have acted with impunity, manipulating U.S. and European financial systems to move and disguise their ill-gotten gains. Their illicit funds are being used to control key economic sectors, fund political parties and organizations that advance Russian interests, and manipulate political processes and policies. The CROOK Act will help prevent Russian and other forms of kleptocracy from eroding democracy, security, and rule of law,” said Rep. Keating. “To counter the weaponization of corruption, the United States must double down on its work to promote the rule of law abroad. However, opportunities for the establishment of the rule of law are rare and success requires that the United States act quickly when reformers come to power and seek to root out corruption. The United States also must take a whole-of-government approach to ensuring that resources are being used effectively and that different U.S. Government agencies are not acting at cross-purposes,” said Rep. Fitzpatrick. The anti-corruption action fund established in the legislation will be funded by 5 percent of fines and penalties imposed pursuant to actions brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). This way, a portion of the monies obtained under the enforcement of the FCPA will be recycled back into further international anti-corruption work. The legislation also establishes several complementary mechanisms to generate a whole-of-government approach to U.S. efforts to strengthen the rule of law abroad. These include an interagency taskforce, the designation of embassy anti-corruption points of contact, and a consolidated online platform for easy access to anti-corruption reports and materials. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, endeavors to counter corruption and malign influence in all its forms. Helsinki Commissioners have sponsored and cosponsored other anti-corruption legislation such as the Kleptocrat Exposure Act (H.R. 3441) and the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (H.R. 835). All House Helsinki Commissioners are original cosponsors of the bill. This includes Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), and Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04). Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Tom Suozzi (NY-03), and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) are also original cosponsors of the legislation.
OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir to Appear at Helsinki Commission HearingWednesday, July 17, 2019
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: STATE OF MEDIA FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION Thursday, July 25, 2019 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Capitol Visitor Center Room HVC-210 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Journalists working in the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) are facing increased risks to their lives and safety. According to a new report released the Office of the Representative for Freedom of the Media, in the first six months of 2019, two journalists have been killed and an additional 92 attacks and threats—including one bombing, three shootings, and seven arson attacks—have targeted members of the media. In his first appearance before Congress, OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir will assess the fragile state of media freedom within the OSCE region. Mr. Desir also will address the number of imprisoned media professionals as well as the violence, threats, and intimidation directed toward female journalists. The hearing will explore the threat posed by disinformation and online content designed to provoke violence and hate. Following the hearing, at 5:00 p.m. in Room HVC-200, the Helsinki Commission will host a viewing of the documentary, “A Dark Place,” which details the online harassment of female journalists working in the OSCE region.
The Helsinki Process: A Four Decade OverviewFriday, June 28, 2019
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.
Chairman Hastings on Release of 2018 Report on International Religious FreedomTuesday, June 25, 2019
WASHINGTON—Following the release of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, a former chairman of the Helsinki Commission, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “The Helsinki Commission welcomes the release of the annual International Religious Freedom Report. Robust reporting on the full range of human rights—including respect for religious liberties—is critical to the preservation of democratic institutions. “The report details a number of continuing concerns in countries including Hungary and Turkey. In Hungary, government officials have engaged in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric and publicly venerated World War II-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies. Amendments to Hungary's controversial 2011 religion law came into effect in April, but it is not yet clear if the new and more complicated law will end discrimination against the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and other faiths. In Turkey, long-standing concerns persist about respect for the rights of Alevis and non-Muslim minorities to freely manage their religious activities and internal affairs. “These violations of religious freedom are extremely troubling, especially since Hungary and Turkey—like all participating States of the OSCE—have committed to protecting freedom of religion or belief and preventing intolerance and discrimination based on religious grounds.” The annual State Department International Religious Freedom Report details religious freedom in every country. The report includes government policies violating religious belief and practices of individuals and religious groups, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.
Co-Chairman Wicker, Sen. Sinema Introduce Legislation to Fight Illicit Tobacco TradeTuesday, June 25, 2019
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) today introduced the Combating the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA) in the Senate. The bill was introduced by Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08) in the House in March as H.R.1642. “The illicit tobacco trade supports political corruption, organized crime, and terrorism worldwide. Our bill would take aim at this source of financing from these bad actors and the governments that enable them,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “We’re combatting the illicit tobacco trade to protect Arizonans, strengthen our economy, and disrupt terrorist and criminal organizations who profit from such illegal activity,” said Sen. Sinema. The Combatting the Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products Act (CITTPA) would improve the U.S. Government’s ability to identify and deter those engaging in the trade of illicit tobacco. The bill would: Enable the United States to deter countries involved in the illicit trade in tobacco, and better assist its allies. The bill grants the Department of State the authority to withhold U.S. foreign assistance from those countries knowingly profiting from the illicit trade in tobacco or its activities. In countries where the government is working to stop these trafficking efforts, the Department of State would be able to provide assistance for law enforcement training and investigative capacity. Help the United States target individuals assisting in the illicit tobacco trade. It authorizes the President of the United States to impose economic sanctions and travel restrictions on any foreign individual found to be engaged in the illicit tobacco trade, and requires the president to submit a list of those individuals to Congress. Provide better information on countries involved with the illicit tobacco trade. The legislation requires the Department of State to report annually on which countries are determined to be a major source of illicit tobacco products or their components, and identify which foreign governments are actively engaged and knowingly profiting from this illicit trade. In July 2017, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on illicit trade in tobacco products, which included testimony from academia, public health advocacy, and industry.
Representatives Cohen and Chabot Introduce Kleptocrat Exposure ActMonday, June 24, 2019
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Rep. Steve Chabot (OH-01) today introduced the Kleptocrat Exposure Act. The act will provide the Secretary of State the authority to publicly reveal the names of individuals and their immediate family members who are subject to U.S. visa bans as a result of human rights abuses, corruption, and other malign activity. “Global criminals and corrupt autocrats—or kleptocrats—seek to spend their ill-gotten gains in the United States, where they can indulge in luxury, pursue positions of influence, and exploit the rule of law, which protects their stolen wealth. Our country should not be a shelter for these corrupt individuals,” said Rep. Cohen. “Corrupt elites in Russia, and around the world, fear exposure. They thrive off of secrecy to continue to keep their corruption going. It is time to sound the alarm about who these bad actors are and shield American citizens from these crooks,” said Rep. Chabot. Many kleptocrats already have been prohibited from traveling to the United States on the grounds of their engagement in malign activity. However, under current law, these and future visa bans are confidential. If made public, this information would further protect the United States and its allies by exposing these kleptocrats. Chairman of the Helsinki Commission Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20), Ranking Member of the Helsinki Commission Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), and Rep. John Curtis (UT-03) are original cosponsors of the legislation.
International Election Observation in the U.S. and BeyondWednesday, June 19, 2019
In 1990, the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pledged to hold free and fair elections. Election observation is one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage countries to uphold their commitment to democratic standards, and is a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Since the 1990s, the OSCE has been invited to observe approximately 250 elections in countries throughout the OSCE region, including the United States and Russia. In addition to the OSCE, the United Nations, Organization for American States, European Union, and other multilateral organizations routinely participate in international election observation. Civil society actors—including U.S.-based organizations like the National Democratic and International Republican Institute, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the Carter Center—also observe elections around the world with the common goal of upholding democratic standards. The briefing focused on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues like voting technology and security.
International Election Observation to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission BriefingMonday, June 17, 2019
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: INTERNATIONAL ELECTION OBSERVATION IN THE US AND BEYOND Why It Matters Wednesday, June 19, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2200 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission In 1990, the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) pledged to hold free and fair elections. Election observation is one of the most transparent and methodical ways to encourage countries to uphold their commitment to democratic standards, and is a core element of the OSCE’s efforts to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Since the 1990s, the OSCE has been invited to observe approximately 250 elections in countries throughout the OSCE region, including the United States and Russia. In addition to the OSCE, the United Nations, Organization for American States, European Union, and other multilateral organizations routinely participate in international election observation. Civil society actors—including U.S.-based organizations like the National Democratic and International Republican Institute, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and the Carter Center—also observe elections around the world with the common goal of upholding democratic standards. The briefing will focus on the benefits and challenges of international election observation, best practices, and emerging issues like voting technology and security. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) will offer opening remarks. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Gerardo de Icaza, Director, Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation, Organization of American States Laura Jewett, Senior Associate and Regional Director for Eurasia Programs, National Democratic Institute Richard Lappin, Deputy Head, Elections Department, OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Tana de Zulueta, Head of ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission to 2018 U.S. Mid-Term Elections Additional panelists may be added.
Chairman Hastings on Political Crisis in MoldovaWednesday, June 12, 2019
WASHINGTON—In light of the current political crisis unfolding in Moldova, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “I am watching developments in Moldova with concern. Moving the goalpost because one party doesn’t like the outcome of an agreement does not reflect the commitment to democracy we expect to see in an OSCE participating State. I applaud the formation of a democratically legitimate coalition and look forward to supporting the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the Moldovan people.” National elections in Moldova in late February resulted in a parliament split almost equally between three major parties—the Socialist Party, the Democratic Party, and the ACUM bloc. According to the Moldovan constitution, a new parliament has a maximum of three months after its election is certified to form a government. The Moldovan elections were certified on March 9. For the past three months, the parties negotiated unsuccessfully to form a coalition government. On June 8, just before the deadline for dissolving parliament and calling new elections, last-minute negotiations produced an agreement between the Socialist and ACUM parties. However, the agreement was immediately challenged by the Democratic Party, and the new coalition was declared illegal by Moldova’s Constitutional Court on the grounds that negotiations had exceed the three-month deadline. Most Moldovans thought the three-month deadline would fall on June 9. The Constitutional Court argued that three months means 90 days, making the deadline June 7. The court’s ruling is now under review by the European Commission for Democracy through Law, also known as the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.
Russia's Counterproductive CounterterrorismWednesday, June 12, 2019
Russia’s counterterrorism approach, which is problematic in both conception and execution, makes Moscow an ill-suited partner with the United States in this field, experts told the U.S. Helsinki Commission at a hearing on June 12, 2019. The hearing closely examined the development, history, and repercussions of the Kremlin’s approach to counterterrorism under Vladimir Putin, including Moscow’s attempts to present itself as a regional and global leader on this issue. Witnesses included Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Center Asia Division, Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College of the National Defense University. In his opening statement, Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), who chaired the hearing, noted concerns expressed by many, including the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, about Russia’s attempts to assume the mantle of leadership in the counterterrorism sphere, through efforts that include placing Russian nationals in senior counterterrorism positions in international organizations. Rep. Hudson further expressed concern regarding overly broad use of “terrorism” and “extremism” labels by the Kremlin and authoritarian regimes across Central Asia, in contravention of their commitments to human rights Rep. Hudson was joined by other Helsinki Commissioners. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) underscored the inherently destabilizing nature of Russia’s counterterrorism policies and practices and recalled legislation he has introduced that would require the Department of State to formally determine whether Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) raised questions regarding Russia’s role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and whether such an action amounts to state-sponsored terrorism, as well as the impact of Russia’s counterterrorism policies on its Muslim population. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) drew upon his experience in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to highlight the challenges of sharing investigative techniques and best practices for fighting terrorism with Russia, as opposed to other countries in the region. Dr. Omelicheva discussed how the Kremlin has increasingly prioritized fighting terrorism, both as a policy and as a political theme. She described how punitive measures, rather than a focus on socioeconomic improvement to address root causes of radicalization, have long been a preferred method of Russia’s military and security services for addressing terrorism. She also noted that some Central Asian states have copied the Kremlin’s heavy-handed methods. Ms. Denber noted the broad criminal code Russian authorities inappropriately apply—under the guise of fighting terrorism—to persecute people “inconvenient” to the Kremlin. She discussed in detail other domestic applications of Russia’s counterterrorism criminal laws, including monitoring and storing of Russian citizens’ internet metadata, as well as labeling groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist organizations. Russia’s counterterrorism policies may well have alienated segments of Russia’s Muslim population and led individuals to join extremist organizations such as the Islamic State and Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ms. Denber stated. Dr. Carpenter asserted that active U.S.-Russia counterterrorism cooperation runs counter to U.S. interests and values—highlighting Russia’s penchant for claiming to be fighting extremism while actually punishing dissidents, notably individuals in Crimea critical of the ongoing occupation of the peninsula. “A single mother was recently imprisoned on extremism charges because she had posted comments critical of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on her social media feed,” he said. Dr. Carpenter’s experience in government led him to conclude, “Russia approaches counterterrorism from the position of counterintelligence;” when Russia cooperates, it is with the aim of eliciting information rather than pursuing common solutions. Using Syria as an example, he emphasized how Russian leadership does not think in win-win terms when it comes to counterterrorism, even when the U.S. does. “Moscow will be happy, of course, to host dozens of international conferences, and will periodically suggest that a solution is within reach. But at the end of the day, its interests are best served when Iran, Hezbollah and Assad are in power to make mischief in the region, because that’s when Russia’s influence with the Europeans, with Israel, and the Gulf States is at its peak,” he said. Dr. Omelicheva added to these comments with an overview of lessons the Russian government has learned in past failed counterterrorism operations, including the Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis of 2002 and Beslan school siege of 2004. “The key lesson that the government learned was that they have to have sufficient force to secure the perimeter of the counterterrorism operation, that they need to be able to constrain the freedom of movement, the freedom of mass media, and other types of freedom.”
Hastings and Wicker Condemn Recent Arrest of Ivan GolunovMonday, June 10, 2019
WASHINGTON—Following the recent arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov by Russian authorities, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “Journalism remains a dangerous profession in Russia, especially for reporters like Ivan Golunov who investigate corruption at the highest levels of government. His arrest proves once more that Russian authorities don’t simply fail to protect investigative journalists; they actively seek to muzzle them by alleging criminal behavior and even resorting to brute physical force.” Golunov, of the Latvia-based Russian news outlet Meduza, was arrested on drug charges on June 6 in Moscow—a common tactic used by Russian authorities to target journalists and dissidents. In the hours after his arrest, he was denied numerous rights enshrined in Russian statutes, including a phone call to friends and family, an attorney, and a meal. He also allegedly was beaten while in custody, and faces up to 20 years in prison. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Russia ranks 149 out of 180 countries in media freedom based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of the legislative framework, and safety of journalists.
A New European Parliament – How Will EU-U.S. Relations Change?Thursday, June 06, 2019
By Andrew Carroll, Kampelman Fellow On June 6, 2019, the European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington, D.C, in cooperation with the Delegation of the European Union (EU) to the United States, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and the EU Congressional Caucus, convened a panel discussion on the May 2019 EU Parliamentary elections, and the future of the EU-U.S. relationship. New EU Ambassador to the U.S. Stavros Lambrinidis opened the event, which was held on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, by reflecting on the heroism and sacrifice of those who helped construct the rules-based system of freedom and order underpinning continued peace and security in Europe. Their contributions, he noted, are directly tied to last month’s European Parliamentary elections, which he hailed as a triumph for democracy following record voter turnout among EU Member States. Dr. Mischa Thompson, Helsinki Commission director of global partnerships, policy, and innovation, delivered remarks on behalf of Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20). Chairman Hastings’ statement discussed the symbolism of the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, stating it was a “stark reminder of the power of allied U.S. and European strength in the face of threats to democracy.” His comments also emphasized the close bond the U.S. shares with Europe, highlighting programs such as the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN), which supports emerging leaders for the long-term prosperity of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. Three European alumni of the TILN program were elected to the European Parliament in May. In the discussion that followed, moderated by Paul Adamson, Chairman of Forum Europe, panelists Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Daniel Hamilton of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, Kathleen McNamara of Georgetown University, and Antoine Ripoll of the European Parliament Liaison Office stressed the enduring importance of the U.S.-EU relationship amidst the changing political landscapes. The panelists stressed security and economic ties, as well as the need to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. Congress and European Parliament on policy matters ranging from trade to counterterrorism and data privacy. Speakers commented on the dramatic increase in voter turnout in the EU’s newest Member States in Central and Eastern Europe. They also noted the new composition of the European Parliament, which not only reflects losses by mainstream political parties, but also the entrance of new players; 60 percent of new MEPs have not previously held office in the body. Discussants later fielded questions on subjects including EU defense integration, trade and investment, and U.S.-EU common policy towards China.
Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russia’s Approach to CounterterrorismWednesday, June 05, 2019
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S COUNTERPRODUCTIVE COUNTERTERRORISM Wednesday, June 12, 2019 10:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kremlin actively seeks to present Russia as a global leader in the practice of counterterrorism and countering extremism. However, Moscow’s policies and practices in this area may be problematic at best and counterproductive at worst. Witnesses will offer expert views on how the Kremlin’s counterterrorism approach has evolved over time; its effectiveness; the extent to which it complies with Russia’s commitments to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms; regional implications; and whether Kremlin actions dovetail—or not—with U.S. interests. The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement; former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia; former National Security Council Director for Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College, National Defense University; author, “Russia’s Regional and Global Counterterrorism Strategies” and “Russia’s Counterterrorism Policy: Variations on an Imperial Theme”
Why Moldova MattersTuesday, June 04, 2019
Though typically viewed as a state torn between Russian influence and the West, Moldova faces not only external problems but also serious internal challenges. Following February elections marked by corruption and vote-buying, Moldova’s deeply divided parliament now must attempt to form a governing coalition. In addition, five years after Moldova signed an accession agreement with the European Union, questions remain about whether the country is willing—or even able—to undertake the comprehensive reforms required to join the EU. This briefing explored these and other issues against the background of the continuing Transnistria dispute and Moldova’s precarious role in the region. Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman opened the briefing by posing questions to the room: “Will Moldova’s deeply divided parliament be able to form a governing coalition? What influence will Moldova’s oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc have on the process of forming a government? And is there real political will in Moldova, especially right now after elections, to become a full-fledged member of the EU? And finally, what’s going on in the breakaway Russian region of Transnistria?” Dr. Cory Welt, Specialist in European Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, jumped in first to provide context for the conversation. Welt explained, “According to international and domestic observers, Moldova’s recent parliamentary elections were democratic but somewhat flawed. And these flaws included allegations of vote buying and the misuse of state resources. Nonetheless, the outcome of the elections appears to reflect longstanding domestic divisions within Moldova, between what you might characterize as a European-leaning majority and a Russian-leaning minority.” Jamie Kirchick, Journalist and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, reflected on his experience observing the 2018 elections in Moldova. Kirchick also spoke to the main question of the briefing, saying, Moldova “matters because the United States has been committed to a policy of a Europe whole, free and at peace, really since the end of the Cold War, and consolidating democracy and good government. And Moldova is a pretty sore spot. It’s the poorest country in Europe. It’s the site of very high corruption. It’s the site of Russian influence. It’s the site of a lack of territorial integrity. And we’ve seen now that there are three nations in this region – Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova – that all have Russian troops stationed on them. And this is something that should certainly concern the United States and its democratic allies.” H.E. Cristina Balan, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States maintained that while Moldova has seen hard times, the country is working to improve. She highlighted its strong partnership with the U.S., fight against antisemitism, and growing economy as signs of development. Ambassador Balan concluded with a call to action, saying, “Of course, there is so much more work to be done, including addressing corruption issues, including increasing our national defense capability, including resolving the Transnistrian conflict, and many others. There is a lot of work to be done.” The questions from the audience were largely posed to Ambassador Balan and allowed for a deeper exploration into the economic and political realities of life in Moldova and the relationship, or lack thereof, with Russia.
Moldova Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission BriefingThursday, May 30, 2019
WASHINGTON— The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: WHY MOLDOVA MATTERS Tuesday, June 4, 2019 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 121 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Though typically viewed as a state torn between Russian influence and the West, Moldova faces not only external problems but also serious internal challenges. Following February elections marked by corruption and vote-buying, Moldova’s deeply divided parliament now must attempt to form a governing coalition. In addition, five years after Moldova signed an accession agreement with the European Union, questions remain about whether the country is willing—or even able—to undertake the comprehensive reforms required to join the EU. This briefing will explore these and other issues against the background of the continuing Transnistria dispute and Moldova’s precarious role in the region. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Jamie Kirchick, Journalist and Visiting Fellow, Brookings Institution Dr. Cory Welt, Specialist in European Affairs, Congressional Research Service H.E. Cristina Balan, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States
By: Everett Price, Senior Policy Advisor
With Contributions from Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor
On June 24, Turkey held its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the passage of controversial constitutional amendments last year that began Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The victors in this election are to preside over the transition to this new form of government and begin to shape the operation of its revamped institutions.
In accordance with its commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey formally invited the OSCE to observe the vote. This invitation paved the way for the OSCE’s first-ever full-scale deployment of election observers to Turkey. Although the OSCE observed previous elections in Turkey—including last year’s constitutional referendum—it had never done so with a full complement of hundreds of short-term observers that deploy all over the country to record their observations on election day. In the absence of short-term observers, OSCE observation missions rely primarily on a smaller cohort of long-term observers who spend as much as a month in the country monitoring every dimension of the campaign period and balloting. (Learn more about OSCE election observation.)
Altogether, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed 22 long-term observers and more than 300 short-term observers to observe the election across the country. Most STOs are drawn from cadres of experienced volunteers offered by individual OSCE participating States. In addition, the parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE (OSCE PA) and Council of Europe (PACE) contributed 72 and 32 members of parliament and parliamentary staff, respectively, to serve as STOs.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission regularly participates in OSCE PA election observation missions. What follows is a first-person account from two U.S. Helsinki Commission staff who served as short-term observers during the Turkish elections. These observations are not an authoritative account of the conduct of the Turkish election, however. Readers interested in such an account should review the OSCE’s official statement of preliminary findings and conclusions.
In the days before the election, experts from the OSCE’s ODIHR and the OSCE PA organize a series of in-depth briefings in Ankara to acquaint short-term observers with the context and process for the coming vote. In opening these briefings, Mr. Ignacio Sanchez Amor, a Spanish parliamentarian tasked as the special coordinator and leader of the OSCE short-term observer mission, noted numerous ways in which this election was exceptional.
Turks would be voting under a nearly two-year-old state of emergency imposed by the government following a failed coup attempt in July 2016. The state of emergency gave Turkish President Erdogan sweeping powers to rule by decree and authorized provincial governors to curtail basic freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. Presidential decrees purged tens of thousands of civil servants from their work, shuttered over a hundred news outlets, blocked thousands of websites, and contributed to the arrest of scores of independent journalists, often on dubious national security charges.
Sanchez Amor further commented that the transition to a presidential system and the country’s newly-approved election laws made this election especially complex. Most of the constitutional amendments approved in last year’s referendum would take effect after the election. The victorious presidential candidate, for instance, would be the first to assume unprecedented executive powers that international monitors and the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), criticized as undermining the separation of powers. Likewise, successful parliamentary candidates would take up seats in a somewhat neutered institution that is given no say in ministerial appointments and can be unilaterally dissolved by the president.
One of the constitutional amendments abolished a previous prohibition on new electoral laws taking effect less than 12 months before an election. This meant that the June election would be governed by election regulations passed in November and March that President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had muscled through parliament without any opposition support. Opposition leaders sharply criticized provisions in the laws that allowed the government to relocate voting locations on security grounds, loosened rules governing the police presence around polling stations, and weakened protections against election fraud by admitting ballots that are missing a required polling station stamp.
Sanchez Amor also expressed concern that one of the country’s major presidential candidates had been in pre-trial detention since November 2016 and was being forced to campaign from his jail cell. This treatment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was one of many restrictions severely disadvantaging the HDP.
Campaign banners of two opposition parties stretched across a primary avenue in downtown Ankara.
The briefings we received from journalists, civil society organizations, and political parties largely focused on concerns that President Erdogan and the AKP enjoyed overwhelming and unfair advantages incompatible with a free and fair democratic process.
Independent journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s largest jailer of reporters with approximately 150 behind bars. They further remarked on dramatic changes in Turkey’s media landscape in recent years that had seen nine out of 10 mainstream TV channels, and most of the print media, fall under the ownership of government aligned businessmen. As a result, the ruling party benefited from nearly wall-to-wall positive media coverage. Additionally, under recent legal changes the Supreme Election Board was stripped of its ability to impose penalties on broadcasters for violating regulations that mandate equal election coverage.
All opposition parties complained about Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold—the highest in the world—that requires a party to garner 10 percent of the national vote to secure seats in parliament. During this election, they feared that the ruling party would manipulate the vote to deprive the pro-Kudish HDP of a ten percent share, allowing AKP as the likely runner-up in Kurdish-dominated areas to assume the seats forfeited by HDP. This would be the AKP’s quickest route to a commanding majority in the legislature.
Opposition party leaders warned that the government could use a combination of tactics to suppress the vote for HDP, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. The government had already announced that it had invoked its new authorities to relocate and merge nearly a thousand polling stations in the southeast for security reasons, affecting more than 150,000 voters. Election authorities could also use the admission of unstamped ballots to artificially diminish HDP’s share of the vote. In addition, several briefers noted that deadly violence could be used to intimidate voters. Indeed, less than two weeks before the election a campaign-related altercation in the south left three HDP supporters dead, along with the brother of an AKP candidate for parliament. Many briefers noted that the pro-government media had cast the AKP as the victim of the melee, where in reality the fight had been instigated and escalated by the ruling party’s side.
The opposition’s indictment of the fairness of the election was met by an AKP-led campaign to smear those who might tarnish perceptions of the credibility of the outcome. The OSCE observation mission was one of the targets of this campaign. The government denied two OSCE PA parliamentarians entry to the country to participate in the election observation mission, citing political opinions they had expressed in the past. A government spokesperson decried the OSCE’s interim report on the election on June 15 as “political.” Additionally, just two days before the election, Turkey’s semi-official news agency published a story citing anonymous security sources that claimed OSCE observers planned to create “chaos” in the country.
It was in this climate of heightened mutual suspicion between the ruling party and the opposition, and between the government and the OSCE observation mission, that we deployed to Istanbul to undertake our election day observation.
We were assigned to observe the election at precincts in and around Sisli, a mixed-income neighborhood in central Istanbul that historically supports the secular opposition. Each precinct in Turkey contains numerous voting rooms, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each. In all we visited nine so-called ballot box committees (BBCs) in five precincts throughout the day.
Sisli delivered its largest share of votes (48.7 percent) to Turkey’s leading secular opposition party CHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015, and overwhelmingly opposed the transformational 2017 constitutional amendments (71.8 percent). Given the district’s political profile, it was unsurprising to find observers from CHP and other secular opposition parties deployed in full force at our first precinct where we observed the opening procedures for the polls.
We arrived just before 7:00 a.m. as the ballot box committee (BBC) was assembling to open the sealed election materials and prepare for voting to begin. The seven-person BBC, chaired by a civil servant and composed of bureaucrats and political party representatives, began to count and record the number of ballot envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—a tally that is important for later confirming that no election materials are unaccounted for.
The mood was serious but amiable and cooperative. With a solitary exception, BBC members worked together constructively without so much as a hint of their diverging political loyalties. Soon, an NGO observer (who was accredited as a political party observer, since there is no legal framework for NGO observation) appeared with a tray of traditional Turkish tea for everyone, observers and BBC members alike. (Tea stands were ubiquitous at the entrance to polling stations, fueling weary poll workers throughout the day and contributing to a generally festive atmosphere around the otherwise dreary school buildings.)
Voters congregate outside a polling station in central Istanbul on election day.
Over steaming cups of black tea, the poll workers set about the onerous task of applying the BBC’s identifying ink stamp to each of the more than 300 envelopes and presidential and parliamentary ballots—nearly 1,000 stamps in all. Every BBC we visited that morning noted that they had labored well after the polls opened to complete this cumbersome but mandatory and important process.
With two of their colleagues still engrossed in stamping and the eight o’clock opening just minutes away, the BBC’s other five members forged ahead with preparations, sealing the clear plastic ballot box with a wax stamp. More or less promptly at eight, the BBC chairwoman announced the opening of the polling station.
An elderly gentleman who had already shuffled through the open doorway before the announcement immediately presented his ID to receive his ballot papers. His punctual appearance quickly revealed the disorganization of this particular BBC, which had failed to organize the somewhat convoluted voting procedure into an orderly workflow.
Voters were to hand over their identification for confirmation against the printed voter rolls and then receive two oversized ballots for president and parliament, one undersized envelope, and a stamp to mark their choices. To cast their ballots, voters entered a curtained booth, marked one choice each for parliament and president, stuffed the large sheets into the small envelope, sealed it with a lick, and emerged to drop the envelope into the ballot box. Before departing, voters returned the stamp back to the BBC, signed the voter roll, and retrieved their identification and any bags or cellphones they left behind with the BBC.
Keeping track of identification cards, remembering to provide all four necessary voting materials (two ballots, envelope, and stamp), and managing the coming and going of voters proved difficult for our first BBC. In just the first twenty minutes the chairwoman twice pulled open a voting booth’s privacy curtain to locate a misplaced ID and missing stamp—an act that should rarely—if ever—occur, since it can compromise the secrecy of the vote.
This procedural dysfunction may have slowed the vote and caused undue confusion for voters, but it had negligible if any implications for the outcome of the balloting. Indeed, the majority of other BBCs we visited were capably managed and all demonstrated admirable transparency. In each classroom we visited—and they were all classrooms—the BBC chair graciously welcomed us, answered our questions, and allowed us to review the voting materials.
Political party and NGO observers were common and none complained of being restricted in their work on election day. By the end of the day we had grown particularly accustomed to the sight of observers from the HDP party. These observers were almost uniformly impressive, assertive, young, and female. It became clear that what is generally described simply as a “pro-Kurdish party” has developed political purchase far beyond the Kurdish-dominated southeast, attracting many young, progressive Turks concerned with the rights of women and minorities.
Presidential and parliamentary ballots and envelopes prepared for distribution to voters.
In our experience, the transparency protected by professional BBCs and capable local observers was only undermined by skittish security services who seemed uneasy about the role of international observers. Under new election laws passed earlier this year, Turkish police were allowed to patrol closer to polling stations and—for the first time—enter voting rooms at the request of any citizen. One instance of police involvement we witnessed was legal and appropriate; in several other cases it appeared to overstep the prescribed bounds.
At a polling station we visited in Gultepe, a more conservative neighborhood just outside Sisli, a heated argument erupted over a poll worker who allegedly exceeded his mandate in assisting a confused voter, sparking allegations of election interference. Consistent with their mandate, the police entered on at least three occasions during the prolonged shouting match to respond to the disturbance and to remove unauthorized people who had entered the voting room. These same police entered another time to exercise their prerogative to check our credentials but departed shortly after.
As the day wore on, however, our interactions with the police grew more frequent and contentious. At another polling station in Sisli, police greeted us almost immediately upon our arrival and insisted on escorting us throughout the building. When we entered a voting room to conduct our observations, the police followed us in without any discernible invitation and sat down to watch us until we were through.
Arriving at our final polling station of the day, we were stopped at the entrance to have our credentials checked against a screenshot of approved individuals the policeman had received via the encrypted messaging application, WhatsApp. He informed us that several foreigners had been caught “posing as OSCE observers” so they were under orders to apply extra scrutiny. Although we were not on his screenshot, the officer relented after a few minutes’ delay and followed us inside while respecting the rules about entering the voting room.
After a short break, we returned to the same polling station to witness the closing and counting procedure, but this time the police refused us entry. They said they had still not been able to find us on their list, despite our accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Board. With the five o’clock closing swiftly approaching, we insisted on the importance of entering before the polls closed. They offered that we could observe the voting room from the hallway, but we were obligated to decline since the OSCE’s methodology requires unfettered access to the polling area. At the last minute, they said we could observe from a designated area inside the room. Once inside the room, it turned out no such area existed and the police displayed no interest in enforcing one. In contravention of the rules, however, they remained standing directly behind us inside the room nearly the entire time.
Consistent with OSCE observations across the country, vote counting at our BBC began promptly once the polls closed. In much the same sprit of cooperation we witnessed at the opening in another precinct, the members of this BBC worked smoothly together to perform the critical, final procedures: securing the voting materials and counting and recording the results.
The BBC’s genuine effort to conduct this process fairly and transparently was marred by some critical procedural errors and the persistent presence of the police, which risked undue oversight by the security services of a sensitive political process. Most procedural faults took place early on and introduced avoidable opportunities for mistakes or manipulation.
Rather than count the unused voting materials after the polls closed, for instance, the BBC departed from the prescribed procedure and counted them before the room was open to the public to observe the count. By depriving observers of the opportunity to verify this tally, the BBC undermined a safeguard that confirms the number of votes cast matches exactly the number of voters who participated.
Another significant oversight involved the BBC’s failure to enter crucial figures directly into the official register, known as a “protocol.” By having one member of the committee simply jot down the tallies of voting materials on a scrap piece of paper, the BBC failed to guard against subsequent mistakes in transcription or intentional alterations.
Oddly, the otherwise attentive and assertive political party observers in the room did not raise these issues with the BBC, possibly out of ignorance of the procedures or disinterest in the importance of these steps. They seemed most focused when it came to the centerpiece of the process: the all-important counting and adjudication of ballots. In this, the BBC acquitted itself quite well—holding up each ballot in full view of all present, loudly announcing the vote, and recording it only once all were satisfied with the chairman’s judgment (i.e. valid, invalid, or blank).
U.S. Helsinki Commission Senior State Department Advisor Scott Rauland reviews voting materials with Ballot Box Committee members.
Given the considerable pre-election controversy about the admission of unstamped ballots, it was surprising that no observer raised a question about whether the ballots or envelopes were appropriately imprinted with the BBC’s seal, which was often faint and on the reverse side of the papers. Late on the day of Turkey’s controversial 2017 constitutional referendum, the government unilaterally decided to count unstamped ballots despite the widespread understanding that the stamps protected against fraud. The number of admitted unstamped ballots last year allegedly accounted for the government’s slim margin of victory in that vote. As a result, opposition leaders protested earlier this year when the government used its absolute majority in the parliament to codify the validity of unstamped votes beginning with the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election. This decision created frustrating ambiguity about the need for the elaborate stamping process that tied up BBCs in the morning, sometimes for more than an hour.
The last steps of the vote count turned out to be the most cumbersome. The astonishingly analog voting process created numerous frustrations, significantly delaying delivery of the ballots to the District Electoral Board responsible for tabulating all the votes in Sisli before forwarding them to the Provincial Electoral Board that oversees a third of Istanbul. The chairperson was consumed for almost an hour manually copying detailed voting results onto nearly a dozen copies of the official protocol for distribution to political party representatives and observers. Another time-consuming process involved sealing all the ballots and sensitive voting materials in a cloth sack using twine and a wax seal. All present watched in quiet agony as the chairperson struggled to melt the nub of wax with a lighter, singing his fingers and nearly setting fire to the bag in the process.
Out of the 250 votes counted in our BBC, leading opposition presidential candidate Muharram Ince prevailed with 65 percent of the vote and his party, CHP, took 50 percent of the parliamentary ballots. The simultaneous presidential and parliamentary election afforded voters the opportunity to split their votes between the two ballots. Specifically, many analysts speculated that opposition supporters would endorse Ince as the favored presidential candidate while casting a vote for HDP in the parliamentary election to help the party clear the ten percent threshold. The outcome in our BBC seemed to bear this theory out: Ince received 15 percent more support for president than his party did in the parliamentary vote, while HDP’s presidential candidate Demirtas secured only 4 percent in the presidential but his party garnered 24 percent in the parliamentary.
Once counting was complete in all the precincts’ voting rooms, members of the BBCs boarded a municipal vehicle with the sealed sacks and official protocols for delivery to the District Electoral Board. Per OSCE instructions, we jumped into a separate vehicle to tail the municipal van through the narrow streets of Istanbul to the DEB to confirm the official results were delivered directly without interference.
A long line of vans packed with other BBCs was in front of the District Electoral Board waiting their turn to offload. When it came our turn I—accompanied by a police escort—followed the voting materials past heavily-armed guards and crowd control fencing into the building. It was a cramped but sprawling high-rise divided into a warren of small, austere rooms. A crush of poll workers pressed into the building’s narrow corridors trying to reach their designated room. In each room were half a dozen election workers waiting to receive election materials from every corner of the district, double-check the calculations in the protocol, and forward the results for district-level tabulation.
After verifying the secure delivery of our BBC’s materials, I sought to follow the process a step further. Instead, I was offered a meeting with the judge who chairs Sisli’s electoral board.
Supporters of President Erdogan and AKP celebrate their election victory in Taksim Square.
It was now well past 9:00 p.m., more than four hours since the polls closed. The judge sat in his office watching two sets of election returns roll in: semi-official results were being broadcast via cable news on a large television across the room while a map on his computer screen that read “Supreme Election Board” was being populated with the official numbers. Although it was impossible for me to tell what discrepancy might have existed between the figures at that moment, opposition leaders were simultaneously turning to social media to reassure their supporters that pro-government media were broadcasting premature results to discourage them. These hopeful claims appear to have been inspired more by optimism than reality—the official results released the next day differed little from what the media was reporting in the evening. At least in central Istanbul, the election results at that time of night were still in the early stages of being compiled at the district level.
The judge explained how in the coming hours the district’s protocols would be digitized, loaded onto a public website, and used to generate a district-level protocol of official election results. As chairman, his role would be to adjudicate disputes and discrepancies in the tabulation and certify the final results. Satisfied that I had followed the process as far as I could, our observation ended.
Around 10:00 p.m., President Erdogan declared victory. With 52.6 percent of the vote, he had won outright in the presidential election, avoiding a runoff with the leading secular opposition candidate by a comfortable margin. In parliament, AKP fell just short of an absolute majority for only the second time in its 16 years in power. The AKP’s election coalition partner, the nationalist MHP party, surprised many with its strong performance, earning 49 seats in the 600-seat parliament and easily supplying the six seats AKP needs to reach 301 votes in the legislature. Importantly, HDP cleared the ten percent threshold and will be the third-largest party in parliament with 67 seats behind CHP’s 146. Altogether, an impressive 86.2 percent of the population had participated in the vote.
Over a late night dinner in a gentrifying secular neighborhood of Istanbul, I could hear some nearby diners discussing the election results with resignation over glasses of wine. Further off in the distance, the blaring of car horns announced the beginning of celebrations by the President’s supporters. I followed lines of cars festooned with Turkish flags and AKP banners as they streamed toward centrally-located Taksim Square. There, a spontaneous victory party had broken out. A jubilant AKP loyalist was being carried aloft, leading the gathering crowd in chants of “Allahu Akbar!” and “Recep Tayyip Erdogan!”
The evening stroll between these two contrasting scenes was a journey across a wide social and political chasm in Turkey—a chasm the president may choose to widen or narrow in his new mandate. Recent studies have revealed acute polarization within Turkish society that reflects high levels of social distrust and political intolerance. These ills present critical challenges for governance.
During the campaign, President Erdogan pledged to lift the nearly two-year-old state of emergency upon his reelection. AKP statements since the election suggest that Erdogan may decline to renew the state of emergency when it expires on July 18. This would be an appropriate first step toward rebuilding trust and one the U.S. Helsinki Commission called for in an October 2017 letter to President Erdogan. But lifting the state of emergency might only be a superficial gesture if it is not accompanied by significant prisoner releases and amnesties—particularly for human rights defenders and journalists—as well as meaningful judicial reform to restore the credibility and independence of Turkey’s politicized justice system.
In accordance with its mandate, the U.S. Helsinki Commission will continue to monitor Turkey’s implementation of its commitments as an OSCE participating State to respect human rights and democratic principles. In this most recent election the Turkish people demonstrated formidable levels of political participation and civic engagement. Now and in the future, the government must succeed where it has recently failed to ensure that all its citizens have an opportunity to participate in Turkish society and institutions on the basis of fundamental equality.
The morning after the election, a woman crosses Taksim Square.